Xi Jinping steps up the pressure on Biden — will Kim Jong Un join the fray?

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Only two weeks into the Biden administration, China has dramatically escalated pressure on Taiwan. Overt threats and military maneuvers clearly warn Washington and Taipei: Start unwinding U.S.-Taiwan relations that the Trump administration assiduously deepened.

So far, its coercion has been mostly unsuccessful. While President Biden did not follow President Trump’s lead in accepting a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, he angered Beijing by inviting her Washington representative to his inauguration.

After multiple incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) drew U.S. criticism, China sent more planes and then upped the ante, saying its coast guard would fire on Western ships and planes that “violate Chinese sovereignty.” It practiced attacking a U.S. carrier.

The escalation partially reflects China’s frustration after it openly supported Trump’s defeat. Beijing harbored great expectations that his term would end as only an irritating interregnum between an accommodationist Obama-Biden tenure — e.g., abandoning our Philippines ally when China seized Scarborough Shoal — and a potentially pliant Biden-Harris administration. 

Some of the incoming group’s rhetoric was comfortably familiar, such as the pledge to cooperate with China on shared global interests like the pandemic and climate change. 

But now the U.S. tone was markedly different as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Cabinet colleagues stressed the areas of U.S.-China contention more than the commonalities: “Increasingly that relationship has some adversarial aspects to it. And it also still has cooperative ones.” 

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington must “impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang [and] Hong Kong, [and] for the bellicosity of [its] threats … towards Taiwan.”

No longer would differences be smoothed over or important values sacrificed. No longer, Hillary Clinton saying human rights must defer to broader U.S.-China interests, or Donald Trump telling Xi Jinping that Uighur concentration camps would not block a trade deal.  

Blinken called climate change a concern for China, America and the world. John Kerry, Biden’s lead official on climate, called it a “critical stand-alone issue”: “[W]e have serious differences with China … [on] theft of intellectual property, access to market and the South China Sea. … [N]one of those issues will be traded for anything that has to do with climate.”

But Beijing rejected the idea of compartmentalization. Lü Xiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, “U.S. officials would be too naïve if they believe China will accept dialogue and cooperation with no basis for equality and mutual respect.” As he crudely said in Beijing’s Global Times, “If you want to have dinner with us [cooperation], you can’t spit at us at the table [confrontation].” 

The comment is rich, coming on behalf of a regime that is the past master of great expectorations, constantly espousing “win-win” arrangements but always extracting the benefits while spurning the reciprocal obligations.

Nowhere is that more true than with North Korea, China’s partner in international crime and a geopolitical card Beijing soon may play while ramping up tensions over Taiwan. The diversion ploy has succeeded for decades, even as Henry Kissinger and others assured U.S. administrations that China shares our concern about North Korea’s nuclear program. That advice was perilously wrong. Instead, Pyongyang’s nuclear distraction has brilliantly served Beijing’s strategic interests.

Blinken offered muted criticism of Trump’s North Korea dealings — “a problem that has not gotten better; it has gotten worse.” He faulted Trump’s go-it-alone approach, promising that he and Biden would consult allies before deciding on next steps.

They would do well to study the actual course of Trump’s negotiating dynamic before dismissing it out of hand as erratic and unproductive. His “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea consisted of three critical, mutually-reinforcing elements.

First was the credible use of force if Kim Jong Un persisted in his threats and escalating nuclear and missile tests. Trump responded with his own warnings of “fire and fury … totally destroying North Korea.” Convinced he was not bluffing, Washington braced as Trump seemed about to give Pyongyang “a bloody nose” — causing Korea expert Victor Cha to withdraw from consideration as U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

The second pressure component was an array of punishing economic sanctions against North Korea, though China and Russia ensured they were never severe enough to cripple the Kim regime.

Trump’s final coercive tactic was unprecedented and potentially the most consequential. Over a four-month period in 2017-2018, he used three major speeches — at the United Nations, the South Korean National Assembly, and his State of the Union address — to highlight the grotesque inhumanity of Kim’s rule. He also gave North Korean defectors an Oval Office meeting to publicize its horrors.

Trump’s clear message: The Kim regime is not fit to govern. Kim grasped it and soon exchanged warm personal communications with Trump, who called them “love letters.” They agreed to meet in Singapore to discuss the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. Suddenly, Xi Jinping, who had never bothered to meet Kim when he was threatening war, summoned him to Beijing.

From that point on, Kim’s tone stiffened and his rhetoric returned to insults and taunts — directed at U.S.negotiators, rather than Trump himself. So it continued through the Singapore, Hanoi and DMZ Trump-Kim meetings. The tactic worked well enough for Trump to reduce U.S.-South Korea military exercises.  

At the news conference after the Hanoi summit collapsed, he exonerated Kim for the torture and death of American student Otto Warmbier. He acknowledged that China was violating the sanctions against North Korea, but said it was “OK,” focusing instead on the pending trade deal. 

The Biden administration should selectively apply and improve upon what worked in Trump’s love-hate relationships with Xi and Kim. Biden is unlikely to threaten kinetic action, except in concert with allies in collective self-defense. But expanded economic sanctions on both China and North Korea are surely in order, given their malign coordination. Rather than Beijing moderating Pyongyang’s inhuman and aggressive behavior, Kim taught Xi how to operate gulags with impunity.

The most practical and effective weapon in the West’s arsenal against these two dangerous adversaries is what worked to win the Cold War — the truth. Not only is it the antidote to the lies both regimes spread to their own people and the world, it also challenges their moral legitimacy and finally puts them, rather than Western democracies, on the defensive.  

The Trump administration was historic in starting that process. The Biden team, emphasizing human rights and multilateralism, can make history by accelerating and completing it. 

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.

Tags Antony Blinken China-US relations Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jake Sullivan John Kerry Kim Jong Un North Korea Political status of Taiwan

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