US bid to recreate Ukraine crisis in Asia-Pacific will meet pushback
Published: May 25, 2022 08:55 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Editor's Note:

US President Joe Biden just wrapped up his Asia tour, a trip that aimed at maintaining its hegemony, creating confrontation and division, and containing China. Is the US triggering Cold War-like confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region? Why is the Biden administration still focused on confronting China as it struggles with the Ukraine crisis? The Global Times interviewed four scholars: William Jones, a Washington-based political analyst; Yury Tavrovsky, head of "Russian Dream-Chinese Dream" analytic center of the Izborsk Club; John Ross, Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China and former director of Economic and Business Policy for the Mayor of London; Wang Wen, professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

GT:Embarking on an Asian tour targeting China, is Biden triggering a Cold War-like confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region? And is Biden administration publicly abandoning commitments previously made with China, such as on Taiwan question?

Jones: While not formally abandoning the one-China policy, Biden is clearly "pushing the envelope" on the Taiwan question. While the Taiwan Relations Act does state that the US is committed to maintaining the ability of Taiwan to defend itself against a possible attack, it clearly gives no indication that the US has the duty or intention to come to the aid of Taiwan, if it were be attacked. And yet Biden has stated something to that effect several times since becoming president, also with a White House "follow-up" to clarify that the one-China policy has not changed. More unsettling, since President Biden is prone to go "off script" in his statements, recent changes to the State Department "fact sheet" on Taiwan, which took out the important statements from previous editions, namely that the US does not support Taiwan independence and that the US considers Taiwan a part of China, seem to point in the direction of retrogression from the Three Joint Communiques, which the US agreed to in establishing relations with the PRC.

While this making such statements may be meant as a means of preventing China from conducting a military operation against Taiwan, (which some US wags falsely claim is imminent because of the Russian incursion in Ukraine), or an attempt to assure Taiwan officials that the US "has their back", the implications are ominous. The Taiwan independence crowd may take this shift as an indication that they would have US support if they declared independence, and foolishly move in that direction. And there is no doubt those in the US who would be quite prepared to use Taiwan as a "sacrificial lamb" in a fight they hope to have with China, similar to the game that the US is playing with Russia in the Ukraine crisis. But the shift toward a policy of "defending" Taiwan would be a breach of US policy and would have serious repercussions for US-China relations.

Ross: The US is deliberately escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific. This is shown in systematic attempts to undermine the one-China policy - illustrated in the invitation of Taiwan to Biden's presidential inauguration, in the increasing level of US visits to Taiwan etc. The US is also trying to escalate military tensions in the South China Sea. 

This is in parallel with escalating US policy in Europe, where it knew that attempts to incorporate Ukraine into NATO threatened Russia's most essential interests. 

But the US is not yet sure of the relation of forces and it does not dare to complete this escalation against China and Russia in one step. It is, in the Chinese phrase, "crossing the river while feeling the stones beneath the feet." The US is taking a step-by-step escalation to see what the reaction will be, and whether it is successful or not, at each stage. So, in regard to China, to attempt to cover its position, Biden says one thing, that he supports the one-China policy, but in practice takes steps to undermine it.

Tavrovsky: Americans hope to use the same pattern of Cold War they used in Ukraine. First, to provoke the adversary to start a preemptive 'special military operation. Second, to start a world-wide campaign of support for the "victimized" entity and hatred for the "invader". Third, to mobilize satellite countries to contribute money, arms and advisors as well as introduce sanctions that cripple both sides. Fourth, to sell weapons and provide it by lend lease to invigorate American industry. Fifth, to keep the safe distance from the real war. Biden's statement is a double provocation. He makes one more step in encouraging Taiwan island to proclaim independence. He also hopes to push Beijing to start a "special military operation" like Moscow did in Ukraine. The Good Book says: By their deeds you will know who they are. Do they gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles? The White House people may publicly deny Biden's comments but yet America does exactly what he said - giving Taiwan hope of help from the Big Guy.

Wang: At present, a new cold war against China is in the interests of a large part of the US. It has started a comprehensive strategic competition with China in the Asia-Pacific which is fierce in appearance but faint in essence, wooing its allies with only lip service. It can be said that despite the posture to start this cold war, the US does not have the strength to fulfill it. There are three main reasons. 

First, China's economic strength is much closer to that of the US than the Soviet Union was back then, let alone the fact that China does not want to fight a cold war as the US does. 

Second, the US is unlikely to succeed in pulling the strings of other countries. Take the Biden visit to South Korea and Japan as an example, even if both governments want to completely join the US's camp, the markets and enterprises of the two countries are not willing to. 

Third, the majority of developing countries refuse to choose sides between China and the US. 

