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Xi Jinping’s ‘March Madness’: His determination compels an intrepid response

Vladimir Astapkovich, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks to the media after a signing ceremony with Russian President Vladimir Putin following their talks at The Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

What a month Chinese leader Xi Jinping had, and no doubt he would wish March 2023 did not have to end. On the international front, his March built on an active February, when he advanced China’s peace plan for Ukraine and the Global Security Initiative to serve as China’s counter to the Munich Security Conference held annually.  

At the outset of March, Xi warned that the U.S. was attempting to encircle, contain and suppress China. On March 10, China brokered a deal restoring diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Mid-month, Xi traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to discuss further developing their flowering entente. He hosted the Global Civilization Initiative on March 19 to advance China’s vision for international politics and its future. Ma Ying-jeuo, Taiwan’s president from 2008-2016, made an unofficial visit to Shanghai at the end of the month, declaring, “We are all Chinese.” 

On the domestic front, Xi was also active. He spoke at the closing of the simultaneous meetings of the National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial parliament, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. There he stated that China’s military has become a “Great Wall of Steel” and the Chinese nation must continue its rejuvenation. The world must take China seriously, he said, declaring that China is “preparing for war.”   

This frenetic activity reveals a determination to see the realization of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) domination of Chinese people and the world. From Mao Zedong’s original intent to Deng Xiaoping’s implementation of the means to achieve that end — entering the Western economic ecosystem to allow China’s economic growth and, thus, more power — to Xi’s ever-bolder attempts to realize that objective explains the motivations behind his “March Madness” and surfeit of activity. This is possible because Xi secured his position as China’s leader with a historic third term at the CCP’s 20th Congress in October. With his domestic base solidified, he is free to act on international objectives.

Noting this activity is important of its own accord — but is even more significant because it reveals that Xi has decided now is the time to act to realize the CCP’s ambitions through increasingly coercive steps. He has signaled in his speeches that Taiwan and the United States are at the forefront of his agenda.

The Biden administration should heed Xi’s activities, to be sure, and must respond to each in a more active manner than it has so far. President Biden’s address at the second annual Summit for Democracy in March, as part of the administration’s Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, is useful. The administration also should extend direct and vocal reassurance to Taiwan because of China’s threats against it, which will intensify since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has two stops in America as part of her 10-day trip begun March 29, reportedly including a meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).  

The AUKUS agreement announced in September 2021 between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia is an important symbol in the near term, since it involves greater participation by the UK in Indo-Pacific Affairs, though tangible fruits of the agreement likely will not be evident for years.

It would be more useful, perhaps, to call leaders of the Quad together very soon to come to agreement that, first, it will become an alliance with extended deterrence commitments to other parties; second, it will broaden into a Quint (and maybe more) by including Taiwan and NATO; and, third, it will deploy conventional forces to Taiwan to increase Taiwan’s conventional deterrent capabilities, augmented by nuclear guarantees from the U.S. 

The Biden administration must recognize the urgency of this moment and take bold actions.  We can draw parallels to other such moments in U.S. history: Once President Harry Truman’s administration decided to confront the Soviet Union, there was a blizzard of activity. Known as Truman’s “Hundred Days” from his announcement of the Truman Doctrine speech on March 12, 1947, before a joint session of Congress, to Secretary of State George Marshall’s proposal of the eponymous Marshall Plan in his June 5, 1947, commencement speech at Harvard, Truman put many of the big pieces of the Cold War in place. Another moment of urgency came with President Ronald Reagan’s efforts at the outset of his first term to reject the policies of détente and move toward the defeat of the Soviet Union, which he dubbed the “evil empire.”

The U.S. has encountered challenges similar to those Xi presents — and faced them successfully. Lessons from those successful responses include the urgency to place the right security structure in place to reassure Europeans and deter the Soviets, and to not accept accommodation with a foe but to embrace victory. Reagan energized the U.S. military, the American people, and U.S. allies to accomplish that victory. He reassured allies that the U.S. would support them as they honored their commitments to the U.S. and other allies. 

The Biden administration should do the same, taking foreign policy cues from Truman and Reagan. U.S. military power, existing U.S. alliance relationships, and ties with key partners such as Taiwan, the Quad and the AUKUS signatories could provide the foundation to unflinchingly check Xi’s aggression through conventional and nuclear deterrence. Deterrence depends upon military capabilities. The U.S. and allied force posture in the Indo-Pacific must be expanded and deepened so that the allies have a strong conventional force posture, as NATO did at the end of the Cold War. 

But deterrence is also informed by political considerations like credibility and the willpower to face down opponents through the belief that the U.S. will act to honor its commitments when necessary. As with the military dimension of deterrence, these critical political aspects of deterrence are also in need of attention. They could be addressed by the Biden administration immediately through courageous strategic measures, should the administration choose to undertake them.

Bradley A. Thayer is director of China policy at the Center for Security Policy, and the co-author with Lianchao Han of “Understanding the China Threat.”

Tags China aggression Chinese Communist Party Joe Biden Ronald Reagan Taiwan independence Tsai Ing-Wen US-China tensions Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping Xi Jinping

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