Joe Biden and Xi Jinping face great challenges bridging the divide between their countries. Photo: AFP/Frederic J Brown

US President-elect Joseph Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, retired General Lloyd Austin, is simultaneously praised and criticized for suggesting he believes in “strategic patience” towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

There are reasons for and against General Austin’s nomination, but his preference for “strategic patience” should not be one of the reasons against his nomination.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, strategic patience is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. “Strategic patience” is just a handsome way of saying sometimes it’s best to “hold your horses” – or take your time. And sometimes that is a good idea.

One’s liking for the concept more depends on whether one agrees with whoever is being strategically patient and how they are carrying it out.

Sometimes there are good reasons for a cautious approach, including when a nation is unprepared to act or is unwilling to deal with the consequences – known and unknown. Sometimes there are competing priorities. And maybe if one waits a while and the object of your strategic patience may weaken – or even give up.

Of course, sometimes strategic patience is just an excuse for timidity. Abraham Lincoln complained about General George McClellan as having “the slows” and not pursuing Confederate forces.

But what if the target of strategic patience uses it as a respite to improve its military capabilities, build up its economic might and reshape the regional and global political environment in its favor?

You’re in trouble if you haven’t correspondingly increased your own strength or maintained your advantage. And that is the worry over a strategic patience strategy towards the PRC.

Bush, Obama, Trump  

Consider the eight years of the Barack Obama administration’s China policy, which was effectively “strategic patience.” Yes, there was the Asia “pivot”, but anyone who was there knew that de-escalation in the face of Chinese misbehavior and aggression was the White House’s order of the day. 

US capabilities may not have declined, but Chinese capabilities have increased at a frightening clip. The PRC has leveraged that power to seize the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, a US treaty ally. And China has been allowed to build seven artificial islands in the contested Spratly Islands, three of which are the size of Pearl Harbor. 

Beijing later rejected the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against the island-building and land reclamation. The case was filed by the Philippines.

A 2015 satellite image from work on an 3.1-kilometer runway on an artificial island at Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratlys Islands. Photo: AFP / Eye Press / Digital Globe

The Chinese have also established People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) patrol stations near the Senkaku Islands, increased their threats to Taiwan, ramped up their naval, air, rocket, space and cyber power – and much more.

“Strategic patience” also sometimes smacks of dangerous condescension, the idea being: “We can afford to do nothing because the other guy will never be our equal.” One recalls a US Navy INDOPACOM commander referring to the PRC’s artificial islands as “the great wall of sand” and describing US submarines as Ferraris compared with the PLAN’s “Model Ts.” 

Saying so will surprise or anger many people but the Trump administration in fact showed “strategic patience.” How so? While Trump did much more to challenge Beijing than his predecessors, he never used force in Asia and never played his full hand, particularly on the financial front against the PRC. Some would say that was a mistake.

But unlike the Obama and George W Bush administrations, both allies and adversaries sensed that the Americans just might fight and that US military forces were in better shape than in 2017 when Trump first took office. Bombing Syria while dining with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago set a tone. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a working luncheon hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, April 7, 2017. Photo: AFP / Lan Hongguang

But it is also worth remembering that the PLA buildup still continued during the Trump administration, as did Chinese pressure on US friends and allies such as Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and others.

So if a Biden administration plans for “strategic patience” towards the PRC, what does it mean?

Will it be a version of the Obama-era “strategic patience”? Then option 1 would mean seeking a “reset” or “dialing down” of tensions with the PRC while offering bold talk about unshakable commitments to rules-based order, open seas and shared values among allies. Slashing defense spending while prioritizing domestic matters will be part of the deal, too.

If that’s the plan, then Beijing will smell blood. It will be glad to pocket both the reset and the dialing down – while dialing things up from its side. Expect a challenge from China in the first 90 days and to have America’s bluff called within a year. 

What might this look like? A few possibilities: declaring parts of the South China Sea “exclusionary zones” or making a move against Taiwanese, Vietnamese or Malaysian territory in the South China Sea or even elbowing the Japanese away from the Senkaku Islands

There is also plenty of unfinished business with the Indians along their Himalayan border and a full-scale assault on Taiwan isn’t unthinkable.

A better way

Or will it be a different sort of “strategic patience” for the Biden administration? Indeed, something more like the Trump version such as:

  • Stand up to and challenge the PRC, and fund and build out a military that no adversary will want to take on. And somehow make it clear that you will use it.
  • Take the challenge beyond the military front. Get America’s finances in order for starters and wean (forcibly if necessary) American business from its China dependency. That alone would be worth a few dozen aircraft carriers.
  • Insist on partners’ improving their own capabilities and showing some concrete results.

Biden and his team vow that they will capitalize on repairing the partner relationships that they claim – despite the evidence – that Trump ruined. The Japanese just showed how well that will work.

Joe Biden is expected to take a tough tack on China in South China Sea. Image: Twitter

Once Tokyo determined that Biden will be president it canceled talks on increasing financial support for US forces in Japan. And then it passed a defense budget that does nothing – absolutely nothing – to fix Japan’s defense shortcomings.

Sometimes it’s better that your friends don’t consider you a pushover.

Beijing probably expects the first option given that so many people on the Biden team were part of the Obama team and they are also hinting at a reset.

It would be nice to surprise the PRC.

Otherwise one will know that strategic patience is sometimes just another expression for appeasement and letting America’s defense lapse and leaving its friends in the lurch.

We know how that turns out.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy. This article originally appeared in And magazine. It is republished with permission.