In this regard, China should maintain its strategic stability, not to be led by the US rhetoric, but should deepen reform internally, balancing anti-epidemic measures and economic development, while seeking to expand openness externally, making more friends and strengthening cooperation with others. Meanwhile, it is necessary to fight fearlessly and skillfully against anti-China forces, and the "Cold War-style" provocation will count for nothing.

GT: Is Biden's Asia trip this time revealing the whole picture of his Asia-Pacific strategy? How do you understand the strategy?

Jones: Biden's "Indo-Pacific Strategy" is clearly designed to establish relations with other countries in the Asia Pacific, both in the security and the economic sphere, that would prevent China from accessing high technology items that are produced in the countries associated with this "strategy". The self-declared Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) which is envisioned as the economic side of the US "pivot to Asia" will not impose limits on overall trade with China by those who become part of the Framework, but it is an attempt to bring countries into a form of cooperation which could restrict their cooperation with China in certain fields of high-technology. While 13 countries have expressed interest in the framework idea, no one is committed to anything at this point since the details have not been worked out. It is not a trade agreement, which the US is not prepared to offer, and some countries, including Japan, have expressed some disappointment that the "framework" doesn't involve the US eliminating tariffs on their goods, which would be the primary attraction of such a framework for the Asian countries. So while curiosity may be high, expectations are not great that this will have any real economic benefit for any of the countries in question, but quite the opposite. 

Ross: Biden's Asia trip does not reveal the whole of the US's Asia-Pacific strategy, but it is regarded as strategically important by the US as reflected in its official media - the US government controlled "Voice of America" headlined its coverage "On Asia Trip, Biden Takes Tough Stance on China"  

As already noted, the US has decided on a strategically aggressive policy toward China - this is absolutely clear in the highest-level analyses in the foreign policy establishment, in the coordination of the Biden presidency and US Congress, in the clearly centrally coordinated media propaganda against China with systematic use of lies such as over a non-existent genocide in Xinjiang etc. But at the same time the US is not sure of the degree of resistance it will meet and if it will have successes. So Biden's Asia trip aims to lay out the overall aggressive policy of the US to China but it only spells out some but not all of the intended practical policy steps.

Tavrovsky: Biden's trip is revealing the major parts of his Asia-Pacific strategy. By joining the QUAD summit he underlines shift to the Indo-Pacific format in order to mobilize India and put more pressure on China. This time another crucial part of the strategy - the AUKUS block was missing. Japan, South Korea, AUKUS and QUAD are the major "watchtowers" of the Great Anti Chinese Wall under construction. The new American initiative IPEF serves the same goal - to exclude China from trade and economic exchanges as well as contain its growing role in regional multilateral bodies like RCEP, ASEAN, TPP. However, it is doubtful that the IPEF will be a viable entity for two reasons. Firstly, China has much more to offer its partners than America. Then secondly, regional leaders remember the sad fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership formed with a lot of American pressure to isolate China and later abandoned by the US itself.

Wang: The focus of Biden's trip to Asia is to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Considering the semiconductor alliance highlighted during this trip, the Quad mechanism, and AUKUS, it can be concluded that the US Indo-Pacific Strategy is still in the layout stage. The US will certainly adjust the strategy as the China-US competition goes on, the operations are implemented, and other countries begin to respond. But if the strategy remains closed and confrontational, it is doomed to fail eventually.

GT: Why is the Biden administration still focused on confronting China as it struggles with the Ukraine crisis?

Jones: Biden's "hubris" seems to transcend regional considerations as if he were the "Emperor of the world" rather than merely President of the US. But, citing the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, the "emperor" has no clothes. The technical capabilities of the US¸ while still substantial, particularly in the military sphere, are not what they used to be. The US economy is in dire shape - and getting worse thanks to Biden's policies in Ukraine, his sanctions regime, and the tariffs. US infrastructure is decades old and in a decrepit state and the conditions of life of Americans have gotten worse since Biden became president. In the face of a China which has been steadily moving in the opposite direction, he feels he must use the political clout of the US to help bring other countries on board to keep "the Emperor" from toppling. (He could, of course, begin to work with China and try to rebuild the faltering US economy, but that doesn't seem to be in his DNA.) So, he is embarking on his great crusade, hoping that others will pitch in to save "the American way." But even in Europe, the "allies" have clear limits as to how far they're willing to travel with this Don Quixote on his futile mission to topple "windmills." This is even more the case in Asia, where few are willing to sacrifice the benefits, they have achieved through their relationship with China on the altar of so -called "Western democracy."

Ross: The US is clear that it sees China as its main enemy, not Russia. 

This determines US policy in Ukraine. Good relations of China and Russia are seen as a formidable obstacle by the US. Therefore, in the short term the US aims to either weaken Russia or to break up its good relations with China. Sergei Glaziev, minister of the Russian government for Russia's Eurasian Economic Commission put it well: "After it was not possible to weaken China head-on through a trade war, the Americans shifted the main blow to Russia, which they consider as a weak link in world geopolitics and the economy. The Anglo-Saxons seek to… destroy our country [Russia], and at the same time to weaken China." If the US is successful in its proxy-war in Ukraine the US will feel strengthened and increase its aggression against China, if the US loses in the Ukraine war it will become more cautious to China.

Tavrovsky: The Biden administration is focused on confronting China as it struggles with the Ukraine crisis because Beijing and not Moscow is considered by the "deep state" to be the biggest threat to Washington world hegemony. The Ukrainian crisis has already fulfilled its major aims - weakened both Russia and Europe. Now it is time to start bleeding China and Asia by military and economic means. Washington was actually surprised with Western countries almost unanimous support of anti-Russian sanctions and other actions which run contrary to their national interests. Now it hopes to achieve the same level of solidarity against China. Russophobia in the West is hardly stronger than Sinophobia in the East.

GT: Do these US strategies to contain China have anything to do with the US midterm elections?

Jones: I fail to see what advantage Biden's foreign policy measures will have in the mid-term elections. People voted for the President who would end the war in Afghanistan, which he did. But now he's stoking a bigger conflict in Europe, and laying the basis for more trouble in the Asia Pacific.  He will no doubt come back from Asia to tout that he has secured a new agreement with the Asian nations and that he has been "tough on China." But by November people will be up in arms about the price of food and gas and increased employment, which the Biden policies have engendered. If the economy tanks, they will be looking for someone crucify, and it won't be Vladimir Putin.

Ross: Policy to China plays only a small tactical role in the US midterm elections for two reasons. 

First, except in times of extreme crisis such as the height of Vietnam War or World War II, US elections are determined by the domestic situation and not by foreign policy. For example, in 2020 Trump engaged in fierce anti-China rhetoric but the US population voted for the Democrats because of Trump's relative economic failure and a massive turnout of US black voters after the blatant racist murder of George Floyd. This year's midterm elections will be dominated by US inflation and falling living standards.

Secondly, at present the Republican and Democratic Party leaderships both agree on aggressive policies on China so there is no major policy difference between them.  

GT: Among the participants of IPEF such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and India, some clearly stand on the side of the US, such as Japan and Australia, but some explicitly oppose choosing a side. Can the US achieve its goal of containing China's development? Are these countries willing to be pawns in US geopolitics?

Jones: Aside from the Anglo-American countries and Japan and possibly, South Korea, the other countries will simply do as much as they can to be on the good side of the US, but they will not ally with the US against China. They will maintain their overall relationship with China which is key for their economic development, albeit with some diplomatic "hedging" in order to avoid the wrath of the US. The new South Korean president will also have to "tread softly" in order not to set off internal dissent in his own country. It was a very close election and if he takes too big a step away from the "mainstream", which is not averse to cooperation with China, things may get quite turbulent in the country. It is also unclear how far the new Australian prime minister will go in the anti-China campaign launched by his all too zealous predecessor Scott Morrison.

In the long run, I think, the Biden policy will not succeed in Asia, although it might lead to trouble in the short term. The Chinese economy has become the engine of development in the Asia Pacific and in the world. The US has a "big stick", but no carrots. While the "technological apartheid" policy of the IPEF will have some effect on China, I believe China has developed its high-tech capabilities far enough to rely on its own resources for further technological advancement. And even a "technological decoupling" between China and the developed countries is never going to be air-tight, given the level of necessary cooperation between scientists and engineers that now exists. Such a "decoupling" would also be detrimental to the US and its "allies" in this misbegotten endeavor, since the sudden scientific breakthroughs the world is waiting for may be occurring in China and not in the West, in spite of US restrictions.

Wang: Regarding the arrangement, the IPEF is a one-way and self-interested framework, more like a US intervention in the original economic and trade cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region under Biden's directive, which is neither in line with market rules nor with the trend of the times, let alone having any mutually beneficial effects.

Regarding participation, the IPEF is not an economic and trade agreement. Without the goals of tariff reduction and market opening, the threshold of technical standards and market access, and the process of mutually beneficial and win-win negotiations, IPEF is destined to be a political show.

Regarding economic and trade structure, Washington's economic and trade strength has relatively weakened in recent years. Thus, the US simply cannot subvert the existing Asia-Pacific economic and trade pattern through its one-way policy, nor can it afford to block China from the so-called US-centered supply chain.

Regarding policy implementation, huge conceptual differences have been seen within the US government over the IPEF. The members of the pact will definitely diverge from each other on specific issues, such as labor standards, digital trade rules, semiconductor alliance, and supply chain security. And such differences in implementation are bound to complicate and marginalize the framework.

