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Two brave women illustrate Biden’s China challenge

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Joe Biden proudly touts the gender and ethnic diversity of his staff and Cabinet appointments.  Two brave Asian women, however, would greatly benefit from a statement of strong moral support by the president-elect.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has been waiting for more than 60 days to offer telephone congratulations to her new American counterpart.  In 2016, by contrast, Donald Trump defied Beijing and the foreign policy establishment by accepting her precedent-shattering call a month earlier. Trump did not speak with Tsai again over his ensuing four years in office, so Biden could be the first sitting president to do so, unless Trump decides to extend New Year’s greetings.

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan has a more urgent need for an expression of at least rhetorical solidarity from the incoming American administration. The 37-year-old Zhang was just sentenced by a Chinese court to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” That is verbal camouflage over Communist China’s perverted “legal” system for her honest investigative findings on Beijing’s spread of the coronavirus to the world.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted no time in condemning what he called “a sham … conviction” and issued a formal statement, “On the Silencing and Prosecution of PRC Citizen Journalist Zhang Zhan.” He noted what has become clear to the entire world — that China bears overwhelming responsibility for the widespread death and suffering caused by the pandemic:

“The CCP restricted and manipulated information about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan from the start and brutally silenced other brave truth-tellers … [as] a controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic.”

Regarding Zhang’s jailing, Pompeo called on Beijing “to release her immediately and unconditionally,” and said, “The United States will always support the right of Chinese citizens to express themselves freely and peacefully.”

The Biden foreign policy team would send a strong bipartisan message by reinforcing Pompeo’s statement as one from the American people that will carry forward from the Trump administration. Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for Secretary of State, already has criticized Beijing for its crackdown on Hong Kong, and said President Trump’s sanctions on Chinese banks and companies do not go far enough.

The question is whether the rhetoric will be matched by actions in office. Until then, the Tsai and the Zhang cases provide an opportunity for Biden to start dispelling his reputation for weakness and poor judgment on national security matters. Robert Gates, who served as Barack Obama’s defense secretary alongside the former vice president, wrote that Biden was “wrong on virtually every major foreign policy issue for the last 40 years.”  

Gates refused to say whether he would vote against Trump’s character flaws or against Biden’s poor national security judgment. (He later reiterated his condemnation of Trump’s “unfitness” as commander in chief, but expressed approval that he had “robustly funded the military, challenged China, and not started any new wars.”)

Biden has acknowledged his erratic foreign policy record, saying he wishes he had voted for the first Gulf War in 1990 instead of against it, and against the second one in 2002 instead of for it.  He joined with Obama in ordering the precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that had to be reversed after creating chaos and leading to the rise of ISIS. The illusory “red line” in Syria saw 400,000 Syrians killed under Bashar al-Assad, whose rule, Obama assured the world, was about to end.  

Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved to be another empty national security promise. Washington abandoned its treaty obligation to the Philippines and stood by as China seized, and illegally created, significant swathes of the South China Sea despite Xi Jinping’s promise to Obama not to militarize the area.

But, as Trump might say, it was what it was, and now Biden has a fresh start and a new opportunity to prove what Judy Woodruff called in her Gates interview “his foreign policy chops.”  

China will be Biden’s most important test. After 40 years of generous Western engagement through bipartisan administrations, it presents an even greater security threat today than it did in 1967 when Nixon called it a danger to the world, or in 2011 when Obama’s director of national intelligence called it America’s “greatest mortal threat.” 

The Tsai and Zhang situations invite application of the much-promised and highly-praised Biden approach to foreign policy — greater emphasis on human rights and cooperation with allies.

In fact, in both areas, the actual Trump record has been far better than political opponents and the media have portrayed it, and the Biden team will reap the benefits of the work already done to improve the strategic environment Trump inherited.  

China’s actions have contributed to the shifting dynamic, generating an international backlash.  Its blatant aggressiveness toward U.S. allies and partners and its escalating human rights outrages deservedly invite comparisons to the Mao, Hitler and Stalin tyrannies. The West’s coalescence around a more clear-eyed resistance to China’s threat offers a solid base for Biden’s human rights- and alliance-centric approach.

While China presents multiple dangers, the most immediate flashpoint is Taiwan, where a supposedly irresistible force — Beijing’s ambition to subjugate the island — collides with an immovable object: Taiwan’s intention to remain separate and democratic.

Four years of initiatives from both Congress and the Trump administration have greatly improved Taiwan’s international standing and its protections against China’s aggression. While Beijing remains unconvinced that attacking Taiwan would be a futile and self-destructive undertaking, the Trump administration has moved far closer than any of its predecessors to strategic clarity on America’s intention to defend Taiwan.

Asked on Fox News how he would react “if China tries to invade or attack Taiwan,” Trump responded ominously, “China knows what I’m gonna do. China knows.” It was said in the defiant spirit of President George W. Bush’s response to the same question in 2001. He said he would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan — until his advisers explained away the comment into the diplomatic ethers of the foreign policy community.

Beijing does not yet know what the Biden administration is “gonna do” but it has reason to hope it will revive the strategic ambiguity contained in the Clinton administration’s response to the question in 1995: “We don’t know. … It would depend on the circumstances.”

Until it has to grapple with the China challenge in real time, the Biden team should be signaling Beijing that it should expect an approach more like Trump’s than Clinton’s. That will also go a long way toward boosting the morale of leaders such as Tsai and Zhang.

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 Barack Obama Biden foreign policy China aggression coronavirus pandemic Donald Trump Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Political status of Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen Zhang Zhan

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