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Biden should reinforce Trump's transformation of China policy

Biden should reinforce Trump's transformation of China policy
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Biden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot MORE soon will face the same existential challenge from China that the administrations of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrumpists' assaults on Republicans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid will help Democrats The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Mellman: White working-class politics MORE and George W. Bush failed to address, and that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama opens up about singing 'Amazing Grace' after Charleston shooting: 'I've used up all my words' Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped MORE’s greatly worsened.

The disruptive Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE became the first president to confront China in a meaningful and comprehensive way. Biden would do well to retain as many of this administration’s China hands as he can persuade to remain on duty, at least for an extended transition period. Patronage demands naturally will limit holdovers, but the Biden team should resist the temptation to revert to faulty China policies just because they weren’t Trump’s.

A sound foundation for an effective, transformational approach to the multi-dimensional China threat has been laid in the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, and a series of major policy speeches by Trump administration officials. The Pentagon recently affirmed its commitment to “the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy,” which aptly calls China and Russia “revisionist powers” bent on supplanting America’s international leadership role.

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Biden’s adherence to those policies will help dispel the cloud created by China’s clear preference for his victory. Its reckless global spread of the coronavirus dramatically disrupted the burgeoning U.S. economy, put Trump on the political defensive for 10 months before the election, and was a decisive factor in the president’s defeat.  

Beijing has further reason to be hopeful, considering the weak record on China compiled by the Obama-Biden and Clinton tenures. Veterans of both are expected to hold important positions on Indo-Pacific affairs in the Biden administration.

Since the Vietnam War, Democratic administrations have been gun-shy about even considering the use of force as a necessary instrument of foreign policy, including in the face of humanitarian catastrophes such as Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.   

Obama finally seemed to shake off the legacy inhibition, and announced in 2011 that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to leave power after causing the deaths of 400,000 of his people. To all the world it seemed a commitment of U.S. policy to achieve regime change. The following year, as Assad continued the slaughter, Obama warned that any use of chemical weapons would cross a U.S. “red line” implicitly requiring a military response.

When Assad called America’s bluff and used poison gas to kill innocent citizens, the Obama administration blinked. It fell to political neophyte Trump to bomb Syria and enforce Obama’s feckless red line, but, unfortunately, not to eject Assad.

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Over three decades, Democratic administrations were confronted by the increasing threat to Western values and interests from China’s communist regime. They failed to quell the mounting danger, especially against democratic Taiwan. When China fired missiles toward Taiwan in 1996, Clinton sent two aircraft carriers — but had them turn away when Beijing threatened a “sea of fire.” An administration official compared the standoff to the Cuban missile crisis and said, “We had stared into the abyss.” 

When asked directly what Washington would do if China attacked Taiwan, Clinton’s lead Asia policy official said, “We don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.” China spent the next 25 years building attack submarines and anti-ship missiles — “the circumstances” that would deter the U.S. from defending Taiwan.

Only once during that period, and only briefly, did a U.S. president — Republican George W. Bush — signal an end to “strategic ambiguity” when he said in April 2001 that America would do “whatever it took” to protect Taiwan. Unfortunately, the bipartisan foreign policy community quickly walked back Bush’s “rash” statement.  

Preoccupied with the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush’s administration soon defaulted to the same pattern of China accommodation and coolness toward Taiwan that characterized the earlier Clinton and later Obama approaches. 

The Trump administration discarded most of the residual shackles of self-doubt and reluctance to resist Beijing on its many economic, security and values challenges. U.S. Navy operations countered China’s aggressive moves in the South and East China Seas and on Taiwan. The foundation is now there for the Biden administration to build on. But neither the former vice president nor his prospective national security appointees have heretofore demonstrated the requisite strategic insight or moral resolve to confront China — militarily, if necessary.

There is at least one notable exception. Michele Flournoy, reputed to be Biden’s pick for secretary of Defense, wrote this in a June Foreign Affairs article: “[I]f the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.”

The single most critical word in her powerful sentence was “credibly.” Beijing has never doubted that the U.S. possesses the military hardware and platforms to take on, and probably defeat, a Chinese challenge. But, as always in conflict, the adversary’s will is the decisive factor.

Flournoy’s statement is not quite a call to arms or declaration of U.S. intent; as a think tank scholar not in government at the time of its writing, she was in no position to do either. She does not even say the U.S. already has such a capability, but merely speculates about how Chinese planning might be affected “if” we had it.

Yet the fact that she thinks in those terms and willingly talks publicly about specific kinetic actions — knowing she is likely to be tapped for the most important national security position in the U.S. government — is significant. It is unprecedented that someone that close to making or influencing national security decisions would talk publicly about something as dramatic as destroying China’s navy.  

Flournoy has delivered a graphic rejoinder to recent statements by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) admirals about the desirability of sinking a U.S. carrier or two — and offered an American version of the “sea of fire” scenario that China, North Korea and Iran are fond of threatening.   

If Biden does appoint Flournoy and adopts her no-nonsense approach to the security threat from China, it will provide bipartisan steel to Trump’s recent deterrent message to Beijing. In a tone laden with meaning, he declared “China knows what I’m gonna do” if it attacks Taiwan. Biden can reinforce Washington’s emerging strategic clarity by declaring with certainty that America will defend Taiwan.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.