Intensification of Sino-US strategic competition and regional security

By Zhao Minghao, Senior Fellow, Center for American Studies – Fudan University

In 2022, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th national congress as the US gears up for midterm congressional elections. With neither Washington nor Beijing wanting to concede weakness at key times on their domestic political calendars, Zhao Minghao argues the next year is likely to see intensified Sino-US rivalry.

When the Biden administration came to power, Beijing had hoped that it would help ease the tension in Sino-US relations. As China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in January 2021, “China-US relations have come to a new crossroads, and a new window of hope is opening.” However, things did not develop as Beijing expected. The Biden administration has pushed the strategic competition between China and the United States to a new stage, featuring aspects like the “position of strength” and “stiff competition”. China also worked hard to create a new approach toward handling its relations with the United States. In September 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, addressed the opening of a training session for young and middle-aged officials at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee. Xi emphasised that it was important to “cast away illusions and dare to struggle.” Undoubtedly, the rising tensions in Sino-US relations will have a significant impact on the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

In the past few years, the Trump administration promoted fundamental adjustments in US strategy towards China, centred on the notion of “great power competition”. From Beijing’s point view, many measures taken by the Trump administration amounted to declaring a “new cold war”. The Biden administration, which came to power on 20 January 2021, similarly viewed Sino-US relations from the perspective of “great power competition.” US President Biden made it crystal clear that China is America’s “most serious competitor”. He vowed to engage in “extreme competition” and “long-term strategic competition” with China from a “position of strength”. It is worth pointing out that, as a Democrat, Biden’s concept of competition against China has a strong ideological connotation. He characterised Sino- US competition as a contest between democracy and autocracy.

However, China’s top leadership did not buy that. They could not accept a unilateral American decision to regard competition as the defining feature of Sino-US relations. In addition, phrases like “position of strength” sound very insulting to Chinese ears, especially as they tend to believe that China is “on the right side of history”. In March 2021, Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi angrily told his American counterpart that “there is no way to strangle China”. In response to human rights accusations from the US side, Yang stated, “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.” Most Chinese analysts believe that America would actually become more divided and inward-looking during Biden’s presidency. US performance in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the democrats version of the “America First” doctrine pursued by the Biden administration, among many other un-America policies, fail to convince Chinese that the United State has, or can build, a position of strength.

Moreover, Sino-US divergences on the international order seems to be more salient. In March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” In Beijing’s view, the Biden administration aspired to forge a US-led bloc and advance coalition-driven competition with China. On many occasions this year, Xi Jinping has talked about the concept of “genuine multilateralism”. It can be viewed as a response to the Biden administration’s call for a rules-based international order. Xi was clear: “There is only one system in the world, and that is the international system with the United Nations at its core. There is only one order, and that is the international order based on international law. There is only one set of rules, and that is the basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

In response to America’s competitive strategy toward China, Beijing is exploring a new approach to handling its more tense relations with Washington. In July 2021, when Wang Yi met with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Tianjin of China, he underlined three basic demands as bottom-lines on how to effectively manage differences and prevent China-US relations from spiralling out of control. The first is that the United States must not challenge, slander or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The second is that the United States must not attempt to obstruct or interrupt China’s development process. The third is that the United States must not infringe upon China’s state sovereignty, or even damage China’s territorial integrity. Moreover, the Chinese side presented Sherman with two lists: the “List of US Wrongdoings that Must Stop” and the “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With.” These actions actually confirmed China’s new thinking and approach toward Sino-US relations.

In the same month as the Wang- Sherman meeting, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its 100th anniversary in Beijing. In his speech at that event, Xi Jinping warned that foreign powers will “get their heads bashed” if they attempt to bully or influence the country. As always, domestic politics is the key driving force of Sino-US relations. In the autumn of 2022, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 20th National Party Congress. Beijing can be expected to be most determined to avoid any signs of weakness when facing pressure from the United States. Similarly, the 2022 midterm elections will be a bitter political battle for Biden and other Democrats. They will not show a stance of detente to China, which may damage the already limited political capital between the two states. We can expect to witness intensifying Sino-US rivalry in 2022. More tit- for-tat practices could lead to more fluctuations in China-US relations.

The Indo-Pacific has been the central arena for Sino-US strategic competition, though Beijing and Moscow still prefer the concept of Asia-Pacific. Kurt Campbell, Ely Ratner and other core members of the Biden administration’s China policy team are eminent Asia hands. Washington envisions a more networked regional security architecture, combined with “integrated deterrence” against China, to maintain US primacy. The Biden administration upgraded the Quad mechanism, including its first face-to-face summit in October 2021. The four countries—Australia, Japan, India, and the United States—have set up several working groups to push forward with collaboration on protecting advanced technologies, safeguarding sources of rare earth metals and reshaping supply chains. The Quad countries conducted the Malabar naval exercises in August. The live weapon firing drills, anti- surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare drills, together with joint manoeuvers and tactical exercises, sent a message to China that the Quad is likely to also develop its military cohesion. Beijing has worried about the possibility of an Asian version of NATO based on the Quad.

Quad Malabar exercises
Quad nations participate in Malabar exercises in the Western Pacific - August 26-29, 2021. Image credit: Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force, @JMSDF_PAO, Twitter.

