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From the Indo-Pacific to Alaska: The US-China Great Game 

From the Indo-Pacific to Alaska: The US-China Great Game 
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

"The first round of a boxing match": this prediction about the Alaska Sino-American meeting by Evan Medeiros, a former Obama adviser, has proven accurate. Although Chinese officials have often played last-minute theatricals on their interlocutors to gain a visible upper hand, there has never been a public shouting match as erupted in Anchorage between Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy leader, and Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State. Cynics will say it was mostly for the cameras beaming back to a domestic audience and showing China standing up and defiant: which is what Chinese authorized commentators have also been saying of President Biden’s China opening - playing out of weakness to a domestic audience in order to give an illusion of strength. Indeed, 89% of Americans now regard China as a competitor or an enemy, a level of negative views that is unmatched since the 1989 Tiananmen repression.

But cynics who postulate inevitable backstage compromises and agreements can be wrong. This opening is in fact the culmination of a long build-up of tensions. Increasing defiance and challenges by Xi’s China, including to international law, have been met by a gathering of will in the United States, now matched by coalition-building all over the world. Each side is speculating on the other’s weak points - China sees plenty of them in a very divided democracy, while the United States is clearly attempting to roll back China’s capability to win or coerce international partners. 

That fight is primarily played out in Asia. There was once a Great Game, played over the Himalayas and Eurasia by Great Britain and its competitor, the Russian empire. Its axis was continental, in part because the Royal Navy was the master of the seas. Later, the Pacific would be first divided, and then contested, between Japan and the Anglo-Americans, leading to war. Today, the Indo-Pacific rivalry pitting China against the United States and a grouping of allies or partners is the contemporary Great Game. Its range mostly coincides with the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. But "maritime" does not describe it as the conflict is not solely geographic. It involves military competition and potential confrontation; ideological rivalry between democracy and dictatorship; hesitation over continued economic integration or the use of economic interdependence as leverage. There do remain attempts at preserving cooperation, or the appearance of cooperation over some common goods, climate goals being the obvious candidate. But many policies are designed to win over third parties - through infrastructure projects and economic dependence on China, renewed accent on development assistance from the United States and massive international deployment of vaccines by both. 

Asia is both on the front line and in the most difficult position of balancing the dangers from China with economic integration. As Yang Jiechi just pointed out in Anchorage, ASEAN, Japan and Korea are China’s first, second and third trade partners. Dependence also comes from value chains selling to the rest of the world: only months ago, most of Asia finally signed (without India) RCEP, a regional trade and investment deal that is largely focused on expanding East Asia as a factory for the world. Yet the Asian Quad members (Australia, India and Japan) are choosing their camp, no doubt prodded by China’s inroads or threats. ASEAN will find itself increasingly pulled in both directions. All remain polite and diplomatic - no mention of a genocide from these governments - and they do not even mention China in official collective statements. The Quad promotes intensive cooperation, but not a formal alliance between the US, Australia, India and Japan. 

Several trends from China have converged in 2020, creating an international shockwave and rising to the top of foreign policy priorities.

Indeed, the lines of confrontation were not always drawn so clearly. The concept itself appeared by accident after the December 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami as a coalition of able providers of emergency assistance. The Obama administration initiated from 2010 its "Pivot to Asia" as a response to Chinese assertive moves and to North Korea’s nuclear project. Yet it endorsed neither an Indo-Pacific concept nor a strategic Quad.

Instead, it complemented hub-and-spoke relations between Washington and the region with a multilateral approach. The unfinished Trans-Pacific Partnership was in retrospect its biggest failure in the region. It was the Trump administration which crafted a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" Strategy in 2017, now carried over to the Biden administration. But under Donald Trump, it often proved impossible to coordinate hard power initiatives with regional trade or economic policies. Relations with allies, whether in Asia or Europe, were largely bilateral and often unpredictable.

Meanwhile, several trends from China have converged in 2020, creating an international shockwave and rising to the top of foreign policy priorities. In human terms, the suffering inflicted on millions of Uyghurs (and also Kazakh and Kyrgyz people) has passed a threshold, with the issues of mass sterilization, forced separation of children from their parents and forced labor joining the already revealed existence of the so-called "vocational education centers". In Hong Kong, when a new extradition rule created mass protest, that mass protest set the Chinese government on a path to negate the terms of the 1984 handover Treaty. The deliberate prevention of a serious international enquiry into the origins of Covid-19 has been compounded by mask, and now vaccine, diplomacy, both used for political leverage and for profit. In the Taiwan straits, PLA flights across the median line have become a new normal, while China’s hybrid navy maintains a quasi-constant presence in the territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; China is now applying to the Sino-Indian border methods of grinding away the other side and moving forward slowly, while holding regular talks at intervals. 

Nationalist and bombastic statements have become a fixture of China’s controlled media, matched by "wolf warrior" diplomacy and threats abroad. President Xi’s personality cult has reached heights unknown since the passing of Mao, while China’s foreign minister Wang Yi promises: "the first 100 year is just the beginning of an eternal success (千秋伟业,百年只是序章)" of the CCP. Finally, China’s post-pandemic economic policies have largely relied on supply side support, while industrialized economies massively subsidized their demand side: the result is the most unbalanced growth for China in decades, which is likely to continue in 2021. In other words, China is now combining large economic gains with political rigidity and aggressive behavior. This can no longer be explained by regime insecurity, even if CCP leaders have always placed the continuation of their rule as a priority overriding all other issues. 

