From late May to early June, I made my first business trip to the U.S. in two years and two months. I had the pleasure of meeting again with China experts and other friends whom I had met several times a year on a regular basis before the outbreak of COVID-19 and exchanged opinions with them mainly on recent U.S.-China relations.
I was saddened to find out that several restaurants which I had visited every time I made a business trip to the United States had closed over the past two years, but what broke my heart even more was the realization that U.S.-China relations had deteriorated further.
Some of friends in the economic field, who had previously been relatively neutral, came to take a critical stance toward China.
Many China experts say that with more than a year and four months having passed since its inauguration, the Joe Biden administration still lacks a vision for its policy vis-à-vis China.
The administration has pointed out China’s problems but has not presented a medium- to long-term China strategy which clarifies what kind of policy it intends to adopt to deal with these problems.
The root cause of the escalation of the U.S.-China conflict is that both countries are attaching importance to securing public support in domestic politics and accordingly, are taking an increasingly hawkish stance toward the other.
U.S.-China relations are unlikely to improve unless the two countries correct their current inward-looking attitude. Without finding the opportunity to do so, they are increasingly confronted with each other.
China has originally lacked an understanding of the domestic politics, foreign policy, economy and society of the U.S. and other Western countries mainly because its own political system differs from the democratic political systems of advanced Western countries.
By contrast, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China in 1979, many scholars of international politics and experts in the U.S. have studied China, have openly exchanged opinions with reliable Chinese friends, and have had a deep understanding of China’s domestic politics, foreign policy, and economic and social situation.
However, this has changed dramatically in recent years.
A shift from the previous reconciliatory stance toward China to a tough stance began in the latter half of the Barack Obama administration. The subsequent Donald Trump administration adopted a full-fledged hawkish policy toward China.
The Biden administration has also inherited the Trump administration’s hard line against China.
In particular, since the beginning of 2022, China’s adherence to a zero-COVID policy that lacks rationality and the closer ties between China and Russia vis-a-vis the invasion of Ukraine by the latter have further heightened anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S.
With midterm elections scheduled for this autumn, the campaigning has already begun in the U.S.
Conscious of the fact that more than 80% of the U.S. public has become anti-Chinese after the Russia-Ukraine war, all parties are sharing views emphasizing a tough stance toward China in their election campaigns.
China is, meanwhile, scheduled to hold its 20th Party Congress (National Congress of the Communist Party of China) this autumn, which is forecast to re-elect President Xi Jinping for a historic third term.
In order to make this re-election politically smoother, China is also maintaining its hawkish stance and pursuing its Wolf Warrior Diplomacy toward the U.S. with a strong awareness of domestic nationalism.
Given this inward-looking diplomatic attitude currently taken by the two countries, there seems to be very little chance of compromise between them through dialogue for some time to come.
Amid escalation of the U.S.-China feud, an increasing number of people in the U.S. argue that it is time to abandon “strategic ambiguity,” which has defined U.S. policy vis-à-vis China since the establishment of diplomatic relations between them, and to shift to “strategic clarity.”
The “strategic ambiguity” refers to the ambiguous posture of U.S. forces in defending Taiwan in the event that China attempts to unify Taiwan by force. The intent is as follows:
If the U.S. military states clearly that it will defend Taiwan, it will increase the likelihood that Taiwan will try to become independent, relying on U.S. military backing. This could provoke China and trigger a U.S.-China war.
On the other hand, if the U.S. military makes it clear that it will not defend Taiwan, it will lower the hurdle for China to unify Taiwan by force.
As seen above, the U.S. military declaring either of these stances could have a negative effect to U.S. efforts to avoid armed conflict with China.
For this reason, the U.S. has so far maintained an ambiguous stance concerning Taiwan’s defense.
Since this has the effect of deterring both China and Taiwan, it is referred to as “dual deterrence.”
Recently, however, some people have begun to raise objections to this stance. Although still in the minority at the moment, they argue that the conventional strategic ambiguity should be abandoned and Washington should pledge to defend Taiwan.
This is based on the view that unless the U.S. clearly states that it will defend Taiwan, it may increasingly be unable to deter China from unifying Taiwan by force.
For now, the Biden administration is unlikely to adopt this strategy. Nevertheless, the number of supporters for the view appears to be growing steadily.
Some members of the U.S. Congress advocating a shift to strategic clarity have reportedly argued that U.S. Navy battleships should be sent to Taiwan and joint U.S.-Taiwan military exercises should be implemented.
Some of those making such arguments envision the following scenario:
By supporting Taiwan independence, the U.S. will provoke China to launch a military invasion of Taiwan, which will subsequently isolate China from the rest of the world, just as Russia has been isolated after its invasion of Ukraine;
If this happens, the Chinese economy will suffer a major setback, and China’s economic growth rate will drop significantly, as many foreign companies will either withdraw from, or reduce their investments in the Chinese market.
This will enable the U.S. to maintain its economic superiority over China and ensure the security of U.S. hegemony.
At the moment, there are more people in the U.S. who are against provoking Beijing because the U.S. just withdrew military troops from Afghanistan last summer and Americans are largely tired of war.
However, provocations against China have in fact continued, as can be seen by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments to advocate independence of Taiwan.
In response, Beijing has repeatedly sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, and tensions between the two countries over Taiwan remain unpredictable.
On May 13, the National Broadcasting Company of the U.S. provided online a wargame of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan and a U.S. military counterattack, which was run by U.S. military experts.