In the end, IPEF is a diplomatic show from the Biden administration for US society and posturing toward China. Eventually, it will end up in vain, just like the US-launched trade war with China and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

GT:Japan joined the IPEF while it has also asked the US to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). What role does Japan play?

Jones: Japan's role in this strategy is very dubious. They are most eager to be in the US camp. But I don't think this is based on any "love" for the US, much less to any strong commitment to "Western democracy." They feel the US represents power, and this is what Japan is primarily interested in, or at least a good part of the Japanese leadership. The US is playing to that sense in Japan that they can regain their "power status" in Asia. This is what the Japanese want more than anything else. And if they can bring down China a notch in that endeavor, so much the better. Japanese moves in Europe are largely done to appease US interests and keep the US firmly behind them in their Asian endeavors. If Japan can present itself as "Global Japan," in the same way the Boris Johnson has used the Ukraine conflict to revive "Global Britain," this will enhance their role in Asia, but plays to the worst features of Japanese psychology.

Ross: Japan has no fundamental strategic independence from the US. Although China is Japan's biggest trading partner as Lenin noted: 'Politics must take precedence over economics. To argue otherwise is to forget the ABC of Marxism.' When Japanese governments have attempted to pursue a foreign policy in line with Japan's economic interests, that is to have very good relations with China, the US has always intervened to seek to overturn these governments and replace them with one more hostile to China. But this US policy is damaging to Japan's economy and therefore Japan seeks, within a policy of strategic subordination to the US, to persuade the US to pursue economic policies more favorable to Japan. This is why Japan has asked the US to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership/Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

Tavrovsky: Japan has asked the US to return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) because it wants to look as the most reliable ally in exchange of permission to shed the remains of anti-military and anti-nuclear restrictions. Playing the China card, Tokyo hopes to become a great and independent nation soon. Biden's promise to help Japan to take a permanent seat in the UN Security Council plays in Tokyo's hands. Actually Japan is not interested in "leaving Asia and joining Europe" any more. It is interested in playing a global role.

GT: South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines just held elections. In the future, the new governments of these countries will definitely take relations with China as an important issue. Do you think the Asia-Pacific region will eventually become a region for cooperative development or a battlefield where the US provokes a new Cold War?

Jones: The perspective of a Cold War in Asia is a real possibility, and some people in the US seem to want that. But the odds are against it. Aside from the "true believers." like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, few Asian nations have even moved to condemn the Russian incursion in Ukraine, in spite of US pressure to do so. They will be much less willing to "choose sides" between China and the US in some Cold War scenario. And the benefits of cooperation with China are great. The infrastructure deficit in Asia is enormous. While Japan still does infrastructure, the US does not, and without infrastructure, economic development withers on the vine. China has been the chief producer of infrastructure in Asia and will no doubt remain so. For the Asian countries it will always be a choice between the geopolitical interests of the US and their real economic interests. And in the great majority of cases, the Asian nations will prioritize the latter.

Ross: There are contradictory forces at work in the Asia-Pacific. From an economic point of view every Asian country benefits most from good win-win relations with China - China is by now a far more important trading partner in Asia than the US. But the US is strongly against this as it is seeking to weaken China and therefore does not want China to have win-win relations with other countries. Consequently, the US pressures Asian-Pacific countries to have bad relations with China - which is against their national interests. Therefore, a struggle takes place in every Asia-Pacific country. Most Asia-Pacific countries maintain friendly relations with China - the ASEAN countries for example. A small number are strategically subordinate to the US - Japan and Australia in particular. In others, some fluctuations in policy take place - the Philippines changed from policies hostile to China to more friendly ones. This struggle will continue for some time with the outcome being most importantly determined by China's success in economic development and continued correct framework in diplomacy.

Tavrovsky: Not only South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines with new governments but other Asia-Pacific countries as well will definitely take relations with China as an important issue. Their national interests and growing Chinese economic power make it imperative and unavoidable in the long run to mend relations with Beijing and to make the region a space of cooperative development rather than the battlefield where the US provokes a new Cold War.

Wang: In fact, the US is being strategically deceived by these countries. It seems Washington is going through a "midlife crisis": Anxious and fearful of its own decline and the rise of Beijing and liable to flare up occasionally. Many countries have to appease the US through cajolement. But they also have to trade and seek cooperation with China due to their actual interests. Be they Korea, Australia, and the Philippines which have just concluded their elections, or Japan and India, no matter how close these states get with the US, they can't ignore fact that the volumes of their trade and investment with China are rising. Such a reality is non-invertible, no matter how hard Biden tries to rope in its allies to contain China. Therefore, for China, the key is to continue what we are doing. As long as the economy continues to grow and cooperation with others continues to expand, Biden's version of the new Cold War is unlikely to become a thing.