Why does this litany matter? Because it has created, for the first time, a collective awareness that the PRC is the biggest challenge of the 21st century. In three key regions of the world, the tide is turning on China. That is evident of the United States, where a new administration with every reason to loath the previous President is nonetheless placing itself in the footsteps of its China policies, and even hardening its stance (on tech bans and on PRC media presence) while promoting better in-team coordination and consultation of partners. It is in evidence across much of Asia - from Australia to India, from Japan to Vietnam, there are few countries which haven’t been antagonized by China in recent years. 

And it is also the main trend inside a confused Europe. Europe may hesitate and wish to be spared the consequences of hard strategic choices, much as Japan hesitated for decades on its relationship with a close and rising China. Because Europe is further away from China - and so much closer to Russia or the dangers of the Near East, its strategic perception of China is fuzzy. 

For the first time, there is a collective awareness that the PRC is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.

Yet on business - which is precisely the core business of the European Union! - it is taking one defensive measure after another, and it is now thinking of containing the PRC’s influence campaigns and technology acquisition drives. Even though the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell still thinks of "engaging China with eyes open", his recent adoption of an Indo-Pacific concept mentions China fourteen times. That is enough to understand that one way to meet the China challenge is to get closer to its neighbors. 

The recent Quad summit between the four heads of state therefore took Indo-Pacific strategy out of the woods. The Asian Quad members have immediately responded to the opening line by the Biden administration, no doubt here again relieved that they will not be sold out for any short-lived commercial deal with China. First, India and Japan officially acknowledge the format, even as they face on-going border or maritime issues with China. Second, the "free and open Indo-Pacific" is clearly the answer to the Chinese challenge, and Joe Biden underlines this by meeting them and sending his envoys to Japan and South Korea before the meeting with Chinese counterparts in Alaska. Third, in keeping with new recognition that China is a serious competitor for influence, the Quad countries join in a massive vaccine initiative that will unite American research with co-funding from Japan and India’s large medical production base. Their two other decisions - joint action on critical technology and climate change - are also in large part responses to China.

This coincides with American reassurances to Japan regarding the defense of the Senkaku, continued transits through the Taiwan Strait, and the informal mention of Taiwan as a "country" by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. While the Trump tariffs on China are kept in place, new tech export denials are decided, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now canceling the broadcasting rights in the US of several PRC-owned media. High-level Chinese officials are sanctioned over Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

The new Biden team is also busy improving relations with Europe - starting from a low point indeed as causes for friction had multiplied. It is also embarked in a behind-the-scenes effort to coordinate action on key issues such as tech control and supply chains, and it makes a point of informing Europeans on its bilateral dealings with China. The US has apparently decided not to make a major issue of Europe’s end of the year conclusion of an investment agreement with Beijing (CAI) - either because it thinks the result is hardly consequential, or because this might be an after-effect of Donald Trump’s mistreatment of Europe.

This [meeting] has been a one-off for each side to get clarity from the other about its expectations and interests. 

It is from this background that Washington officially proposed to Beijing a top-level encounter in icy Alaska, refusing however to accept its designation as a resumed strategic dialogue: this has been a one-off for each side to get clarity from the other about its expectations and interests. The US has also advertised in advance that it wanted to deal with China "from a position of strength"

The PRC’s reactions have been increasingly strident and even furious. The Chinese leadership had been making statements about returning to a managed and stable relationship with America, and about the impossibility of either side "winning". But informally, the tone has become harsher and harsher, reaching levels unseen until the last months of the Trump administration. A record level was reached by a Shanghai researcher of an institution often associated with China’s State Security, calling the Quad a "coalition of losers" and gloating over the "defeats" or "punishment" that India, Japan and Australia have suffered at the hands of China: of course, this alone could be the justification for the Quad, as the line directly contradicts simultaneous Chinese assertions that China never uses force or coercion… More considered pieces outline the divergences of economic interests among the three and the US, and India’s paramount policy not to be drawn into coalitions. Yang Jiechi’s long tirades against America at the Alaska meeting portray America as an illegitimate guide to the rest of the world. And official statements before the meeting have excluded compromise or concessions on a long list of China’s core interests.

These events are not for show, although the support of domestic audiences is needed, even in China. The two top Chinese officials - and particularly Wang Yi, who even described Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan as "friends of China" and has now described the first two sessions as going smoothly! - do stick to the mantra of necessary cooperation and avoidance of a Cold War. But there are unavoidable consequences to this boxing round: absent direct Chinese concessions, the United States must convince others that it is credible, and that requires further action. On China’s part, the situation would require concessions to others - partners or potential partners of the coalition that the Biden administration is assembling. But Xi’s China has promised so much and delivered so little in the past that this is even less credible. 

Just as ASEAN, a loose regional grouping, is caught in the middle and may inevitably suffer some losses, the European Union is going to have to opt. Everything in terms of values points to a necessary compact with the United States. Some short-term business interests and the lack of the hard power and extra-territorial tools that the United States possess do dictate cautiousness: Europe is less vulnerable to retaliation from China than East Asia, but more so than the United States. Europe still suffers from being a slow and partly fragmented actor. In any case, an eventual role as a middleman seems simply out of reach, and the double talk by Chinese leaders about multilateralism, and their growing enlistment of Russia’s Putin in their camp, make any form of equidistance between China and the United States an impossible position to hold. The lines of a new Cold war, the term which we loath and Chinese leaders fear, are now forming under our eyes. 

Copyright: Frederic J. BROWN / POOL / AFP

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