China’s Year of the Ox, which began on Friday, is a fitting metaphor for the most formidable, and potentially dangerous, geopolitical challenge facing Joe Biden and the western democracies. In Chinese mythology, the ox is large, powerful and adept on land and water. It’s determined, stubborn, and takes a lot of stopping. Simon Tisdall specially for The Guardian.
Biden is well aware he has a fight on his hands that, if mishandled, could swiftly turn physical. Some analysts fear war with China is inevitable, sooner or later. So he is moving fast. In a first phone call to China’s president, Xi Jinping, last week, he raised concerns about trade, Taiwan, Hong Kong and alleged genocide in Xinjiang.
Biden took a tough line. He is also talking policy options with regional allies and western partners. Put simply, he aims to build a great democratic wall around China – and box the ox.
The edgy chat with Xi may have broken the ice – but it also highlighted huge existing differences, suggesting that, if anything, bilateral rivalry would intensify. Speaking afterwards, Biden quipped that if the US did not swiftly raise its game, “they’re going to eat our lunch”. His approach would be “practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed”.
While not giving ground, Xi stressed the benefits of working together. “US-Chinese cooperation can achieve many great things that benefit both countries and the whole world. Confrontation between China and the US would certainly be a disaster,” he said.
This reflected Beijing’s apparent desire to minimise tensions with the new US administration, after the Trump rollercoaster, and pursue shared interests, such as fighting the pandemic and the climate crisis. Beijing is alarmed by Biden’s idea of an “alliance of democracies” that could potentially gang up on China.
Xi is still busy developing China’s economic, hi-tech, military and regional strengths. He is not yet in a position to challenge the US in a definitive way – though that day may come. All the same, he told Biden to keep his nose out of China’s “domestic affairs”. Hence his grim warning about “misunderstandings” and “misjudgments”.
Yet for Biden, enhanced bilateral cooperation that fails to change China’s behaviour in controversial areas such as commerce and Xinjiang amounts to a trap. He accepts the consensus view that the US and China are now engaged in an intense strategic competition. Electorally, he cannot afford to look weak.
So the question he must answer is: how to rein in China, and robustly assert US interests, without risking war?
That’s what makes Biden’s decision to call India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, before speaking to Xi especially intriguing. The two discussed closer strategic and military collaboration. Maybe it’s no coincidence Indian forces recently fought China along their shared Himalayan border, where Chinese troops are now said to be pulling back.
The Biden-Modi call focused on the revival of a defensive military alliance known as the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia. Officials say its purpose is to “strengthen Indo-Pacific security” by providing a bulwark against Chinese aggression.
None of these four countries is seeking to isolate China outright. They know that’s both impossible and undesirable. But they hope to halt, deter, or otherwise curtail what they deem to be Beijing’s more threatening activities.
Problem is, Beijing has not agreed to be boxed in or otherwise “contained”. It sees the Quad as a crude attempt to stifle China’s development and further evidence of America’s “cold war mentality” – especially when, as happened last week, Biden deploys not one but two nuclear-armed carrier strike groups in the South China Sea and creates a new Pentagon taskforce on China.
The Taiwan conundrum shows how hard it could be to avoid armed conflict, accidental or otherwise. Chinese military incursions are at record highs. When President Tsai Ing-wen wished Xi a happy new year and offered talks, she was slapped down. Taiwan is the most explosive flashpoint for a US-China war, a new Council on Foreign Relations report suggests.
Both sides have worrying blindspots. As usual, the US is convinced that it is wholly in the right, morally and otherwise. For his part, says former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, Xi firmly believes “that the US is experiencing a steady, irreversible structural decline”. Both are wrong – and their errors could prove calamitous.
That’s one reason why developing the Quad – and potentially inviting others such as the UK, South Korea and Canada to join what has been dubbed “Asia’s Nato” – is a bad, potentially globally divisive idea. Think of the US-Soviet stand-off. There are no military solutions here, only future military calamities.
A more effective US approach, argued analyst Hal Brands, would be to strengthen bilateral alliances through closer political and diplomatic ties, help counter Chinese influence and information operations and increase investment, as Beijing does via its Belt and Road Initiative. The aim would be to make friends while constantly raising the cost to China of future belligerence and intimidation.
Rudd warns that time is running out to get China policy right.
“No matter what strategies the two sides pursue or what events unfold, the tension between the US and China will grow, and competition will intensify; it is inevitable. War, however, is not,” he writes in Foreign Affairs magazine.
So how to avoid it? Harvard’s Joseph Nye, originator of the “soft power” concept, said the US and partners must convince China’s leaders “that their interests are better served by cooperating within, rather than challenging, a rules-based international system”. In Nye’s view, China and the US are locked indefinitely in “a cooperative rivalry” requiring each to do its best to get along.
However messy that may sound, it’s preferable to war. And it keeps the ox in harness.