Biden must respond to China’s Xi with a clear strategy
The historic 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have lasting implications that threaten to affect U.S. national security. The world witnessed a series of momentous events — among them, the public humiliation of Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s predecessor as the CCP’s leader; Xi’s securing a third term; and his rival Li Keqiang’s removal from the Politburo Standing Committee and as a member of the Central Committee. Moreover, key allies of Xi, such as Zhao Leji and Wang Huning, remain and his loyalists have been promoted, including Shanghai Party leader Li Qiang, who is notorious for the enforcement of that city’s “zero-Covid” policy.
In total, Xi replaced more than half of the 24-member Politburo and is now firmly in control of the party. He likely will remain so as long as his health permits.
Having Xi in solid control of the CCP is a bad outcome for U.S. interests and international stability. In fact, it could become a national security crisis for the West — not only because Xi is determined to attack U.S. interests. He and his predecessors have been doing so, but Xi now believes that China has the military power to do so. This places a great strain on the ability of the United States to deter his aggression.
Xi’s speech to the party did not necessarily define a new era in Sino-American relations, but it clearly exposed his and the party’s ambitions — and now Xi believes he holds the power to take bold action. In his address, Xi proclaimed that China is on its way to achieving its second centenary goal of creating a modern socialist country, implying that China can set the rules of global politics and overturn the liberal international order. His remark attacking “hegemonism” was a stalking horse for the U.S. and its allies; he explicitly targeted Taiwan.
His was an audacious address, with grave consequences for the United States. Two immediate consequences come to mind. First, the U.S. must take Xi at his word. He announced that the U.S. is an enemy of the CCP, that China can replace the U.S., and that it is determined to do so. Of course, he has expressed this many times before — these are core principles of “Xi Jinping Thought” and what he seeks to achieve for the party — but these ambitions are now crystallized as part of the 20th Party Congress. Taking Xi at his word requires the West to end its strategies of engagement with China, which have been dominant for many decades.
The enemy has proclaimed his intentions, and this compels a unified response from the West. To start, the Biden administration needs to explain why the U.S. and its allies must achieve victory over the CCP — and how they will do so. Advancing a strategy of victory is the first step toward ensuring that the world remains free of Communist China’s tyranny. The Biden administration should enlist support from the American people and motivate those within China who are opposed to the CCP. It is essential to present the CCP with global, unified opposition.
If President Biden does not advance such a strategy, the world will lack the leadership necessary to defeat the CCP. This is precisely what has contributed to the party’s success thus far.
Second, the West must send aid to Taiwan now to deter China’s aggression. The risk of coercion against Taiwan is great — whether a maritime or aerial blockade, a limited aims strategy or total war to conquer the island, or an air and missile campaign to destroy its military and population centers — because this comes directly from Xi’s public declarations. Whether Taiwan could defend its sovereignty is an open question. The point, of course, is to deter coercive measures before they are launched. This requires having robust conventional and nuclear deterrence capability and an unalloyed commitment to Taiwan, yet both are lacking.
The zigzags of the Biden administration on whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan have sustained an ambiguity in U.S. deterrence policy that must be eliminated. A permanent, overt U.S. military presence on the island, in conjunction with forces from NATO, Australia, Japan, India and Philippines, could provide the conventional deterrent needed. To strengthen nuclear deterrence, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are needed. The U.S. simply has too few to address deterrent obligations from China and Russia. The Biden administration should consider moving tactical nuclear forces (B-61s) from European bases to the Indo-Pacific. Theater nuclear must be developed and deployed, and so the importance of developing the Nuclear-Armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N) is essential.
The U.S. cannot depend solely on its strategic arsenal — already hard pressed — for deterrence of Russia and China, particularly in a scenario involving defense of Taiwan. The proximity of Beijing’s conventional and sub-strategic systems invites its aggression against Taiwan. Beijing might believe it could employ tactical or theater forces to gain victory without escalation to the strategic level because of its superiority in capabilities and willpower, thinking that the balance of resolve favors it rather than Washington.
Xi’s remarks should come as no surprise, though it was novel to see the demonstration of his power within the party and the humiliation of his opponents — all proof of his ruthless ambition. Biden must respond to Xi by articulating forcefully that the West will not tolerate any aggression against the United States, its allies or partners, and that the U.S. is determined to achieve victory over the CCP.
Bradley A. Thayer is director of China policy at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and co-author of “Understanding the China Threat.”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.