Last week, on the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War, Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered a fiery speech clearly intended to stoke fervent nationalism. Though he called it the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea,” the United Nations branded North Korea and China the aggressors for invading South Korea in 1950.
Xi’s target audience was not just domestic. He wanted to “let the world know that the Chinese people are not to be trifled with. … Once provoked, things will get ugly.” His message was clearly directed at America as it winds down its election campaign and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE belatedly tries to match President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE’s strong talk on China. Biden has said he will be “tougher” on China than Trump but “less confrontational,” without explaining what that means.
Xi is likely calculating that, once in office, Biden would follow the usual pattern of prior Democratic presidents. As candidates, they accused Republican incumbents of kowtowing to China but, once elected, adopted even weaker policies.
Challenging President George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE lambasted him for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” by assuring then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping after the Tiananmen Square massacre that U.S.-China relations would remain “business as usual.”
As president, however, Clinton went further than Bush in acceding to China’s demands on Taiwan, the most contentious issue roiling U.S.-China relations then, as now, by proclaiming the “Three Noes” to restrict Taiwan’s international space.
The opportunity to affirm a strong U.S. commitment to Taiwan came in 1995 when China opposed a U.S. visit by President Lee Teng-hui by firing missiles toward Taiwan. Clinton sent an aircraft carrier through the Strait and China strongly protested. Rather than asserting America’s rights under international law, Washington “explained” the transit as a weather diversion, implicitly conceding that China’s consent was required. That defensive mindset continued to inhibit U.S. transits until the Trump administration.
Chinese officials then asked Clinton's Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Nye what the U.S. would do if China attacked Taiwan. Instead of invoking the Taiwan Relations Act’s commitment to aid Taiwan’s self-defense, Nye said: “We don’t know. … It would depend on the circumstances.” That March, Taiwan held its first direct presidential election and China again lobbed missiles toward Taiwan. Clinton dispatched two carriers to the region. But when Beijing warned they would meet “a sea of fire,” Washington backed off and ordered them to stay out of the Strait.
One traumatized Clinton official later described the experience as “our own Cuba missile crisis; we had stared into the abyss.” And that was decades before China had built its anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarines. Xi knows that for today’s Democratic Party, even mentioning the possibility of using force is anathema.
Democratic administrations’ propensity for accommodating rather than confronting China was demonstrated again in 2012 when China occupied Scarborough Shoal, long recognized as within the Philippines' extended maritime domain. The Obama administration mediated an agreement for both sides to withdraw their forces. The Philippines complied, but China did not.
Although their mutual security agreement obligated Washington to assist the Philippines, the Obama administration did nothing, and China occupies that Philippines territory to this day. The event made a mockery of President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” announced in a 2011 speech to the Australian parliament. The event seriously damaged U.S. regional credibility, encouraging President Rodrigo Duterte to move Philippines policy closer to China and away from its U.S. treaty partner.
Jeffrey Prescott, who served on Obama’s National Security Council, recently said of Obama’s Asia policies, “The vice president was right in the middle of those strategic decisions.” Another question confronting the Obama team was: How should we treat Taiwan, given Beijing’s ongoing hostility? The answer of the Obama-Biden team: timidly and callously. Critically-needed F-16s and other weapons were not approved until the Trump administration came to power. And Obama-Biden joined Beijing in favoring Taiwan’s China-leaning President Ma Ying-jeou over challenger Tsai Ing-wen in 2012.
The Washington Post reported last week that a Tsai aide described her courtesy call with Obama officials as “traumatic.” Little wonder, then, that Tsai graciously called to congratulate Trump on his election in 2016. Not surprisingly, a last-minute campaign op-ed pledging stronger Biden relations with Taiwan has not erased doubts in Taiwan or expectations in China.
Even within the Obama administration, Biden stood out for his dovishness on national security. Obama himself said Biden opposed the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. And, while James ClapperJames Robert ClapperAfghanistan disaster puts intelligence under scrutiny Domestic security is in disarray: We need a manager, now more than ever Will Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan? MORE, Obama’s director of national intelligence, told the U.S. Senate that China is “America’s greatest mortal threat,” Biden said last week that China is less of a danger than Russia and is merely our “greatest competitor.” He has said Chinese leaders are “good folks, not out to eat our lunch,” but has never offered a word of criticism for China’s actions that led to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Instead, he has called Trump’s blocking of flights from China “xenophobia” and accused Trump of stirring “racism” against China.
Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously wrote in his 2014 memoir that Biden had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Given Biden's faulty grasp of national security issues and his record on China, it would not be surprising if Xi and his colleagues welcomed Biden’s election — and the return of Clinton- and Obama-era policies that strengthened China’s geostrategic position over the past three decades.
For China’s Communist Party, it is imperative to see the end of the Trump presidency, the first U.S. administration to stand up to China's aggressive assault on the values and interests of the free world. In China's view, the Biden-Harris promise of a return to “normalcy” undoubtedly would mean business as usual for Beijing and would suit Xi’s “China Dream.”
The pandemic stopped Trump’s trade offensive and China’s reform opening in their tracks. It also reversed Trump’s impressive economic performance and booming reelection prospects. Biden surely must appreciate Beijing’s unsolicited assistance.
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.