There is no sign of deescalation between China and the United States under President Joe Biden, quite the contrary. Good diplomats are needed now.
These were the words that American diplomats spent four years waiting for. Donald Trump made his State Department a laughingstock. In particular, State Department officials appointed by Trump helped denigrate the department through massive job cuts, causing many of the best personnel to resign in disbelief.
Last Thursday, the new United States president paid tribute to those who stayed. “This has been a difficult few years,” Biden said during his visit to the State Department. As a senator and as vice president, Biden engaged in foreign affairs for years, gaining great respect for the challenges of diplomatic service. “I believe in you. I trust you,” he told the public servants.
Biden will need their skills and dedication if he wants to advance what he announced immediately after his motivational words in his first speech on foreign policy. America has to regain its “credibility and moral authority,” Biden stated. Biden plans to revive old alliances, resume an active role in global organizations from which Trump withdrew, and take a stand against “authoritarianism’s advance” referring to Russia and especially China. For Biden, the People’s Republic is America’s biggest and most threatening rival.
US Relations with China Will Not Get Easier under Biden
In taking a strong stance against China, Biden is actually similar to his predecessor for once. By now, no one in Beijing should be under the illusion that things will get easier with Biden than they were with Trump. On the contrary. If anything like an adherence to national principles indeed returns to the White House with Biden, the conflict between Beijing and Washington will likely escalate.
This became clear in the first phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s highest ranking foreign affairs official, Politburo member Yang Jiechi. Yang warned the Biden administration against crossing “red lines” and intervening in China’s domestic affairs. Instead, he said, America should “correct its recent mistakes.” Because one thing is clear: The People’s Republic will defend its “core interests” with determination.
For the leadership in Beijing, these core interests include the unity of the country. And they see it threatened in the criticism China has received about how they are treating Uighurs in the Xinjiang region and in American support for the democratic movement in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s autonomy. But on all these issues, Washington is likely to only become more hardened in its stance. Trump was always open to making a deal, but Biden is not.
Tensions over Taiwan Could Become Major Test
Blinken, at least, clearly agreed with his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, that Beijing’s brutal repression was a “crime against humanity,” even calling it “genocide” during his Senate confirmation hearing. Blinken also positioned himself on the side of the opposition in Hong Kong, which was suffocated by the new national security law.
But the first major test for Beijing and Biden’s administration may be the tension over Taiwan. Party leader Xi Jinping has called for China’s reunification with the “renegade province,” but the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people don’t want to hear about it. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, reassured the island republic once again that it could rely on the “rock solid” support of the U.S.
As if wanting to test Washington’s will, the leadership in Beijing had two dozen fighter jets make a demonstrative flight through Taiwan’s airspace just three days after Biden’s inauguration. At the same time, Chinese bomber pilots simulated attacks on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was on the way to the South China Sea with its accompanying fleet.
No Sign of Deescalation
Biden may have provoked tension with China by inviting Taiwan’s representative to the U.S. Capitol for his inauguration. No representative of Taiwan had taken part in the swearing-in of a U.S. president on the Capitol steps since diplomatic relations with Taipei broke off in 1979.
So, there have been clashes between Beijing and Washington from the beginning. At the same time, China’s leaders sent Trump off with another blow up. One day after the change in administration, Pompeo and 27 other Americans and affiliates were banned from entering China, and companies connected with them are forbidden from conducting further business in China.
There is no sign of deescalation between Beijing and Washington. China expert David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University, recommends thinking back to containment in the East-West conflict. “We learned with the Soviet Union how to keep the Cold War cold.” Good diplomats are needed precisely for this reason, and Biden may be thinking that a bit of motivation in the Department of State can’t hurt.