How will Xi Jinping respond to the Biden administration’s efforts to “recalibrate” relations, and what impact will this have on Australia’s geostrategic posture?
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden met virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss a number of points of contention, with the aim of easing hostilities between the major powers.
The relationship between the nations has continued to deteriorate, with the recent spike in military activity over Taiwan’s air defence identification zone sparking fears of an imminent confrontation.
According to Ben Scott, director of Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute, the meeting signalled a “recalibration” of the Biden administration’s policy towards China.
Scott claims the administration has changed its emphasis from ‘Great Power’ competition to ‘strategic’ competition, aimed at establishing “guardrails”.
He points to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent address to the Lowy Institute, in which he called for “effective and healthy” competition.
“When someone as intelligent and articulate as Sullivan uses such unclear language, it indicates a genuinely hard policy conundrum,” he writes in a piece originally published by the AFR.
“On the one hand, the US sees China as an economic, military and even ideological threat that must be countered. On the other hand, it needs to co-operate with China on a range of global issues, crucially climate change.
“… The more immediate goal is to prevent competition escalating into catastrophic conflict.”
But Scott does not expect to Beijing to respond in kind.
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He claims there is “little evidence” China is also seeking guardrails, with President Xi declining President Biden’s invitation to meet in person, and only agreeing to a virtual meeting after Washington had “shown willingness to compromise” through the deal to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
“Beijing probably views Washington’s quest for stability as a sign of weakness and it may suspect that ‘guardrails’ is just code for maintenance of the US-dominated ‘status quo’,” Scott continues.
“From Beijing’s perspective, it makes perfect sense that the Biden administration would eventually come to realise the need to cooperate with the emerging great power.
“Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama all promised to get tough on China before having similar realisations once they were governing.”
The Biden administration, he adds, must carefully consider how it plans to compete and co-operate with President Xi’s regime while also avoiding linkages between co-operation on transnational issues and bilateral relations.
At the same time, the US must advocate for “responsible competition” without showing signs of weakness.
Scott goes on to note the important of US-China relations in shaping Australia’s ties with China.
“The resumption of US-China dialogue puts the absence of Australia-China talks in starker relief. The onus is on Australian diplomats to make themselves heard as Washington balances competing objectives,” he observes.
“Australia would benefit from a US approach to China that is less confrontational than Trump’s, and less accommodating than Obama’s.
“A ‘goldilocks’ US policy would counter the security threats posed by China while creating more space for economic co-operation, including restored Australia-China trade.”
However, the Lowy Institute analyst warns that a Biden-Xi consensus could freeze Australia out of economic engagement.
“US promises that Australia wouldn’t be ‘left alone on the field’ in the face of Chinese economic coercion have yet to translate into concrete action,” Scott continues.
“And Biden’s recent announcement that the US would ‘explore with partners the development of an Indo-Pacific economic framework’ lacks detail.”
As such, Scott suggests Australia back the “collective approach” to China, by leveraging “minilateral” groupings — including the Quad and AUKUS — and larger, multilateral groupings focused on establishing an international rules-based order.
But efforts to preserve the existing rules-based order no longer suffice, he claims, with recent developments in US-China relations suggesting the existing order is “no longer fit for purpose”.
“This is especially true in the Indo-Pacific, where development of regional institutions has not kept pace with the challenges,” Scott writes.
“More work is needed to build a regional order designed neither to exclude nor accommodate China, but which promotes prosperity, constrains power and is seen as legitimate.”
He claims US membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) would be a step in the right direction.
“The fact that China now seeks membership of an agreement that Obama once described as necessary to prevent China from writing ‘the rules of the global economy’ should help spur Washington to action,” Scott adds.
“But more effort is also needed to reconcile the existing ASEAN-based regional architecture with the new groupings such as the Quad and AUKUS.”