President Joe Biden held his first official phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday evening, Feb. 11th, in Washington and Thursday morning in Beijing, Chinese New Year’s Eve 2021, bringing an end to weeks of conspicuous silence between the leaders. “The President shared his greetings and well wishes with the Chinese people on the occasion of Lunar New Year.” (Source)
In the two general election years of 2008 and 2016, the Chinese President was one of the first to receive a phone call from the President-elect of the United States. This time, when the phone remained silent for a few weeks, it sparked speculation about the damaged relationship between the two countries. As such, the call was a powerful indicator of the future of Sino-American relations, both symbolic and practical.
As informed by the White House, Biden confronted Xi about China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuse in Xinjiang and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” according to a readout of the call. They also discussed the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, among other issues. (Source)
According to CNGT, President Xi called for cooperation rather than confrontation in the phone call with Biden. When China and the United States work together, they can accomplish a great deal for the good of both countries and the world at large. Confrontation between the two countries, however, would definitely be disastrous for both and the world, as the Chinese President highlighted; stating that the China-U.S. relationship is at a critical moment. (Source)
What kind of disaster Beijing is concerned about?
In the last few months, Chinese media has broadcast countless in-depth reports, analyses and documentations of the Korean war, including the new popular TV series “Crossing the Yalu River,” (Source) the last bloody military confrontation between China and US. The war ended in a truce, preventing a nuclear escalation between US and Soviet Union, but not without incurring great casualties on both sides. The bipartisan consensus in Washington for military engagement in the Korean peninsula was to hinder the spread of communism beyond Korea and throughout the whole of Eastern Asia. This American mindset, plus the “accidental” bombing of China (a provocation intended by a few China hawks) ended in the catastrophic loss of countless lives, a lasting tragedy for a hundred thousand families West and East of Pacific, and the destruction of huge wealth, that left only losers.
In June 1950, the North Korean military, supported by the Soviet Union and without the knowledge of China, crossed the 38th parallel that divided North and South Korea. This begun the Korean War. Fearful of the spread of communism, President Harry Truman garnered support from the United Nations Security Council to expel North Korean troops from the South. General Douglas MacArthur, however, pursued the North Koreans to the Yalu River, which formed the northern border between China and the Korean peninsula, after President Truman sent the 7the fleet into the Taiwan Street preventing Chinas reunification.
The Chinese interpreted American actions as an act of war against the newly born PRC and cautiously entered the conflict with a voluntary army instead of the PLA (Peoples Liberation Armey), avoiding a direct declaration of war by China. The Chinese voluntary army drove U.N. troops back down the peninsula, behind the 38th parallel. The war eventually ended after Dwight Eisenhower became president and threatened the use of nuclear weapons if the North Koreans or Chinese did not respect the 38th parallel as the boundary between the two countries. This threat was countered directly by Stalin’s announcement of nuclear retaliation, given the primary objective of Soviet Union was to distract U.S. military resource away from Europe, ideally via a confrontation between America and China, with its endless manpower.
According to China, the U.S. lost 62,423 soldiers, with 54,246 confirmed deaths. The total loss of U.N. troops amounted to 1,337,183, including 628,833 confirmed deaths with the rest missing. Chinese soldiers killed in battle amounted to 115,786, with total casualties of 366,145 plus additional losses of 382,741. (Source) So, the total Chinese loss amounted to 748,886. According to the Pentagon, however, the Korean War cost the United States $389.81 billion and only about 36,000 lives. (Source) As reported by CNN, the casualties were 54,246 until June 2000, when the Pentagon acknowledged that a clerical error had included deaths outside the Korean War theatre in the total. There are 7,600 American soldiers still unaccounted for from the Korean War as of April 2020. There has never been a peace treaty, so technically, the Korean War has never ended. (Source)
Does the same bi-partisan consensus behind the Korean War, against China, exist on Capitol Hill now?
Can China hawks in the U.S., and the majority of both parties on Capitol Hill, now only be persuaded to a truce with China via such a disastrous conflict?
Think-tanks in Beijing have been studying regional military confrontation as the worst-case scenario for resolving the current bi-partisan consensus in Washington towards China. There are three different locations that provide the opportunity to solve such a conflict on a smaller scale: Diaoyu island, Taiwan and the South China Sea. For China, The most manageable choices would be Diaoyu island or the reunification of Taiwan. Both would avoid a direct military confrontation between China and the U.S.. The destruction of any U.S. carrier system in the South China Sea is out of the question, as it risks a full-blown war directly between the two countries, controllable neither by Beijing nor Washington.
Why is Beijing considering such a disaster scenario?
