Washington Insights Vol. 9, No. 3
All eyes were on the Biden administration in the first half of 2021. Through the winter it was ramping up through personnel decisions. From mid-March to late May it was unveiling its Indo-Pacific policy direction through summitry. The main focus turned during the first half of June to linking Europe to Asia although Russian policy was also a center of attention. Yet only glimmers of a grand strategy had been revealed. What was apparent was the quest for a far-reaching and long-lasting approach, reflecting the administration’s awareness of China’s grand strategy. The debate about China’s grand strategy and the appropriate response intensified after the summits in Europe, fueled especially by publication of Biden’s China advisor Rush Doshi’s The Long Game, which is reviewed below.
Joe Biden’s June summits in Europe brought many foreign policy questions to the fore. It raised curiosity about allied coordination over China, how US-Russia relations would proceed after the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva, and how these meetings reflected the Indo-Pacific strategy that Biden had been carefully unwinding over the previous months. Now that Wendy Sherman had visited Southeast Asia and Jake Sullivan had exercised more direct control of Russia policy, the Kurt Campbell Asia choreography had morphed into administration-wide Euro-Asian action with questions about linkages, especially regarding responses to Sino-Russia relations, India’s choice, threats to Taiwan, and South Korea’s role beyond bilateral success at the Biden-Moon summit.
Clarity on Putin’s intentions after Geneva was one of the highest priorities. For a few, this meant looking back to 2011-12 and the abandonment of the reset with Obama. Some officials in Washington had been slow to awaken to the repudiation of Medvedev’s modernization and multilateralism in Asia to be enshrined at the Vladivostok APEC summit. Even the invasion of Crimea and the further aggression in Ukraine did not change their minds that Russia and China are divided over critical issues, but, ironically, in the Trump era of differentiation at the top of US thinking about China and Russia, consensus was reached at lower levels that their binds are tight. Even if Biden and Putin should claim some stabilization of relations based on a new round of strategic talks, the root cause of Putin’s decision to side with China and treat the US as the enemy remains: a belief that democracies are a threat to his authoritarianism, that the US and Europe are the forces standing in the way of a Russian sphere of influence over the former Soviet republics, and that Sino-Russian closeness is the pathway to a renewed strategic triangle. This understanding had spread inside the US government under Obama and also in think tanks.
After the Biden-Putin summit, there was interest in how Russian thinking about the Indo-Pacific might be changing. If as Putin acknowledged, the US had shown some respect toward Russia, then did the all-out demonization and obsession with a US threat still apply? If the US was now preoccupied with a “cold war” with China, could Russia position itself to extract some gains as an outside party? Was it finally time to reposition Russia to avoid India concluding that it was so close to China that the Indo-Russian special relationship could not be sustained? Biden’s Russian gambit had not appeared to change much to most observers or to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, but it at least raised some questions inside Russia about the wisdom of narrowly adhering to the same approach, which was not paying many dividends.
Tokyo and Seoul were slow to accept this reasoning about China and Russia. For Seoul, it was a matter of sustaining even the slightest hope for Russian diplomatic cooperation on Pyongyang. This mattered little to Washington since ROK-Russian diplomacy was mostly aspirational. Abe’s courting of Putin was more annoying to the Obama administration when G7 sanctions were at issue in 2014-16, but Trump took no interest. As Suga seeks to keep alive the Abe legacy with Putin, this could become a more serious problem. Already Japan has joined in some gestures in opposition to recent Russian bad behavior, but, in his weak political position, Suga is reluctant to drop one of Abe’s principal diplomatic claims that Japan was progressing in its Russian ties. Remarkably, Japanese publications have failed to conduct an autopsy of this failed illusion or built a consensus on how the US alliance and Euro-Japanese cooperation may require more. If after the Biden-Putin summit, Russia resumes its aggressive behavior and US responses harden accompanied by greater expectations for allies, Suga is likely—in response to the much tighter Japan-US alliance, Japan’s new pursuit of security closeness with Europe, and the reality of how Russia is treating Japan and siding with China—to separate himself from Abe’s Putin legacy.
