When facing common enemies, countries who are otherwise competitors often come together to combat the present challenge. This happened to the United States and China during the Cold War and after 9/11. Unfortunately, the current Ukraine crisis has failed to bring the two powers together. Instead, it reveals deep-rooted problems in the relationship.
Competing with China remains America’s foreign policy priority today. China is America’s “pacing threat,” according to Biden Administration officials. Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Secretary of Defense, first used the term “pacing threat” during his Senate confirmation hearing on January 19, 2021. Since then, it has gained currency among U.S. officials and military leaders.
For example, General Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, framed China as the “pacing threat” at a March 3, 2022 panel hosted by the Air Force Association. On March 9, 2022, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner remarked at a congressional hearing that the People’s Republic of China is the Department of Defense’s “pacing challenge” and Taiwan is “the pacing scenario.”
Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, the top US defense priority is to defend the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the PRC, according to the 2022 National Defense Strategy released at the end of March 2022, which lists the PRC challenge above the Russia challenge.
Some scholars have suggested that part of the justification for the United States not getting militarily involved in the Ukraine war is that the United States can remain focused on the Indo-Pacific to deal with China.
China is walking a diplomatic tightrope now. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign nation, obviously violated the UN Charter and international law. Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is one of China’s most cherished foreign policy principles. Yet, China has not been forthright in condemning the invasion in order to maintain the critical relationship with Russia, which is touted to be “with no limits.” Beijing seems unwilling to alienate Russia or weaken Russia today when facing a hostile Western bloc.
Beijing’s reluctance to sanction Russia has disappointed many governments and observers since it is the only power wielding influence over Russia. Internal and external constraints prevent China from actively mediating between Russia and Ukraine as the Communist Party gears up for the important 20th congress this fall. However, if China does not help halt the war soon, its global image may further deteriorate and its pledge to be a responsible and peaceful power will be questioned.
On the other hand, it is baffling that the Biden administration is pressuring China to punish Russia while continuing to view China as the main adversary. In a thinly-veiled threat, President Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia” during the March 18 video call with Xi Jinping.
The handling of Taiwan is an indication of why distrust runs so deep between the United States and China. Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was planning to visit Taiwan in April 2022 as part of her official trip to Asia, violating the US promise to only maintain “unofficial relations” with Taiwan. Although she postponed the trip after testing positive for COVID-19, if she proceeds to visit Taiwan at a future date, she would be crossing Beijing’s red line and creating a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Hours before the Biden-Xi video call in March, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait and was followed by the destroyer USS Ralph Johnson, which happened to be conducting routine transit through the region. Both sides blamed the other for being provocative.
During the video call, Biden reaffirmed U.S. policy of “one China” and reiterated the U.S. position of not supporting Taiwan independence. However, some observers suggest that the U.S. “one China” policy is evolving into a de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policy.
On March 11, 2022 President Biden signed into law a sweeping $1.5 trillion spending bill, which includes a provision banning the use of maps by the Department of State and its foreign operations that depict Taiwan as part of China. This provision was sneaked into the enormous spending bill by Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), which made it difficult for Biden to veto.
Interestingly, during the December 2021 Summit for Democracy convened by Biden, the White House reportedly cut the video feed of Taiwan’s digital minister after a map in the speaker’s slide presentation showed the island in a different color from China’s, apparently to avoid antagonizing Beijing. China hawks in Congress such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) attacked the Biden administration’s handling of the situation and called it “kowtowing” to Beijing.
Three months later the Biden administration made a U-turn regarding the map of Taiwan, inflaming tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. Clearly the Biden administration faces tremendous pressures from Congress and has to be tough on China as the 2022 mid-term elections approach.
The Ukraine crisis has deepened distrust between Washington and Beijing. That a major global crisis has failed to unite the United States and China in handling the common challenge does not augur well for the bilateral relationship in the near future.