Biden concludes Asia tour, Beijing wonders if he will ever return to visit China as US President
Last week, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 10-12 June, China issued a stern warning to Taiwan saying that Beijing “will not hesitate to start a war” if Taiwan declares independence. In fact, the warning was issued by China’s state councillor and defence minister General Wei Fenghe during the first face-to-face talks with his counterpart from the US, the secretary of defence Lloyd J. Austin. “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost,” [My emphasis] the defence minister was quoted as telling Lloyd Austin during the meeting, held on the side-lines of the Shangri-La Dialogue.
It is too obvious to all – including, of course to Washington, that anyone is no one else but America. Analysts will need some more time to interpret why the Chinese general chose Asia’s most prestigious security affairs forum which attracts the world’s top military leaders, diplomats, and security analysts, to issue a salvo of angry words directly targeting the US defence secretary. Two quick explanations are in order – one political and the other personal – to know what might have provoked the general.
Angry Salvos Exchanged at Shangri-La Dialogue
In political terms, tensions over Taiwan have been particularly rising in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war, largely due to stepped-up visits to the island by the top US military and government officials in recent weeks. Goaded by the mounting US pressure on the “one China” policy, Beijing reacted in the only way it knows best – by increasing Chinese air incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). President Biden added fuel to Beijing’s anger when he saidin Japan during the Asia visit that “Washington would defend Taiwan militarily if it is attacked by China.” On the other hand, the personal factor is said to be Lloyd Austin’s refusalto meet with the Chinese defence minister. The Biden administration had all along maintained that according to protocol Austin should be meeting with Xu Qiliang, a vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), and not with Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s National Defence Minister.
However, the Chinese defence minister’s angry outburst can be better understood when viewed in the larger context of the US-China relations today. As China’s analysts would like us to believe, a growing sentiment in Beijing is that Biden skipped China during the last month’s Asia visit to conveyto President Xi that “there is going to be no turn around in the US-China relations.” In a recent commentary, China’s official Xinhua news agency said, “President Biden has not only pursued his predecessor’s anti-China agenda, but he [Biden] is also pursuing the anti-China “confrontational” attitude with greater vigour.” The commentary quoted Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi as saying “if the US continues to view the bilateral relationship with China as ‘big power rivalry,’ this will only lead to confrontation and conflict. Because to the US, even ‘competition’ is just another synonym for ‘containment’.”
Biden in Asia
Last Tuesday, US President Joe Biden concluded his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region. The visit was extraordinary not because this was his first to the Northeast Asian region since taking office eighteen months ago, but because the President had decided not to stop in the People’s Republic of China. But why was Beijing not on the President’s itinerary? Because one of the stated goals of his Asia trip was to rally US allies in order to jointly confront China’s rapidly growing economic and military might in the region. In the run-up to the visit, the US officials and American media had been openly talking about how Biden was going to calibrate measures with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts toward “containing” and “blocking” China.
Just two days before the US president was to embark on the tour, the cover-page story in Time magazine quoting US diplomatic sources said “Biden’s top foreign policy priority is containing China.” A few days earlier, Rahm Emanuel, the US envoy in Tokyo told the media that Biden’s visit was “a wake-up call to China that America is the permanent Pacific presence and power.” But to be fair to President Biden, Beijing had been excluded from the agenda of his first visit to Asia even as the visit was announced as long back as this January. In fact, to put the record straight, it is indeed true when Biden took office it was a fraught moment for the US-China relationship.
Biden Chooses His First Stop in Seoul
President Biden chose to first stop in Seoul as he kicked off his first Asia tour. As explained by the New York Times, the US President had reasons to prefer meeting with South Korea’s just elected leader over Japan’s new prime minister. First, to demonstrate that the United States remained focused on countering China. Secondly, to ensure that South Korea is enlisted as a major military ally and strategic partner in the US-led confrontation with China in order to economically weaken the Asian “behemoth”. The other and more important factor was the newly elected conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was expected by Washington to enhance the US-South Korea military cooperation, which had been significantly cut down in recent years by Yoon’s predecessor, the outgoing President Moon Jae-in.