India’s shock in the summer of 2020 over China’s sudden aggression in the Himalayas continues to reverberate. Within months it resonated in a new Indian tone on China at the Quad foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo. With alacrity, the Biden administration welcomed the Indian stance at the March virtual Quad summit. Meanwhile, Russia strove to contain the damage—given its own negative outlook on the Quad and desire to boost Russo-Chinese-Indian triangularity. Yet the absence of an open Russian debate on what had transpired and the fallout for Russia’s regional strategy is telling. If some distance were to open between Moscow and Beijing, it would likely be first signaled in a debate over India—a country second only to China in Russian thinking about multipolarity and great power balancing. Russian silence is conspicuous.
Taiwan is the single biggest issue in Japan-China relations as well as US-China relations. Focus has concentrated on “strategic ambiguity” as if a US decision to abandon that phrasing would be key to how events unfold. Actually, the framework over more than four decades has been acceptance of PRC-Taiwan relations without coercion and of Chinese soft power to the extent it was employed but intolerance for the use of force or threat of force to reach Beijing’s goals. As China has set soft power aside and increased pressure on Taiwan, the consensus is to push back without dropping the concept of “strategic ambiguity.” Japan is also proceeding with language from a different era while preparing for greater likelihood that it will be entangled on the US side in increased military tensions over Taiwan. Following the overwhelmingly successful Suga-Biden summit, a main concern in Japan has been how it will be pressed on Taiwan policy. Yet
US-Japan agreement on China is the foundation of the unprecedented closeness of the alliance in mid-2021. For a decade or so lack of trust over China cast a shadow over relations. Now, the US push against China on Taiwan has been heartily welcomed by Japan’s leaders, leading in the early summer to increasingly uninhibited “personal statements” standing squarely with the US.
US-South Korean Relations
In the aftermath of the Biden-Moon summit, the message that this was the best US-ROK summit in history was being heard from the Moon administration with the US side likewise pleased with the results, as Moon was just the second foreign leader to visit the White House and years of turbulent bilateral ties were overcome. Yet, given the Biden administration’s agenda for boosting alliances and multilateralism across the Indo-Pacific region, it was well understood to be a prelude toward a more regional agenda, while in Seoul it was seen as a basis for renewed diplomacy with Pyongyang. On the US side, the follow-up on health and climate goals seemed straightforward, and with North Korea in lockdown little was expected from exchanges on that subject, but on emerging technologies and regional issues challenges remained. Apart from comments about progress on bilateral issues such as OPCON transfer, the topics that drew the most attention in DC were North Korea, which Seoul was impatient to address, and China, which Koreans defensively considered a topic the US side would be raising.
On North Korea, the message from Seoul is that although the Biden policy review went well, it is important now for Seoul and Washington to prepare together for talks to head off possible military deterioration. Such preparations should aim for peace and stability and the peace process, drawing the North to the table—advise similar to that offered in 2001-02, which the US did not follow to the region’s lasting detriment. This requires US will and diplomatic priority. In light of the pandemic’s lockdown impact, humanitarian assistance serves as a starting point, which faces the barrier of Pyongyang’s lack of receptivity, but also of sanctions barriers. In US responses, it was argued that sanctions are not a hurdle and that insistence remains aid must go to the people not be waylaid for the military. In response to the view that the Hanoi summit offers hope that revived talks about limited denuclearization could advance, there was broad skepticism that could be a pathway to denuclearization or even peace and stability. While Seoul appears to seek a two-track approach of simultaneously pursuing dialogue and deterrence, unlike Beijing and Moscow’s opposition to sanctions as if they are the sole barrier to dialogue, DC skeptics wonder how this position could not open a rift with the White House on an agenda. Claims that the May summit left a platform for continuity in ROK-US relations regardless of the victor in the 2022 Korean elections may hold to a degree, but those outside the Moon camp in Korea and many in the US may be thinking more of the shift in store if conservatives win then.
