Biden Sends China a Message
The Quad & the Objects of its Affection
By: David Brown
Although the White House hurried to deny that Joe Biden meant what he said on May 23, his message was clear: if China attempts an invasion of Taiwan while he’s President of the United States, the US will intervene.
The context was as striking as Biden’s words. He spoke at a press conference in Tokyo after meetings with Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and a few days earlier with South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol. The US president and Kishida had also hunkered down in a Quad Summit with PM Narendra Modi of India and Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese.
Was Biden just carried away by the camaraderie? Or, with Russia’s adventure in Ukraine in mind, had the US president concluded that the time had come to dispel illusions in Beijing that the democracies might stand aside if Chinese forces were launched across the Taiwan Strait?
Biden has been a player in the US foreign policy debate for decades. After listening to much inconclusive argument, he seems to have concluded that it’s time to cement a new consensus on dealing with Chinese ambition.
Aging American “China hands” – acolytes when Henry Kissinger and Chou En-Lai negotiated relations between Washington and Beijing – hastened to deplore Biden’s statement. “Almost everyone who knows the Chinese has believed that an end to strategic ambiguity – meaning an explicit US commitment to defend Taiwan – is a casus belli” said one of them.
He may be right. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping tend to double down when things aren’t going well. Belief that the US, Japan et al. have resolved to join in defending Taiwan against armed attack could perversely persuade Beijing to strike before the US and its Pacific allies lengthen the odds against a successful invasion.
Taiwan, it should be understood, is an example of all that democrats profess to admire, a vibrant, thriving democracy. Like Ukraine in many ways, Taiwan manifests national virtue.
Until the past few years, Chinese threats to conquer the recalcitrant province could be shrugged off; China lacked the means to do so. Nor, it was argued, would the regime in Beijing put the fruits of its ‘economic miracle’ at risk. Now, however, that threat is palpable and credible. The Xi Jinping regime has swallowed Hong Kong, extended its de facto dominion across the South China Sea, condemned the Uighurs to Sinification and bragged that by 2027 it will have the “intelligentized” military assets needed to bring Taiwan to heel by 2027. It has been pumping renminbi into military modernization and its navy, coast guard and air force now dominate the space within the ‘first island ring.’
Beijing’s increasingly credible threats to disrupt the status quo, its military and economic muscle-flexing, are what fuels US concern. Defense ‘hawks’ now dominate the Washington debate about ‘rising China.’ They argue for a big investment in the ‘asymmetric warfare’ capabilities that Ukraine has used to great effect against Russian invaders. Deploying assistance that makes Taiwan more defensible against an attack from the mainland may perversely persuade Beijing to act preemptively, before its advantage is eroded. Tense moments lie ahead, and very possibly armed clashes.
Anxiety has been percolating through the governing class for even longer in Japan, America’s essential Pacific partner and ally. Tokyo depends on the US to stand up to China and will doubtless stand with it. Recognizing China’s economic strength and strategic aspirations, Tokyo has given the nation’s postwar World War II ‘self-defense only’ posture a decent burial. What was in 2015 a highly controversial parliamentary endorsement of Japan’s right to engage in ‘collective self-defense,’ including joint action with regional partners, now commands solid public support.
A pro-Taiwan defense posture is popular with the once famously pacifist Japanese public: an April 2021 Nikkei poll found 74 percent of respondents supporting active Japanese engagement toward ‘stability in the Taiwan Strait.’ That feeling is reciprocated in Taiwan where 58 percent of respondents to another poll said they believe Japanese forces would come to Taiwan’s aid against a Chinese invasion.
East Asian perceptions of China’s current leaders seem to have swung sharply toward seeing Xi Jinping and his close associates as erratic and afraid they may miss China’s best chance – the current moment -- to right all past wrongs. Maintaining the strength and coherence of the US alliance with Japan, and to a lesser extent, with South Korea, in this context depends importantly on the Biden administration’s being seen to respond urgently to evidence that Xi’s China is bent on seizing Taiwan.
The Southeast Asian states have been hesitant to engage, though what happens to Taiwan inevitably will have huge knock-on impacts on Southeast Asia and strategically important SCS shipping lanes. President Biden’s reply to a seemingly random question is thus also a wake-up call to Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur: they are challenged to choose whether it would be OK to be a client of Beijing like Phnom Penh, the current ASEAN chair, or instead should take a chance on alignment with the Quad. A Chinese threat to the status quo that’s both palpable and credible and a US/Japan response that’s deemed appropriate may be just enough to stiffen ASEAN’s famously flexible backbone.
At the least, the Southeast Asian states with a stake in the South China Sea might sort out their EEZ claims vis-à-vis each other and, having done so, make clear their rejection of China’s claim to rule the maritime commons.
Hanoi in particular has plenty of reasons to dread Xi’s ‘China Dream.’ It’s uncomfortably close to China, was anciently its tributary and lately has been the object of both an inconclusive border war and of Chinese encroachments on its EEZ. If Hanoi casts its lot with the Quad, it could expect plenty of assistance sharpening its already considerable defensive capabilities and perhaps also in policing its offshore oil and gas fields. Overt alignment against Chinese expansionism would be hugely popular with the Vietnamese public.
Putin’s Ukraine adventure has rendered Hanoi’s previous reliance on Russia for weapons systems and training precarious. A few days before Biden’s foray to East Asia, RAND analyst Derek Grossman argued that “Taiwan isn’t the Ukraine of the Indo-Pacific. Try Vietnam Instead.” His point was that Vietnam not only has no formal allies, but it also “is far behind China by every conceivable [military] measure” and is, therefore, a softer target for Chinese ambition than Taiwan.
Indeed, overt alignment with the US, Japan et al. is likely more attractive to Vietnam’s leaders than before. The Biden administration is practically begging Hanoi to join it in a ‘strategic partnership.’ Hanoi may take baby steps. For example, it might associate with the Quad as an observer. However, the ideologues who dominate Vietnam’s politburo distrust the motives of a superpower that is always pestering them about universal human rights. However difficult things seem to be getting, not taking sides may still seem to Hanoi’s leaders to be the better bet.
David Brown is a retired US diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel