Checking China’s military: Biden’s next challenge

Taiwan Ministry of Defense/AP
A Taiwan Ministry of Defense photo of a Chinese PLA J-16 fighter jet in an undisclosed location. China sent a record 28 fighter jets toward the self-ruled island of Taiwan on June 15.
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Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon made it plain what he thought of the criticisms of his rule that President Joe Biden and America’s Western allies had voiced at their recent summits in Europe.

He sent 28 fighter jets and bombers to breach the air defense zone of island democracy Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province and has pledged to reunite with the mainland.

Why We Wrote This

China is not just an economic superpower. In its region, Beijing is now a military superpower. What does that mean for Taiwan, and what can the U.S. do about it?

The blunt message? China has become incomparably more powerful, self assured, internationally assertive, and ambitious since Mr. Xi took office nine years ago. Don’t dare lecture us.

China is America’s only true rival on the world stage, and Mr. Xi has made national revival the cornerstone of his presidency and leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. He foresees China taking the dominant geopolitical role currently played by the democratic market economies of the West, which he believes are in inexorable decline.

It is not clear whether Mr. Xi feels ready, either politically or militarily, to invade Taiwan. Nor is it clear anymore whether the United States could stop him if he tried.

When President Biden met Vladimir Putin last week, he sought “predictable and stable” relations with Russia. When he meets Mr. Xi – probably in the fall – he will pursue a similar aim. But the challenge will be a lot more daunting.

The response that mattered most after last week’s European summitry between President Joe Biden and America’s allies came roughly 48 hours later and 10,000 miles away.

It was the roar of 28 Chinese bombers and fighter jets crossing the narrow strait off China’s coast and breaching the air-defense zone of the island democracy of Taiwan.

That was Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s answer to the allied criticism of his economic, security, and human-rights record, and its meaning was clear: “China has become incomparably more powerful, self-assured, internationally assertive, and ambitious during my nine years in power.” Or more bluntly: “Don’t dare lecture us.”

Why We Wrote This

China is not just an economic superpower. In its region, Beijing is now a military superpower. What does that mean for Taiwan, and what can the U.S. do about it?

China is the United States’ only true rival world power and by far its most daunting foreign policy challenge. It poses a conundrum that the Biden administration will be trying to work out ahead of the president’s next big geopolitical encounter, likely to come this fall: a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Xi. And the puzzle shows no signs of it getting easier to solve.

Mr. Xi has vowed to reunify Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, with the mainland. By force, if necessary. 

The hope remains in Washington – and among its allies – that all sides will want to avoid the nightmare scenario of military confrontation. But the very fact that such a scenario is no longer unthinkable is a reminder that China’s hardening stance on Taiwan is part of a more fundamental shift under Mr. Xi.

His stated aim is the “revival of the Chinese nation” to a point when China would take the dominant geopolitical role currently played by the democratic market economies of the West, which he believes are in inexorable decline. 

Mr. Biden has called Mr. Xi’s domestic rule authoritarian, and it’s certainly that. But in recent years it has become nearly totalitarian, demanding total fealty to the Communist Party and to Mr. Xi himself – underpinned by the world’s largest and most pervasive system of electronic surveillance and control.

Internationally, he has greatly expanded Chinese influence, partly by leveraging an increasingly powerful economy, the world’s second largest, which gives Beijing a major role in world trade and finance. He has also championed a $1 trillion overseas infrastructure program called Belt and Road, involving a mix of funding, loans, and construction projects that give China new political sway, and financial influence, in dozens of developing countries worldwide.

And he has added military muscle to his foreign affairs toolbox, reorganizing and modernizing the country’s land, air, and naval forces, and developing cyberwarfare capability.

The significance of Taiwan is that it’s an issue where domestic and international, military and political, elements all intersect.

Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (right) bumps elbows with a group of U.S. senators upon their arrival in Taipei on June 6. They were visiting to discuss U.S.-Taiwan relations and other issues on a trip that angered China, which claims Taiwan as its territory.

For Mr. Xi, it is both a domestic and international cause. Central to his vision of national revival is the nonnegotiable assumption that Taiwan’s people – ethnic Chinese – are part of “One China.” And it’s a priority with new importance for Beijing since Taiwan’s establishment of a thriving democracy in the mid-1990s.

Experts differ over whether Mr. Xi is ready to reckon with the international political and economic costs China would pay for invading Taiwan – and, indeed, whether his military modernization has reached the point where he can be fully confident of succeeding.

But no one believes the U.S. response to the last major Taiwan crisis – in 1996, when two aircraft carrier battle groups persuaded Beijing to back down from efforts to influence the island’s first full democratic election – would be a sufficient deterrent now.

It’s not just that China’s military now has “carrier-killing” missiles. It’s the political shift. Any illusion that Mr. Xi’s “One China” policy is mere rhetoric has been shattered by the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Just last week, police there raided the offices of its main independent newspaper and arrested its top editors. The authorities also froze the paper’s funds, forcing the paper to close at the end of this week.

President Biden’s short-term hope is not so much to mount an effective response if China does move against Taiwan, though U.S. planners have long been working through the options. It is to deter China from taking military action and avoid such a confrontation in the first place.

With this in mind, Washington has begun redirecting military assets toward the Asia Pacific region. Politically, it’s also been strengthening ties with Asian allies and seeking a shared China policy on issues ranging from trade to human rights.

But Mr. Biden’s fundamental China policy aim seems broadly similar to what motivated his talks last week with another U.S. adversary, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

There, Mr. Biden’s declared goal was to restore “predictability and stability” to relations with Moscow, by setting out agreed rules of the road, being explicit about where Washington opposed Russian actions and also exploring areas where the two countries could act together.   

That’s a difficult enough task with Russia. It is likely to prove even more daunting with Xi Jinping’s China.

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