A Korean speaker was asked how China had reacted to the Moon-Biden summit. The response was that while they must have made assessments, being especially uncomfortable with the joint reference to the Taiwan Strait, they were, however, not seriously negative in following consultations with ROK officials. It was emphasized that the joint statement carefully stayed clear of direct references to China and that the US side understands Seoul’s unique relationship with Beijing. Furthermore, Americans should not worry about Korean attitudes toward China in light of memories of greater Chinese aggression than Japanese toward Korea in history. Little was said, however, about what warnings China had issued prior to the summit, what it found disappointing, and how it may be raising further alarm about new US-ROK joint endeavors.
On ASEAN views of Myanmar safter the February coup, webinar exchanges stressed that the response only in April was limited to a call for an end to hostilities after a frank discussion. An envoy was supposed to be a bridge with the nine others and monitor progress. Singapore has called the bloodshed disastrous, while Indonesia has pushed for the envoy. The nine opposed a UN resolution for an arms embargo, as if it would impede ASEAN efforts. It was said that no interventionist language or talk of regime change is compatible with shared understanding of a security community, explaining ASEAN’s response. At least two ASEAN members are China’s client states, weakening the entity. This weakness applies to the South China Sea too, showing ASEAN as weak and irresolute. When the US grew tougher, ASEAN balked. Biden’s rhetoric is different, but the response may not be better. China has broken ASEAN with success. BRI and authoritarianism in ASEAN states work in China’s favor. Infrastructure leads to dependence on China. The US cannot use ASEAN as a wedge against China, it was argued. That leads the US to use the Quad and even NATO. The current crisis in Myanmar is also not amenable to ASEAN centrality. Strategic competition is growing at the expense of organizations meant to limit it.
An Endurance Test: New Thinking about Sino-US Relations
An important set of articles on China in Foreign Affairs has stirred debate at a critical moment.
Jude Blanchette in June 2021 described Xi Jinping as a man on a mission: impatient with the status quo, possessing high tolerance for risk, and urgent to challenge the international order.
“Xi sees the convergence of strong demographic headwinds, a structural economic slowdown, rapid advances in digital technologies, and a perceived shift in the global balance of power away from the United States as what he has called ‘profound changes unseen in a century,’ demanding a bold set of immediate responses.” Yet Blanchette anticipates, “His emphasis on an expansive definition of national security will steer the country in a more inward and paranoid direction. His unleashing of “Wolf Warrior” nationalism will produce a more aggressive and isolated China.” Lately, he also “continues to expand China’s international sphere of influence through the exercise of hard power, economic coercion, and deep integration into international and multilateral bodies.” It is not just Xi who would have moved China in this direction, Blanchette recognizes, noting, “This convergence of changes and developments would have occurred regardless of who assumed power in China in 2012.” Distinctive, however, is Xi’s “paranoid style,” arousing nationalism at home, stirring “wolf warrior” intimidation and harassment abroad, and appearing to want final resolution on many issues on his watch. Xi’s impatience raises the stakes for a counter-strategy.
Wang Jisi wrote, “The CCP’s official line remains that bilateral ties should be guided by the principle of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation,” but
“that the United States is the greatest external challenge to China’s national security, sovereignty, and internal stability… driven by fear and envy to contain China in every possible way.” “Perceived U.S. attempts to foment dissent and destabilize China are part of an integrated American strategy to westernize (xihua) and split up (fenhua) China and prevent the country from becoming a great power.” Wang explained that an understanding prevailed until 2017 that the US would not openly try to destabilize China’s domestic order nor China the US-led international order. Yet with the US now intent on weakening the CCP and China, China is also defying US leadership and Western values. While Wang attributes the transformation to the two most recent US presidents, others put the onus on Xi Jinping arousing the US to act.
Yan Xuetong wrote of a “paradigm shift underway in Beijing: China believes that its rise to great-power status entitles it to a new role in world affairs—one that cannot be reconciled with unquestioned U.S. dominance.” Even if Chinese are careful not to frame the relationship with the US as new cold war and recall the Soviet ideological expansionism as driving a US backlash, they are pushing back harder against the pretense that Western political values are universal. Yan charges that Biden’s “exclusive multilateralism” on matters such as technology and human rights are heightening tensions as the most serious threat to China’s national rejuvenation. On both dimensions China’s core interests are at stake; and it will not make any concessions. This message reinforced the prevailing pessimism that Sino-US relations will not see any upturn.
Michael Pillsbury, an inspiration for the Trump administration’s harder line on China, viewed Chinese leaders as engaged in a marathon competition to overtake and overwhelm the United States. The Biden administration in its first half year has left no doubt that it too is preparing for the long haul. Comparisons of how the two sides perceive the clash ahead are easier to make in mid-2021 as the US strategy is being clarified and China’s is further revealed in the new context.
Whereas the US strategy toward China is coalescing in 2021—building on the “pivot to Asia” in the Obama administration and “trade war” with China in the Trump administration—China’s strategy was largely conceived as early as 1992, if widely misunderstood elsewhere until lately. From that time, each US president awakened to the shortsightedness of his engagement efforts as the window on China’s long-term approach opened a little more. Bill Clinton overemphasized the value of opening China economically as if that would improve domestic politics and human rights. George W. Bush came to value diplomatic engagement on North Korea and Taiwan, as if clashing approaches could be mitigated while the US focused elsewhere, Barack Obama sought common understanding on global challenges such as climate change, while the US pivoted to Asia before it became obvious that the pivot 1.0 would need to be replaced by a more forceful pivot 2.0, which was thwarted when Hillary Clinton failed to be elected. Then, Donald Trump put the emphasis on unfair trade, as if he could cut a deal with Xi Jinping, undercutting appeals to forge a multilateral approach in the face of China’s effective wedge-driving tactics. Attentive to China’s strategic thinking, the Biden administration is the first to seek an overall response in a systematic manner, aware that the starting point is clarity on China’s own grand strategy. This is the message conveyed from various exchanges in the first half year of a new administration.
Many are talking about the newly published Oxford University Press book by Rush Doshi, based on his 2019 doctoral dissertation at Harvard University and presumably informing his work as the Director for China at the National Security Council. Below is a review.
Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order
Rush Doshi’s The Long Game is the best book on Chinese foreign policy in any language because it persuasively presents a comprehensive framework covering the past three decades and also systematically explains how military, political, and economic rhetoric and policies reflected this grand strategy. It answers questions that observers have long been pondering, while explaining not only China’s evolving objectives but also how the United States should respond with its own grand strategy. The challenge for a reviewer—and actually for all who are not merely absorbing the conclusions in the book but delving beyond them to answer more questions about Chinese geostrategy—is to identify areas of Chinese foreign policy that warrant further clarification and what they mean for the choices still facing both analysts and policymakers. By reframing our understanding of China’s strategic thinking so convincingly, Doshi opens the door to further inquiries into the past years of Chinese reasoning and its decision-making about foreign policy.
The barebones of the book’s argument is that China has had a consistent grand strategy since roughly 1992, whose application was preconceived to shift to the extent China grew stronger and the United States grew weaker in national power. The strategy emerged in reaction to the trifecta of shocks in 1989-91: the spring 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and suppression as an ideological threat; the 1991 Gulf War manifestation of US military prowess, awakening China to its technological backwardness; and the collapse of the Soviet Union after that of international communism, leaving the world unipolar at the start of 1992 contrary to geopolitical aspirations. For 15 or so years, China bided its time, concentrating on blunting the exercise of US power. In 2008, however, the application of China’s grand strategy accelerated in response to unexpected opportunities, especially the global financial crisis. Policies moved beyond blunting to building a regional order beyond the reach of US power. Xi Jinping did not substantially alter this process, but consolidated it and gained credit for being its main architect. Finally, in 2016, with major impetus added in 2020, the grand strategy entered a third stage of expansionism, by building a global order enabling Chinese military, political, and economic leadership in place of US control.
This is academic scholarship. Quotations and paraphrased arguments are extensive. Sources are cited for points raised, coupled with an appendix specifying their relative value for grasping the thinking of China’s leadership. Alternative explanations are presented fairly before they are, one by one, carefully refuted. Definitions are precise. Chinese characters are added for critical concepts. Yet arguments are clearly stated and flow consistently through the entire volume.
