President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Asia and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s May 26 speech on China were both meant to communicate the same message: Although determined to help the Ukrainians resist Russian aggression in Europe, the administration remains equally committed to curbing China’s rise in Asia. “Even as President Putin’s war continues,” Blinken declared, “we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order—and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.” Determined to demonstrate toughness and leadership in the struggle to subdue Beijing, as it is in the struggle to subdue Moscow, the administration is working to encircle China with an unbreakable chain of military bases and US–armed allies—a strategy that is bound to encounter opposition from some regional actors and could result in a major, even a nuclear, war.
Curbing China’s rise was cited as the Biden administration’s top foreign policy goal from its first days in office. Washington’s ultimate goal, an interim White House “Strategic Guidance” of March 2021 avowed, was “to prevail in strategic competition with China.” This meant, it noted, building up US military forces in Asia and “bolstering and defending our unparalleled network of allies and partners,” including Taiwan. These priorities largely governed US foreign policy throughout 2021.
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. From the very moment that Russian columns began their assault on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, President Biden and his staff began working to secure European support for harsh economic sanctions on Moscow and to speed the delivery of arms and ammunition to the Ukrainian military. But even when engaged in those efforts, Biden made it clear that his support for Ukraine was not aimed solely at enhancing European security but was part of a global effort, intended to protect American values and interests against a perceived challenge from a nexus of hostile, antidemocratic regimes.
“We [have] emerged anew in the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force,” he declared in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26. This would not be a short-term battle, limited to the conflict in Ukraine. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul,” he affirmed. “We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come.”
For senior officials in Washington, there can be no doubt that Biden’s vision of a world divided along ideological lines—with democracies on one side and autocracies on the other—places China alongside Russia, Iran, and other states said to be enemies of the “rules-based order.” But some in Washington have alleged that the White House has been so preoccupied with Ukraine and Europe that it has been neglecting its pledge to make containment of China its top priority. To counter those claims, and advance its program for isolating China, President Biden spent five days in Asia at the end of May, stopping in Seoul and Tokyo.
Biden’s trip garnered its greatest media attention for a supposed “gaffe” he made during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on May 23. When asked by a reporter, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it comes to that?” he answered, “Yes.… That’s the commitment we made.”
Biden’s simple answer, “Yes,” triggered headlines around the world ,because no US president has ever issued such a guaranty before and, in fact, there is no US “commitment” to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion—only a vague statement, incorporated into the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, that Washington will view any attempt by China to seize Taiwan by military means as a matter “of grave concern to the United States.”
Barely before Biden had finished uttering these words, senior officials in Washington were walking back his statement in Tokyo, saying there was “no change” in US policy—only a pledge to help the Taiwanese defend themselves by supplying them with advanced arms and military equipment.
But this is not the first time Biden has suggested that the United States is prepared to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf. When asked by Anderson Cooper of CNN last October whether the US would defend Taiwan if attacked by China, Biden said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Moreover, reading through the lines of other official statements, it appears that Washington’s stance on Taiwan has, in fact, shifted, from a “one China” policy, which views the island as being inextricably linked to the mainland, to one that perceives it as a vital link in the US-led military network being installed around China.
“[Let me explain] why Taiwan’s security is so important to the United States,” said Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-China security affairs, in testimony last December before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain [incorporating Japan and the Philippines], anchoring a network of US allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
Herein lie the key concepts driving US policy toward China and Asia: the establishment of a “network” of US-armed allies encircling China in a giant arc from Japan and South Korea in the north to Indonesia and Australia to the south, and with Taiwan serving as a “critical node” in the middle. It is largely in pursuit of this master plan that Biden spent those five days in Asia.
On the first leg of his journey, Biden met with President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, a conservative just elected to that position. In contrast to his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, Yoon favors a harsh stance toward North Korea and support for US efforts to encircle China, making Biden’s task far easier. Biden also encountered a friendly ear in Tokyo, where he met with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, another conservative recently arrived in office. Both officials signaled support for Biden’s plans to establish“ a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” as Yoon put it during a May 21 press conference with Biden.
The highpoint of the trip, however, was a summit meeting of the “Quad”—a quasi-military alliance of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States aimed at curbing China’s rise. Joining Kishida and Biden in Tokyo on May 24 for the summit were Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and the newly minted prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese. It was here that Biden spelled out his long-term goal of a NATO-like alliance system for Asia, in opposition to China.
“That’s what this is about: democracies versus autocracies,” he said in public comments following the summit. Just as in Europe, he explained, democracy, the rule of law, and territorial integrity are endangered in Asia—there by Russia, here by China. In response, “the United States must and will be strong, steady, and an enduring partner in the Indo-Pacific. We are in the Indo-Pacific…we are an Indo-Pacific power.”
Secretary Blinken expanded on these themes in his Georgetown University address of May 26. “We do not seek [conflict with China],” he asserted. “We will seek to avoid it. But we will defend our interests against any threat.” He then went on to describe the measures the administration was taking to bolster US military capabilities in the western Pacific—measures than can only be viewed as highly threatening by Beijing and so inspire comparable Chinese countermoves, producing a recurring risk of military engagement and escalation.
Blinken also spoke of the administration’s ambitions for the Quad and its intent to lure other Indo-Pacific nations into a close military and economic embrace with Washington. This does not mean that the nations of Asia had to “choose” between China and the West, he went on to say—while clearly suggesting otherwise. “It’s about giving them a choice, so that, for example, the only option isn’t an opaque investment that leaves countries in debt, stokes corruption, harms the environment, fails to create local jobs or growth, and compromises countries’ exercise of their sovereignty”—all obvious references to China.
As an alternative to China’s tainted development model, Biden and Blinken offered the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a vague grab bag of aspirational initiatives. Some 13 countries joined the framework when its formation was announced by Biden in Tokyo on May 23. But it is unclear that all of those countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have any intention of ceasing their trade with Beijing or, for that matter, joining in a military alliance aimed at encircling and stifling China. And Prime Minister Albanese of Australia, in his remarks following the Quad summit, stated, “We will act in recognition that climate change is the main economic and security challenge for the island countries of the Pacific”—hardly an endorsement of the Biden-Blinken line on containing China.
At some point—probably not too distant from now—Russia and Ukraine will commence serious negotiations and the fighting will come to an end. At that time, the Biden administration is likely to revert to the status quo ante, with its all-hands-on-deck drive to contain China. This could prove to be a very dangerous time—even more dangerous than the current situation in Europe—especially if Washington heightens tensions over Taiwan. Wise heads and extreme caution will be required under these circumstances to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a deeply divided, conflict-prone world.