Biden-Yoon talks a day after the US President touched down in Seoul underscored the overall game-plan of the trip – that is, resume (halted due to severe Covid-19 in South Korea in the past couple of years) major joint military exercises, boost South Korea’s military capabilities (with a likelihood of deploying the medium-range nuclear missiles on the South Korean territory targeting China), and restrict Seoul’s economic reliance on China. Not surprisingly, Chinese observers have reacted angrily and accused saying that instead of continuing Moon’s policy of reducing tensions the US-South Korea enhanced military cooperation will further intensify the Korean peninsula crisis.
Biden in Tokyo: Tête-à-têtewith Kishida, IPEFand QUAD Summit
More than in Seoul, it was in Tokyo that the real aim of Biden’s Asia visit was revealed. As the NYT, mentioned above had claimed, “Even as the Biden administration stage-managed a war against Russia in Europe,” Biden’s trip to Asia-Pacific prepares for a military confrontation with China. Well aware that the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy is its security alliance with the United States, the Biden-Kishida joint statement in a clear message to Beijingagreed “to beef up the deterrence and response capabilities of US-Japan bilateral security alliance.”
Reacting to the joint statement, Japan’s influential and one of the country’s oldest newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun, in a strongly-worded editorial stated: “Not only Tokyo should persuade the US to smooth over with China. Tokyo needs to step up its mostly lying stagnant high-level talks with Beijing.” Moreover, as if pre-empting the “anti-China” Biden-Kishida joint statement, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi nearly warned his Japanese counterpart, Yoshimasa Hayashi, in a virtual meeting hours before Biden left Washington: “Japan and the US preparing to join hands to confront China is creating a foul atmosphere.”
While in Tokyo, Biden also formally launched the Indo-Pacific economic framework. The IPEF, a new US-led economic and trade initiative similar to the now-defunct TPP first announced by the Biden administration last October, is meant to put the US trade and interests at the centre of economic relationships in the region. Interestingly, South Korea, which was the first nation in the region to sign the framework, along with Japan and several other ASEAN nations have expressed reservations about the new outfit. For two reasons. First, for many of the twelve participating nations besides the US, the IPEF ignores inclusiveness and multilateralism in regional economic and trade cooperation; second, the participating nations in the Asia-Pacific region also see Beijing’s exclusion as they are being subjected to choose between the US and China. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Nikkei Asia that with China not being invited to join, “the IPEF is not a free trade deal.” Similar views were expressed by the Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh last Monday – the day the IPEF was formally announced in Tokyo – that “it is also necessary to uphold its [IPEF] multilateralism.”
On the last day of the tour on Tuesday, May 24, the fourth Quad leader’s summit was held in Tokyo. President Biden told the leaders of the other three Quad nations – India, Australia, and the host Japan, that he was committed “to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient.”
How Beijing Looked At Biden’s Visit
As mentioned, Beijing has strongly objected to “the language of war” President Biden and the US officials have been employing both before and during the visit. As a senior Pentagon official told defenceone.com just before President Biden was to begin his Asia visit: “Biden’s trip is proof positivethat the US could maintain both fronts in Europe and Asia.” The Biden administration’s focus on Taiwan in discussions in Asia is particularly seen by Beijing as sinister. As reported by The Hill in Washington, a day before the visit, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi issued a stern warning in a phone conversation with the US national security advisor: “If the US side persists in playing the Taiwan card and goes further down the wrong path, President’s East Asia visit could put their [China-US] relations in ‘serious jeopardy.’ ”
To sum up, it is crystal clear to policymakers in Beijing that Biden’s Asia trip – including the launching of IPEF and the Quad leader’s summit, underscores the US strategy in order to diplomatically, economically, and militarily blockade China. As defenceone.com stated, despite the US active “engagement” in the ongoing war in Europe between Russia and Ukraine, the US foreign policy focus is increasingly becoming fixed on making sure that China is “crippled,” “isolated,” and “contained.” However, as reflected in the Asahi editorial cited above and from the statements issued by leaders from Vietnam, Singapore, and even South Korea expressing doubts and scepticism about IPEF, Quad and “Taiwan card” etc., the people in the region are opposed to being drawn into becoming the US’s “cannon fodder” in a war with China.