The trifecta of Brexit, Trump, and COVID-19 fueled Xi Jinping’s shift to global order-building, conceptualized as a “community of shared future for mankind,” but better understood as a hierarchical order led by China, replacing the Western, US-led order. Having failed due to its social ills and flawed economic system, the US in this new era will give way to China on the world’s center stage as China seizes the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In China’s thinking economic instruments are increasingly paramount, on which it is capitalizing by mobilizing state, society, and market and gaining technological leadership. China is building a world-class military with expeditionary capabilities as well to shape the global order. Finally, it is forging the normative foundation for hegemony, in part through information management. All of this is detailed by Doshi, supported by Chinese sources. Yet he adds that talk of opportunities outweighing risks belies the long-term caution commensurate with rejuvenation only by 2049, easing the way for a US asymmetric strategy for competition with China over the long haul.
Doshi considers alternative strategies of accommodation, strategic reassurance, but he finds that because the US is perceived as an existential threat to the hold on power of the Chinese Communist Party as seen through a Leninist worldview, it is exceedingly difficult to reach any agreement, as seen in past US efforts along these lines. Instead, he proposes a grand strategy of competing over the regional and global order by blunting China’s plans and also rebuilding the foundations that underpin the US-led order. Doshi argues that the US has many advantages: its openness and the rule of law, its demography and the role of the dollar, and the fact that US hegemony is seen as less threatening. To prevent Chinese hegemony, the US must strengthen alliances, wield financial and military power, boost technological leadership, reassert its role in international institutions, and influence information flows. For each of the three dimensions of military, political, and economic power, Doshi advocates ways to both blunt and build. While the book is not specific about bilateral challenges, it calls for empowering states as partners.
Three of Doshi’s principal findings deserve special commendation but also more consideration: that 1989-92 saw a decisive break with the past in strategy; that the progression from blunting in stage 1 to building in stage 2 was a smooth, consensus-driven shift in 2008-10 rather than an outcome of some struggle reflected in differing commentaries over a number of years before the new approach became obligatory; and that the obsession with the United States was so dominant that thinking about Russia, Japan, and other states had little impact on major shifts. Acknowledging the merits of these findings should not distract us from taking a closer look. In addition, Doshi’s decision to concentrate on the military, political, and economic dimensions leaves the cultural/ideological dimension as a marginal interest, when it could shed more light.
For a long time, observers have misconstrued Deng’s legacy after June 4, 1989, concentrating on “reform and opening” and underestimating the intentions behind “taoguang yanghui”—his call for a cautious foreign policy. Overestimating Deng’s pragmatism, they slighted Deng theory, already discernable if obscured in statements and publications from 1992. Doshi reassesses this theoretical contribution as grand strategy. Treating it as a response to perceived US ideology, he points the way to recognition of Deng’s ideology as well as his pragmatism. This key finding, however, is linked to the argument that the three shocks of 1989-91 led to a decisive break from what had preceded. Prior to them China was set on a course of accommodating the US; after them it was determined to counter the existential US threat and, later, displace the US.
This line of analysis sets aside the shift under way in the second half of the 1980s in the very direction that materialized by 1992 as well as the severe limitations that always existed on the Chinese side aligning with the US, especially once the Soviet Union shifted toward China. The three shocks accelerated the shift but could have been anticipated. This qualification does not negate the thrust of Doshi’s argument, which has little to say about the period before 1989.
A second qualification that supplements the analysis rather than contradicting it pertains to the smoothness of the transition from stage 1 blunting to stage 2 building. Missing is recognition of sincere regionalists who saw blunting as an opportunity to advance regionalism in a decidedly less Sinocentric spirit, struggling repeatedly to make their case in the face of what Doshi rightly sees as the mainstream adherents to the grand strategy impatient for redirection. Among the authors cited as voices of blunting were some who sought to divert the process toward a more cooperative form of regionalism rather than build quickly toward Sinocentrism.