Washington seems to be having difficulties understanding this.
Too look at it from another perspective: would the U.S. accept China confronting them about e.g. the separation of immigrant families at border detention centres, the discrimination against and deportation of Dreamers, the human rights abuses committed by police and State justice systems against people of colour, or the countless acts of right-wing terrorism, including but not limited to the recent storming of the Capitol? Should Beijing loudly express concerns about America’s catastrophic response to the Coronavirus pandemic, with countless deaths, just as White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki recently criticised China for a lack of transparency? Why, then, does the U.S. feel justified to freely make accusations regarding internal matters and sovereign affairs in China?
Many of the accusations that are being made by the U.S. against China are perceived by Beijing as exaggerated and groundless – some, as in the case of the South China Sea, Taiwan and Diayu island, are a direct consequence of American actions.
Speaking at the state department this week, Biden said that “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the US”. …In another sign that Biden will keep a vigilant stance towards China, the USS John McCain, a warship, this week sailed through international waters in the Taiwan Strait, the first such move under the new administration. (Source)
President Joe Biden announced the formation of a DOD China Task Force to provide a baseline assessment of department policies, programs and processes in regard to the challenge China poses, one day before his call with Beijing. Defense officials called the task force a “sprint effort” that will examine high-priority topics including strategy, operational concepts, technology and force structure, force posture and force management and intelligence. The task force will also examine U.S. alliances and partnerships and their impact on Sino-American relations and DOD relations with China. (Source)
The Biden administration still needs to recognise that the Sino-U.S. relationship should not be a competition of governing systems, with unnecessary ideological aggression on either side. There is no life-or-death interest to fight for, and no imaginary job zero-sum game between the countries. The solution, that would let the American industry flourish, is following European best practices. Industrial innovation giant Germany, for instance, enjoy’s both access to China’s growing markets and low-cost supplies. The U.S. itself is also already enjoying global competitiveness thanks to a complementary Chinese supply chain, in countless cases from Apple’s mobile phones to Tesla’s electric vehicles.
Ultimately, though, the Biden administration and Washington policymakers need to understand the thousand-year-old Chinese saying: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you.”
Can Biden’s understanding of Chinese civilisation and culture become more wide-spread in Washington？
During his oval office meeting with 4 senators from both parties after the call, Biden has stressed the relationship he established with Xi when vice president under Barack Obama, through more than 24 hours of private meetings and 17,000 miles of travel together. On Thursday, he said he had a good conversation with Xi and knew him well. However, a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the call Biden would be “practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed” in dealings with Xi. At the same time, the official said, Biden wanted to ensure they had the opportunity to have an open line of communication. (Source)
Western and U.S. policymakers’ confidence in their democratic systems was shaken when their handling of the Coronavirus pandemic stood in embarrassing contrast to China’s. It seems that too often, it has turned irrational prejudice towards China into fear. In order to prevent another worst-case scenario, like the Korean war, it is necessary that they stop viewing the Chinese system as being the evil equivalent of the former Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain countries.
What the elites and think tanks should understand is that China’s, and Eastern Asia’s, successful control of the pandemic is also due to a thousand year history influenced by the collectivism of Confucian and Mencian cultures. While individual freedom is the first priority in the Western world, in Asia there is a much greater focus on collective values. One guiding principle is “礼义廉信耻,” which means courtesy, justice, honesty, modesty and shame. It is not only the governing system, but mainly the mutual respect of the people within it that contributed to the successful fight against the pandemic.
Beijing recognises the difference between the well managed expressions Biden’s team uses when characterising China: “rival”, “match”, “challenge”, instead of Trumps “enemy”, “foe”, “thereat” and “predatory”. In particular, the fact Biden chose to call Beijing on the Lunar New Year’s Eve creates a respect for him as a knowledgeable friend, in contrast to less civilised “cowboy” behaviour of the previous administration. Mr. Biden is obviously leading Washington with more cautious wisdom and thereby demonstrating sufficient self-confidence.
Nonetheless, because of the damage caused by the Trump administration, Sino-US relations have entered a dangerous zone of disorderly deterioration. The room to manoeuvre between the two countries on many issues is rapidly shrinking, and any small event may rapidly deteriorate and become a major event that will affect the two countries for the next ten years or even decades.
On issues involving major strategic security interests, no country will retreat. China in particular has been forced into the corner in many areas, just as before the Korean War.
President Biden’s two-hour call with Beijing and his demonstration of knowledge of Chinese traditional culture does indeed bring new hope that China and the United States might be able to prevent misfires and potential military conflicts, which would be the worst case scenario for everyone.