The Biden administration is cranking up pressure on China via a two carrier military exercise in the South China Sea, a muscular tone-setter of the new US president’s stated plan for “extreme competition” with its rival superpower.
On Tuesday, the Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz carrier strike groups conducted what the US Navy characterized in a statement as a “multitude of exercises aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities.”
The operations, however, will send a clear signal to both America’s allies and China that the Biden government will seek to maintain the predecessor Donald Trump government’s tough stance on the disputed and strategically important waters.
On February 5, in another tough naval signal, the USS John S McCain conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the vicinity of the contested Paracel Islands. China claims nearly 80% of the South China Sea, claims the Trump administration designated as “illegal.”
“We need not have a conflict but there is going to be extreme competition,” said Biden over the weekend in his first major media interview since taking office in reference to China. “But we’re also ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so,” he said.
He characterized China as America’s “most serious competitor” while emphasizing his commitment to multilateralism by “working with our allies and partners” in dealing with global challenges. “I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We are going to focus on the international rules of the road,” he added.
His Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that line during the first high-level talk between the US and China under Biden’s new government. Blinken said after speaking with China’s de facto foreign policy chief Yang Jiechie that the US will “hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system” while characterizing the state of bilateral relations as a “cold peace.”
The Biden administration has also built on its predecessor’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy vis-a-vis China by doubling down on its strategic cooperation with India and institutionalizing the “Quad” (Quadrilateral Alliance) with like-minded powers in the region.
At the same time, Biden is also dialing down Trump’s “New Cold War” with China in favor of what some see as a more sustainable and stable competition with the Asian powerhouse.
During his long years on the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and, most especially, his vice-presidency under the Barack Obama administration, Biden emerged as a leading China hand in Washington.
That was born, in part, of his regular exchanges with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In his recent interview, Biden claimed he has spent more time with the Chinese leader than almost all of his Washington counterparts.
“I had 24, 25 hours of private meetings with him when I was vice president,” said Biden during his CBS interview, presenting his China policy as clear-eyed and based on intimate knowledge of the Chinese leadership. “Traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him pretty well.”
At the same, Biden has not yet personally spoken with his Chinese counterpart since assuming office on January 20. “We haven’t had occasion to talk to him yet. There’s no reason not to call him,” he said.
“He’s very bright. He’s very tough. He doesn’t have — and I don’t mean this as a criticism, just the reality — he doesn’t have a democratic ‘small D’ bone in his body,” Biden said, echoing his campaign trail attacks on the Chinese leader, whom he once colorfully described as a “thug” for his mistreatment of minority groups in China.
Beijing can expect more such rhetoric. Prior to his confirmation, Blinken praised the Trump administration’s tough policy on China, stating it “was right in taking a tougher approach to China” and “the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.”
In turn, former Trump officials have welcomed the continuity so far of their China policies. Former national security adviser Robert O’Brien commended the Biden government’s tough stance, which he claimed was “off to a great start on China.”
In stark contrast to his critical comments on China, Biden has been quick to hold direct calls with key Asian allies as well as new strategic partners such as India.
During his telephone conversation on Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden signaled his commitment to institutionalize strategic cooperation among the Quad powers of Australia, Japan, US and India.
“The leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad,” the White House said in a statement, underscoring deepening US-India cooperation against China.
Over the past two years, the foreign ministers of the four powers have held two high-profile meetings, first in New York (2019) and another last October in Tokyo.
The meetings came amid intensified territorial disputes between China and its neighbors India and Japan as well as festering diplomatic spats between Beijing and Western powers amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo expressed his hopes to “institutionalize” the de facto alliance “to push back against the Chinese Communist Party.” While the Biden administration has eschewed “New Cold War” rhetoric, it has nonetheless embraced the Quad as a strategic mechanism to keep China’s ambitions in check.
During his conversations with Australian counterpart Marise Payne, Blinken described the Quad as a crucial platform for cooperation among like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, signaling an intent to institutionalize the once highly informal and mostly hollow alliance.
Earlier, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan described the Quad as “a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific.”
“With our allies and partners in both Europe and Asia, we represent well more than half of the world’s economy,” said Sullivan during a conversation hosted by a Washington-based think tank in late-January.
He described the Quad and other alliance platforms as indispensable “leverage we need to be able to produce outcomes” in both constraining China and addressing other shared global challenges.