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Foreign Policy

Did Vice President Biden’s Asian Trip Advance US-China Relations?

Dec 11 , 2013

All in all, was the December 2-7 U.S. Vice President Biden visit to Japan, China, and South Korea a success, a failure, or a muddle? 

Stephen Harner

To answer this question readers of China-U.S. Focus will apply a specific metric:  progress, or lack of progress, toward a constructive, win-win “new type of great power relationship” between China and the United States. 

While in China, some of Biden’s public rhetoric was certainly encouraging.  During a welcoming meeting with Vice President Li Yuanchao on December 4 Biden gushed:  “This is a hugely consequential relationship that is going to effect the 21st century.” Continuing, he averred that U.S.-China relations will become the “central, sort of organizing principle in international relations for a long time.”   

However, earlier, during his visit to Japan, there was scant evidence from Biden of U.S. policy or actions changing in ways reflecting an “organizing principle” of constructive engagement with China.  On the contrary, by words and deeds Biden’s goal seemed to be hardening defenses against change in a status quo that is in many ways incompatible with harmonious long term U.S.-Chinese relations. 

Even in Beijing, while being accorded treatment exceeding the requirements of protocol, Biden made comments evidencing the “soft imperialism” informing Obama’s policy toward Asia and particularly toward China.  Visiting the consular section at the U.S. embassy, Biden effused to a long line of young Chinese waiting for a U.S. visa:  “I hope you learn that innovation can only occur where you can breathe free, challenge the government, challenge religious leaders… Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo.” 

What, we must ask, were Biden’s Beijing hosts supposed to make of such comments?  Perhaps the most important principle of a “new type of great power relationship” will be mutual respect, including respect for differing political, social, and cultural systems.  Biden’s remarks suggest that the United States, brimming with self-conceit, is unwilling to accord China such respect. 

Before Biden touched down in Tokyo on December 2, China’s establishment of air defense identification zone (ADIZ) had the effect of focusing attention on probably the most problematic obstacles–from the Chinese side–to a constructive relationship. These are the U.S.-Japan military alliance, the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, and the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. 

As Biden seemed almost too willing to herald in Tokyo and Seoul that the “rebalance” is the Obama administration’s plan for maintaining military superiority and regional hegemony in Asia, and for further advancing U.S. economic objectives in the region.  How these hard objectives are combined with a “soft imperialism” aimed as Asian social and cultural traditions is to be gleaned from the speech entitled “America’s Future in Asia” by National Security Advisor Susan Rice given at Georgetown University on November 20.  (Please see my earlier article.) 

Of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Biden in Tokyo emphasized that it is “the ‘cornerstone’ of [United States’] security’” in the region.  He reaffirmed President Obama’s commitment to implementing the “rebalance” (i.e., military “pivot” to Asia) strategy the main element of which is “strengthening” the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korean alliances. 

Specifically on the agenda in Tokyo was applying more pressure on the Abe government to get local Okinawa government approval for building a new military base to accommodate U.S. Marine and other forces.  This has been advertised as relocation of the Futenma base, but it is potentially much more. 

We know that the combined forces of the United States and Japan under the alliance are already an ever-present potential threat to China’s security, particularly in respect of their air and naval forces capability to strike China and block vital sea-lanes.  The surveillance flights being conducted routinely within China’s new ADIZ by U.S. and Japanese military aircraft – which decline to identify themselves – are a source of tension and potential danger. 

Obama’s “rebalance” strategy will increase the threat.  As China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said to Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in August, when power is already unbalanced, “rebalance” that increases the disparity will be counterproductive.  

Even after the June Obama-Xi Sunnylands Summit, what seems clear is that the United States has chosen to make “competition” the main element in U.S.-China relations.  

We see the U.S. competing aggressively to remain far ahead of China in regional military power, competing in defining new trade pacts (TPP), competing in political relations (ASEAN), and competing in cultural and political values (the “soft imperialism” of “universal values”).  And we note that the competition is being waged in Asia, i.e., in China’s “backyard” as well as within China itself.  

This is hardly a promising basis on which to construct a constructive, win-win “new type of great power relationship.” 

One aspect of competition is in technological leadership, which was a topic raised by Premium Li Keqiang in his meeting with Biden.  Li asked Biden to remove U.S. controls on high technology transfers to China.  This is a long-standing Chinese request.  

Against this background, we may wonder what Biden and President Xi Jinping talked about for five hours.  The talks were largely behind closed doors, as was appropriate given the serious gaps in approaches, if not in concepts and ends, between the two sides as they seek to “operationalize” (to use Susan Rice’s term) a new type of great power relationship.  

Is there any reason for optimism at this stage?  Ironically, perhaps, I believe that there is.  That U.S.-China relations should be, as Biden said, a “central, organizing principle” for the world order in this century is a premise accepted by both sides.  This agreement is, at least, a start.  

What must come next is a commitment to action and adjustment.  An agenda for change, in other words, rather than defense of the status quo legacy of a different, and differently organized past.  One thing is clear, however: the required change is mainly on the U.S. side. 

Stephen M. Harner has been a U.S. State Department official (FSO), banker, and consultant in China and Japan.  He is a graduate of  the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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