here is a prevailing view on both sides of the Pacific that President Joe Biden will treat China in a manner similar to his predecessor: skeptical of Beijing’s promises and strong against Chinese belligerence from the Western Pacific to cyberspace.
This assessment is elegant but wrong.
The conventional wisdom was reinforced by this week’s prominent meetings between top Japanese and South Korean officials and their American counterparts, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, with the usual paeans to “linchpins” of security. None of that pomp will accompany the muted gathering Thursday and Friday in Alaska between Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan and senior Chinese officials: top diplomat Yang Jiechi, and State Councillor Wang Yi.
It is true that two months into his presidency, Biden has not ordered a reduction in any of the tariffs or export controls that former President Donald Trump enacted on China. Like clockwork, the U.S. Navy sends a ship through the Taiwan Strait each month and intentionally dwells in waters and airspace dubiously claimed by Beijing.
The language from Washington is more soothing still. Biden nominees for high office promise in confirmation hearings to be appropriately wary of China. One who initially did not do so sufficiently, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, had her nomination delayed and it only proceeded after assurances that export controls would remain in place. Blinken has criticized Beijing for trampling democracy in Hong Kong and abusing human rights throughout the country
But this should be better understood as posturing by the administration and conducting the alliance maintenance necessary in order to turn subsequently to reducing tensions with Beijing—a process which as long as Chinese Communist Party boss Xi Jinping is in power will necessary involve mostly American concessions.
Recall that Hillary Clinton, who was Barack Obama’s first secretary of state, also made her first official stops abroad in Japan and South Korea, promising that, “The alliance between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone of our foreign policy.” But what followed was not a period of strengthening alliances among East Asian democracies against China.