Grading the Biden Administration’s Approach on China So Far
The Biden administration has done reasonably well in the opening stages of its approach to China. Within a couple of weeks of taking office, the president went to the Pentagon to announce that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin would conduct a review of China policy, which will be led by Ely Ratner, Austin’s well-respected chief adviser on China issues. We can hope that Austin’s review will recommend a muscular strategy.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first trip was to Asia, where he met with our most important allies. Then, just before the U.S.–China meeting in Alaska last month, the United States announced sanctions on about two dozen high-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials because of their involvement in the destruction of freedom in Hong Kong. In addition, America has joined other countries in protesting the closed trial and lack of due process for two Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were arrested two years ago on baseless espionage charges. Much like Iran, China is now engaging in a kind of hostage diplomacy.
These were promising initial moves, signaling that the meeting in Alaska was not the prelude to a Munich-like policy of appeasement toward Beijing. That was no doubt one of the reasons for the Chinese foreign minister’s 15-minute rant at the American delegation from across the table in Anchorage. The regime was broadcasting its displeasure that the new administration will evidently not kowtow to its demands.
In addition, the Biden administration has not yet shown any inclination for a broad retrenchment of the economic campaign mounted by the Trump administration against China’s “technonationalism toolbox,” which the CCP uses to subvert the global trading system and appropriate the technology and wealth of other nations.
In other words, the new administration has been pretty good so far on China. But “pretty good” isn’t nearly good enough. It might have been sufficient 15 years ago, or even ten years ago, but not anymore — not given the tremendous hard power that Beijing has amassed over the last 25 years and used with increasing brutality to enforce its sovereignty claims, bully its neighbors, and threaten the peace while flouting international law.
Here is a partial list of the elements in China’s military buildup:
The Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) has built the most impressive arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles in history, capable of attacking en masse American assets out to the second island chain, which extends in the western Pacific from Japan to Micronesia and includes Guam, and beyond. It is ahead of the United States in developing hypersonic missiles, which, once perfected and deployed, can defeat American missile defenses.
The PLA Navy (PLAN) is substantially larger than America’s navy; its vessels are modern, multi-mission ships strategically designed to advance China’s objectives in its near seas. West of Hawaii, PLAN ships outnumber the U.S. Navy by a ratio of five to one. Moreover, China has the biggest shipbuilding capacity in the world. It has demonstrated the capacity to produce up to two dozen naval vessels in a twelve-month period, and it could build at a higher rate if it wanted. The United States has lost half its naval shipbuilding capacity over the past 30 years and would struggle to build ten ships annually, even if the Navy had the funds to procure them. The PLAN is also busy developing its global-power-project capabilities. A decade ago, it was questionable whether China would seek to produce aircraft carriers; it is now completing its third carrier,estimated to displace 85,000 tons. Design of a fourth carrier is reported to have commenced in 2019.
The PLA Air Force is probably not yet as proficient as its American counterpart but it has a newer inventory of aircraft. In recent years it has introduced fifth-generation fighters and begun developing a B-2-like stealth bomber called the Xian H-20.
In terms of its space power, China is at least comparable with the United States. It has completed its own global-positioning system, called Beidou. It has an aggressive and expanding civilian space program that cross-serves and supports the PLA, and for a number of years it has had the capacity to attack America’s space architecture in every orbital plane. Only a few years ago, the PLA’s ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities were questionable, but it has moved swiftly and effectively to increase its capabilities in that area.
The PLA is modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal. While the exact number of warheads it possesses is not known with certainty, China continues to add rail- and road-mobile ICBM launchers and additional missile silos, and is improving its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
While the Chinese were comprehensively expanding and modernizing their forces, American capability was steadily declining, especially during the years 2013–18, when the disastrous defense sequester was in effect.
The United States is now outgunned, outmanned, and outranged in China’s near seas, especially within the crucial first island chain, the archipelagos nearest the coast of East Asia, extending from Japan to the Philippines. As a result, Beijing can to a large degree ignore world opinion, economic countermeasures, and reputational damage, and simply use coercion — the massing of maritime militia and coast-guard vessels backed by PLAN vessels — to seize territory and defend their territorial claims.
Which is exactly what the regime has been doing for almost a decade. China seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012; declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea in 2013; seized reefs in the international waters of the South China Sea, an area twice the size of Alaska; and began construction of substantial port facilities and airfields atop them beginning in 2013. China uses its coast-guard vessels, backed by PLAN ships, both to support Chinese companies in extracting resources from the territorial waters of other nations and to prevent their neighbors from accessing their own resources in the same waters. The PLA routinely sends ships and aircraft to violate the airspace and territorial waters of Japan and Taiwan, and last year used force to coerce India in its border disputes with that country.
All of these developments — along with Beijing’s mass incarceration of, and brutality against, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province and its occupation of Hong Kong — have been met with consistent diplomatic condemnation and, beginning with the Trump administration, the use of America’s economic power to impose costs on the regime. Those steps have pressured but not deterred it. In fact, Beijing has responded by turning to “wolf-warrior diplomacy” — sharpening the tone of its statements to make clear that reputational and economic costs will not prevent it from using force to achieve its objectives.
Or, as the Chinese ambassador to Sweden put it last year: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.”
So, while the Biden administration’s strong line with China to this point has been heartening, the real test, as Senator Mitch McConnell said last month, would come when the president sent his first defense budget to the Hill. The smart-money betting in Washington was that he would propose a freeze in the top line rather than the 3–5 percent increase (in real rather than nominal dollars) that the Department of Defense needs to continue the buildup begun by fits and starts under Trump.
On Friday, the administration released those top-line figures for the 2022 defense budget. Unfortunately, the smart money was right: It is not just a freeze but a slight real-dollar cut in defense spending.
This effectively undermines the administration’s diplomatic initiatives thus far. The civilian tools of national power are important, and in the long run can be decisive, as they were in the Cold War; but they need time and strength to work, and they will have neither unless America’s military posture in the region is muscular enough to deter Beijing from accomplishing its objectives through coercion and aggression.
As of now the U.S. posture is not muscular enough. The equilibrium of power in East Asia has been deranged, and if the military balance continues to shift in Beijing’s direction, all the good diplomacy and allied solidarity and economic constraints won’t be enough to restore it. The defense-budget reduction is a bad step in and of itself, and it’s an even worse sign that the Biden team, despite its rhetoric, hasn’t come to grips with the threat facing the United States and its allies in the Far East.
Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute. Lindsey Neas, a former Army armor officer, served for 15 years as a defense aide for several members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.