This played out over a decade—in the concerted assessment of US policy around 2000, in abortive attempts at “new thinking” toward Japan early in 2003 revealing a leadership split, and in the last-ditch effort to sustain multilateralism in 2007 when Hu Jintao traveled to Japan with hope for cultural affinity and attitudes toward South Korea and the Six-Party Talks were conciliatory. With the end of blunting from 2008, Doshi is correct, “building” left no more room for such alternatives. Indicative of the change in atmosphere was the rejection of ASEAN centrality that followed. If one emphasizes think tank articles as a guide to different approaches, this struggle is palpable, but Doshi’s primary reliance on more authoritative statements obscures it, indicating that the top-down consensus and guidance has been too determinative for debates to matter much.
A third point that distinguishes Doshi’s argument but deserves follow-up from those closely attentive to Chinese publications on Russia, Japan, and even the Korean Peninsula is that the way other countries are treated is overwhelmingly a function of thinking about the United States. This mostly holds up well, but he does not explore situations when it may be less in evidence. Examining shifts in Chinese approaches to the other countries covered extensively in Chinese sources would permit clarification of when the US factor was not solely determinative.
Xi Jinping is energizing the Chinese people with a set of key words: a “century of humiliation,” “great changes unseen in a century,” “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” “the rise of the East and decline of the West,” and the “end of US hegemonism.” While one can discern a grand strategy, it is also apparent that perceptions of US power and threat, as Rush Doshi explains, are driving forces in accelerating its timing. If 1987-92 brought one turning point and 2008-13 a second one, 2016-21 has seen an even more pronounced shift in pursuing the overall strategy. Some observers point to single-year inflection points in 1989, 2008, and 2017. others identify longer transitions: the ousting of Hu Yao-bang and outrage over Gorbachev in 1987 set a process in motion; the Beijing Olympic hubris and confidence over the global financial crisis did so also; and the election of Donald Trump following the vote on Brexit aroused another reorientation. Each period is marked by a dramatic shift in Chinese publications on many subjects, including on Asian regional architecture. In transition one China embraces East Asian regionalism in lieu of a strategic triangle. In transition 2 China abandons multilateralism in favor of bilateralism. Finally, in transition 3 unabashed Sinocentrism rises to the fore, seen across the Indo-Pacific. In The Long Game we find the clearest and best documented presentation of the three transitions.
Chinese writings on the Korean Peninsula are indicative of the three transitions. After allowing old stereotypes of North and South Korea to survive, while fading somewhat, Chinese sources in the first transition accept South Korea, primarily as an economic partner amid rising regionalism, and grow quiet about North Korea, hesitating to correct misperceptions. During the second transition Chinese publications find much more fault with South Korea and reaffirm the merits of North Korea as a past geopolitical partner with a just geopolitical cause. From 2016 the pressure on South Korea is intensified not only for its THAAD deployment but also for its civilizational affrontery. Whereas many concentrate on changes in Chinese perceptions and policies toward the United States from period to period, the Indo-Pacific region stands as the principal battleground.
Here and there, Doshi recognizes the role of ideology in Chinese policy shifts or strategizing, but it is not a primary interest. Thinking about history and civilizations is mentioned obliquely for the most part, although there is clear recognition of Chinese misrepresentation of US intentions and of the perceived ideological threat to Chinese Communist Party’s rule from the time of the Tiananmen shock. The analysis could be usefully supplemented with sections for each of the three stages of grand strategy on how Chinese perceptions of civilizational differences shifted.
Seeking more dimensions of coverage—the 1980s, the diversity of arguments in the 2000s, the Chinese approaches to other key countries, and the evolution of ideology’s role—is no more than a quest for follow-ups on the basis of the framework that Doshi has set forth. He answers
questions at the heart of the study of Chinese foreign policy for three decades: Does it have a grand strategy? If so, when was it forged? What drove it to emerge? What stages are visible in its evolution? How does Xi Jinping fit into the evolution of Chinese foreign policy thinking? The answers in The Long Game supersede what preceded and promise to guide all that follows.