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Biden’s post-Afghanistan focus on China is mostly positive so far

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The serial abandonment of Afghanistan by the Trump and Biden administrations, weary of “endless wars,” was tragically compounded by Biden’s atrocious implementation of the withdrawal, despite his claim of “an extraordinary success.” His recklessly obstinate performance has severely eroded America’s credibility with both friends and adversaries and left much geopolitical damage to repair.

Biden remains defiant over what he has done. “The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia … [T]here’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”

But that worst-case scenario was not the only policy alternative available to the president. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during House and Senate hearings, repeated that “our strategic competitors like China and Russia — or adversaries like Iran and North Korea” would have enjoyed a “bogged down” United States.

Moscow and Beijing, however, have clearly relished the humiliating, tail-between-its-legs retreat as a dramatic example of American weakness and unreliability. China, predictably, has warned Taiwan not to depend on America when the chips are down. After Afghanistan, a threat from 2018 by Rear Admiral Luo Yuan, the deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, takes on renewed resonance. “What the United States fears the most is taking casualties.” He brutally warned that the sinking of a U.S. carrier or two would kill 5,000 to 10,000 sailors — more than all the Americans lost in Afghanistan over the conflict’s duration, and more than Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 combined. “We’ll see how frightened America is [then].”

The clear message Biden and Blinken have conveyed in defending their Afghanistan blunder is that, unburdened by that “forever war,” they can now focus their diplomatic attention and America’s resources on the main threats from China and Russia. Biden dispatched climate adviser John Kerry and Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman on diplomatic fence-mending forays to China. Both were rudely rebuffed as the Chinese blamed America for all the problems.

Biden escalated the urgency of U.S. pleas by acting as supplicant-in-chief.

He initiated a call to X Jinping, who deigned to accept it but then proceeded to condemn Biden’s Trump-like policies for worsening relations. Biden proposed a direct meeting with Xi, who reportedly ignored the request and repeated his criticism

News had leaked earlier that the Biden administration may change the name of Taiwan’s unofficial office in Washington from “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to “Taiwan Representative Office.” Long-sought by Taiwanese officials, the change is adamantly opposed by Beijing, which sees the simpler, more expansive name as creeping recognition of Taiwan’s separate political identity. China publicly advised Washington to be “prudent” — “lest it should seriously undermine China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Many China experts criticize the possible name change as both (a) purely symbolic and meaningless, and (b) gratuitously provocative to Beijing. The answer to both arguments is that China relentlessly pressures other governments, international organizations, educational institutions, and private companies to use only its approved names for the country of Taiwan which has broad governing responsibilities beyond the limited charter of the city of Taipei. Maps, pictures, films, apparel, airline schedules, all must comply with Beijing’s Orwellian campaign for global group-think. Approving the name change would be a small but significant pushback, whether the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic” currently ruling China likes it or not.

As for departing from prior understandings with Beijing on U.S. interaction with Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act notes that they all “rest upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” China’s threats, coercion, and military incursions violate that “expectation” on a daily basis.

The Biden administration should strike a blow for rationality and fundamental fairness, reject Beijing’s totalitarian nonsense, and make the change Taiwan requests. Let Communist China break its rhetorical lance over this foolishness.

Those who fear this will lead to war presumably believe Beijing is looking for a pretext for kinetic conflict and potentially all-out war with the United States. If that is the reality, the Biden administration needs to be more honest with the American people, and with itself, by referring to China not as a “strategic competitor” like, say, France or Germany, but at least as much of an open “adversary” as it calls North Korea and Iran.

In any event, the second shoe Washington dropped last week offers far more substance for Beijing’s concern: Announcement of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) “trilateral security partnership … to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” It will enable Canberra to acquire the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. The monumental security achievement is the first pure Biden administration initiative, not simply an extension of Trump administration China policies.

Regrettably, it was accomplished by scuttling an existing Australian commitment to purchase conventional submarines from France. Not only did France lose that contract, but the three Anglophone capitals excluded Paris as a premier Indo-Pacific security partner. In effect, Washington forged one new security partnership by grievously wounding a current one, causing France to withdraw its ambassador to the United States and accuse Washington of a “stab in the back.”

After Afghanistan, this is the second charge of “betrayal” of an ally leveled at the Biden administration within a month. 

France’s financial loss on the Australian contract can be recouped with some additional strategic imagination by the AUKUS nations. They could form a consortium, for example, to acquire the conventional submarines France would have delivered to Australia and offer them for purchase by other regional countries threatened by China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea — perhaps Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam. 

Indonesia needs to replace a recently-lost submarine, though it fears AUKUS could spur an arms race.

The acquisitions would support the European Union’s plan to “Explore ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific while boosting Indo-Pacific partners’ capacity to ensure maritime security.” 

Then there is Taiwan, whose aspiration to acquire a defensive submarine capability was delayed for decades until the Trump administration gave the go-ahead for its own indigenous program. While that development proceeds, a French sub or two could serve as an effective stopgap measure if compatibility issues can be resolved. The Biden administration can yet mitigate France’s anger while further expanding the significant breakthrough it has made with the AUKUS initiative.

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. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden foreign policy China China–United States relations Chinese aggression Joe Biden John Kerry Presidency of Joe Biden Taiwan Relations Act Taiwan–United States relations Xi Jinping

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