US efforts to rally allies may not sway China, says Joe Biden’s top Asia official

Owen Churchill
·5-min read

The United States should prepare for the possibility that its strategy to rally allies to confront China may not succeed in pressuring Beijing to alter its behaviour, the White House’s top Asia official said on Tuesday.

One abiding belief held by China analysts was that the Chinese government would alter course if it faced opposition from a front of other countries, said Kurt Campbell, who serves as the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the Biden administration’s National Security Council.

“I believe that there is some hope for that, but at the same time I do believe that Chinese foreign policy is in the midst of a substantial evolution,” Campbell said during a discussion event hosted by the Financial Times.

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“It’s entirely possible that in some circumstances they will simply double down and that they will not backtrack,” he said. “And I think we have to recognise that some elements of our playbook may require revision.”

As the Biden administration has formulated its nascent China policy, senior officials have repeatedly highlighted the need to bolster partnerships with allies to confront Beijing, distancing themselves from the go-it-alone approach of the previous administration.

In the new administration’s first three months, the push for multilateralism has brought coordinated sanctions with allies against Beijing over its treatment of ethnic minority groups in China’s far west; a rare joint statement from Tokyo and Washington regarding the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait; and a G7 session this week dedicated entirely to the challenges posed by Beijing.

Yet Chinese officials have shown little sign of bowing to the mounting pressure, instead issuing their own retaliatory sanctions, dismissing criticism as interference in China’s internal affairs, and using a bilateral meeting in Alaska to chastise US diplomats in front of the cameras over their claims to occupy a “position of strength”.

Speaking on Tuesday, Campbell did not suggest that a refusal by Beijing to change course in the face of an international front meant the policy was not worth pursuing. Rather, he said, a coordinated approach would help the US and allies to better defend their interests should China continue to rebuff their grievances.

“The reason that we work together with other countries is not simply about the hope that China will change course, but [is also] for the goal of working with other countries in and of itself,” Campbell said.

“It leads to greater resiliency: we may need to work more closely together if we face, in some circumstances, an implacable set of circumstances with regard to China.”

Campbell’s remarks come as the Biden administration wades through an inter-agency review of its China policy, touching on matters ranging from defence to the suite of tariffs on Chinese imports – a legacy of the Trump administration.

What is going on in Xinjiang and who are the Uygur people?

Top US officials have publicly expressed the belief that the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is pursuing an increasingly authoritarian agenda, be that domestically, in the Indo-Pacific region or in multilateral forums such as the United Nations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent CBS interview that Beijing was “acting more repressively at home and more aggressively abroad”, while US President Joe Biden last week described Xi as an autocrat who was “deadly earnest about [China] becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world”.

The prospect of a Chinese government increasingly defiant of international pressure came as Xi chose to surround himself with a smaller number of loyalists, said Campbell, a long-time China expert who previously served as Barack Obama’s top diplomat overseeing East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Xi had moved China’s governance away from a model of collective leadership towards a scenario in which he would listen to the counsel of three to seven advisers, according to Campbell, who said: “He is a person who likes to be reaffirmed in his views.”

Asked about any plans for Biden to convene a face-to-face meeting with Xi, Campbell suggested that such an event was a way off.

“We want to make sure that the set of circumstances domestically in the United States are appropriate before we undertake some of the things that we’re contemplating [regarding China] as we go forward,” he said.

The Biden administration’s early approach to handling relations with Beijing – keeping in place many of the Trump administration’s unilateral policies while fortifying partnerships with like-minded nations – represented “the worst of all worlds” for Beijing, said Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite the double-pronged approach, it would be “very difficult” to get China to change course on issues surrounding Hong Kong and Xinjiang, said Economy, speaking alongside Campbell at the Financial Times event.

But that could change if an increasing number of countries in the Middle East and Africa began to join the international outcry over China’s actions in Xinjiang, according to Economy.

“It’s easiest for China to push back against this when it’s just the United States or even just the United States and sort of the advanced democracies” because Beijing can frame such opposition as “an effort by the US to contain China in some way”, she said.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney

This article US efforts to rally allies may not sway China, says Joe Biden’s top Asia official first appeared on South China Morning Post

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