The Biden administration is also working hard to forge a “Quad-plus” mechanism, pushing more allies and partners to join the bloc. South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam are all potential recruits in Washington’s eyes. The Moon Jae-in administrationhas avoided putting South Korea in the middle of a strategic contest between the US and China, but elections in March 2022 could bring a new, more pro-American president to Seoul. The Biden administration is also trying to get European countries such as Britain and France to become part of the “Quad plus.” In particular, Britain is substantially strengthening its security ties with Japan and other Quad members by permanently deploying warships in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese strategists are even more alarmed by the Biden administration’s push to extend NATO’s area of interest to include the Indo-Pacific region.

However, the Biden administration still appeared to view the Quad as a thin grouping, which could not reliably deter China. AUKUS—a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States—was established in September 2021. This arrangement centred on military deterrence and was considered by Beijing to be the embodiment of the “new Cold War” mindset in Washington. Australia would not only possess at least 8 nuclear-powered submarines with support of the United States and the United Kingdom by 2040, but also host American fighters, bombers and advanced missiles on its territory. Although the Australian government claimed that it does not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, Canberra’s decision may encourage more countries to exploit this loophole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Australia has been a pivotal actor in mitigating the tension between China and several members of the US-led alliance system. However, the AUKUS partnership has convinced Beijing that Canberra is determined to choose the pathway of hostility. As James Curran, professor at the University of Sydney said, it is “the biggest strategic gamble in Australian history”. The Morrison administration ostentatiously declared a “forever partnership” with the United States, but it opens the way for Australia to be involved in military conflicts with China. Besides China, ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced deep concerns over the AUKUS, as heralding a new wave of arms racing and a more hostile region. Dino Patti Djalal, former Indonesian ambassador to the United States said, “The picture is one of three Anglo-Saxon countries drumming up militarily in the Indo- Pacific region”, “The worry is that this will spark an untimely arms race, which the region does not need now, nor in the future.” Southeast Asia countries are worried that AUKUS and the Quad will erode ASEAN’s “centrality” in regional affairs.

The Biden administration’s Indo- Pacific Strategy tends to put more emphasis on military affairs. Yet the real challenge to regional countries lies in the economic downturn and non-traditional security fields. The COVID-19 pandemic makes these challenges more prominent and urgent. The Biden administration has launched a “diplomatic offensive” toward regional countries. President Biden joined the virtual US-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit, announcing plans to provide up to $102 million to empower the US strategic partnership with ASEAN. Senior administration officials have made frequent visits to Asia. However, Washington is still bound by domestic populism and economic nationalism, and it lacks effective economic instruments. The US “position of strength” in the region is far from what it has imagined.

On the other hand, Beijing seems to be quite clear about where the key arena of great power competition is located. It realises that the magic weapon for the long game between China and the United States lies in sustaining and expanding its economic integration with regional countries. China ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in March 2021. In September, China officially applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP). All CPTTP parties, including Japan and Australia have a veto on new membership. China is presumed to have incentives to improve relations with these countries. In November, China also proposed to be part of the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), which was signed by Singapore, New Zealand and Chile in June 2020. The United States remains outside all these economic pacts.

The Taiwan issue is undoubtedly the wild card in the Sino-US strategic competition and the security of the wider region. In August and October, US President Joe Biden said the US would defend Taiwan if Mainland China attacked. These public statements constituted a dramatic departure from the long- held American policy of “strategic ambiguity” over the Taiwan issue. Beijing accused Washington of sending “wrong signals” to Taiwan. Although the White House and US Department of State insist that America’s one-China policy has not changed, Beijing is preparing for a big storm across the Taiwan Strait. In late October, Wang Yi met with Antony Blinken in Rome. He told his American counterpart that “the Taiwan issue is the most sensitive issue between China and the United States. If it is handled wrongly, it will cause subversive and overall damage to bilateral ties.”

As the Economist declared, Taiwan has become “the world’s most dangerous place.” In March, Adm. Phil Davidson, then US Indo- Pacific Command chief, said that an attack on Taiwan may happen as early as 2027. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in July 2021 when referencing the Taiwan issue, “We will not flinch when our interests are threatened, yet we do not seek confrontation.” The Biden administration has been operationalising US commitments to Taiwan and reinforcing US-Taiwan military ties, including conducting monthly US warship patrols in the Taiwan Strait, enhancing arms sales to the island and deploying US special forces to train Taiwan’s forces. In October, Antony Blinken advocated a greater role for Taiwan at the United Nations. In response, mainland China apparently increased its military activities across the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army reportedly sent nearly 200 aircraft to locations near Taiwan for exercises in October 2021. Obviously, the Taiwan issue has become the frontline of Sino-US rivalry, and the risks of fatal conflict in the coming years should not be underestimated. The tension over the Taiwan issue must have enduring spill-over effects on regional security, and all parties need to find ways to prevent the “war” transitioning from cold to hot.

Dr Zhao Minghao is Senior Fellow, Center for American Studies, Fudan University; Adjunct Senior Fellow, the Charhar Institute of China.

Banner image: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the Eastern Economic Forum, Vladivostok, Russia - September 2018. Credit: Alexander Khitrov, Shutterstock.

This article was first published in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific’s Regional Security Outlook 2022.