The simulation began with Beijing’s decision to invade Taiwan and Chinese forces making preemptive missile attacks on U.S. military bases in Japan on day one.
According to a U.S. military expert, U.S. military bases in Japan targeted for missile attacks include Yokota, Yokosuka, Kadena and Futenma. He expects Japanese civilian casualties from these attacks to amount to tens to hundreds of people.
Security experts in both Japan and the U.S. share a common view that in the event of a Taiwan contingency, there is a strong probability that mainland Japan would be drawn into the war and the Self-Defense Forces would join it.
This is the nature of the risks posed by Japan acting in accordance with the U.S. policy of provoking China. The U.S. expects Japan to act in concert with the U.S. military operations, but the Japanese people are still unaware of the risks and unprepared to take them on.
As far as I know, the majority of China experts in the U.S. are critical to the government maintaining this provocative attitude toward China.
They argue that Washington should focus on preventing a U.S.-China war, and that there are still things to be done to de-escalate tensions between the two countries.
They are harsh in their evaluation of the Biden administration’s policy vis-à-vis China, claiming that the administration just repeats its statement opposing Taiwan independence and is not striving to adequately control the risks of the Taiwan issue as described above.
One of the main reasons for this is that the administration exaggerates the threat from China and pursues a hawkish approach based on it. Specifically, the administration argues the following:
1) China is endeavoring to replace the U.S. as the global hegemon;
2) China will unify Taiwan by force by 2027;
3) President Xi Jinping has secured a life-time position like an emperor; and
4) Beijing has changed its policy and decided to suppress private enterprises.
None of these arguments is 100% incorrect, but it cannot be said that they are highly probable. They are so poorly grounded that they cannot be used as premises for national policymaking.
For example, the argument 2) is said to be mentioned in a U.S. Department of Defense’s report.
However, when asked about the grounds for his argument by a Chinese expert, the author of the report is reported to have replied, “It is because 2027 marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army. However, I did not assert it, but merely stated that it was one possibility.”
Having read this government document, Philip Davidson, former commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, publicly stated that China could invade Taiwan by 2027.
In response, this has become the premise of discussions in the U.S. Congress regarding policy toward China, intensifying anti-Chinese sentiment.
Even within the U.S., China experts have criticized this exaggeration of the China threat opinion.
However, the government and Congress do not listen to such level-headed opinions, and it is becoming common for them to discuss policy toward China based on the exaggerated China threat opinion.
It is agreed that this is largely because people in Washington, D.C., a special political city of the U.S., cannot put the brakes on the hard line against China owing to the echo chamber effect (see Note).
*Note: An echo chamber refers to situations in which people with similar views gather and affirm each other’s views, thereby assuming that their views are correct and amplifying or reinforcing specific views. As a result, it becomes easier to justify the exclusion of different views.
It has been pointed out that these arguments continue in the government and Congress owing to the lack of true China experts among government brains responsible for the formulation of policy toward China.
All of the people at the core of the Trump administration who planned and formulated a policy toward China were anti-Chinese. The same goes for the Biden administration.
As U.S. policy management has become more politicized than before, China experts must be anti-Chinese in the first place to get a government job.
With this in mind, young scholars of international politics wishing to work for the government tend to publish academic papers from an anti-Chinese perspective.
Because such individuals are watched out by Beijing, it is difficult for them to build connections with key persons of the Chinese government.
It is not surprising that government officials of any country would not be willing to openly exchange views with experts who harbor hostility toward their country.
Against this backdrop, there are no information channels within the Biden administration which help it to understand what Beijing is really thinking.
Even the high-level communication channels between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and the former U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and the former U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer that functioned during the Trump administration remain disconnected.
Consequently, having no way to verify the scenarios it hypothesizes and speculates about, the Biden administration cannot revise its assumptions about China.
This structural flaw of the administration is a serious problem.
As a result, it continues to plan and formulate a policy toward China based on the exaggerated China threat opinion.
Furthermore, China’s hawkish stance toward the U.S., as witnessed by its Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, has enhanced the sense of caution on the part of the U.S., and is being used by the U.S. to justify the China threat opinion.
Concerned about the escalating U.S.-China conflict mentioned above, several China experts in the U.S. who call on the government to avoid a war with China told me that they were expecting Japan to play an active role.
In order to mitigate the conflict between the two countries, it is important not to implement foreign and security policy based on a zero-sum relationship, but to take an economic approach based on a win-win relationship.
For example, a U.S. think tank, the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), reported that to fight current inflation, the U.S. should consider reducing import tariffs on Chinese products, as it would deliver a decline in U.S. consumer price index inflation of 1.3 percentage points.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has endorsed the idea, as have many experts.
That being said, the general consensus is that the Biden administration will not reduce the tariffs in consideration of the anti-free trade sentiments of the electorate in the three states (Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania) that are critical to winning the midterm elections.
As long as this inward-looking diplomacy continues, it will be difficult to revive dialogue channels between the U.S. and China.
In light of this situation, China experts in the U.S. told me that they were expecting Japan to take a more active leadership role in Japan-Europe cooperation, especially middle power cooperation led by the three countries of Japan, Germany and France.
That is, he is expecting middle powers to work together to mitigate U.S.-China tensions.
A prominent China expert said that he hoped the Japanese government would advise the Biden administration to “do more, say less” (i.e., the U.S. should be more proactive in reaching out to China and refrain from making provocative statements against China).
There are growing expectations for the Japanese government to play a leadership role, as it is in a position to serve as an intermediary between the U.S. and China.