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Commentary: China will keep hard-line policy as Biden warns of steep competition

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator


TOKYO — Moves to punish China have gained steam in major countries of late. The U.S., Britain, Canada and the European Union announced sanctions on China this week for alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. In Japan, a cross-party move is emerging to introduce a law to slap sanctions on China.


The strict U.S. stance on China is especially noticeable. At his first formal news conference Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden revealed that he had warned Chinese President Xi Jinping of America’s “steep competition” with China.


Last July, this commentator wrote that the U.S. and China had entered a long “political war” over their governance systems and that the trend would not change even if Biden was elected president. Views attributing the principal cause of the China problem to the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party were emerging in the U.S. Especially as U.S. criticism of China’s response to the initial spread of COVID-19 grew, the tide of blaming the CCP for its alleged evil nature appears to be gathering steam.


This raises the question: Where is the China policy of major nations headed? Skepticism and pessimism about the CCP are crisscrossed among policymakers in major countries.


Skepticism assumes that China’s hard-line behavior can be changed more or less, although total changes are impossible, while pessimism is based on a hypothesis that hopes for such a change are slim as long as the CCP is in power.


Sooner or later, major countries will have to decide which view they subscribe to because the choice will change their strategies toward China.


If they opt for the former, it would behoove them to deepen dialogue with Beijing and retain hopes for such issues as cooperation in dealing with climate change while pressuring China on the geostrategic and high-tech human rights issues.


If opting for the latter view, they should step up efforts to encircle China with allies and like-minded countries, assuming that Beijing will not change its hard-line stance and will be more assertive in the long run.


Arguments based on the two views are competing with each other inside the Biden administration. The debate has yet to draw a conclusion, although Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held talks with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska on March 18-19.


The Alaska meeting went relatively calmly after an exchange of harsh words before the formal talks began, according to a former senior U.S. government official who had been informed about the closed-door discussions. While maintaining a rigid stance on its human rights record and Taiwan, the Chinese side showed a willingness to cooperate over climate change, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, and repeatedly asked the U.S. to establish ways for work to be done jointly.


Does China’s behavior at the meeting suggest that Beijing may review its hard-line policy and ease its attitude toward the U.S., Europe and neighboring countries in Asia? Or is it merely a tactical ploy to prevent the U.S. from getting tougher?


Unfortunately, we should assume the second.


The CCP has stated its goal of developing China into a “midlevel advanced country” by 2035 and to a superpower on the level of the U.S. by 2050. China appears unlikely to walk back its policy of economic and military might as long as it adheres to the goal.


At an internal Communist Party meeting in January, Xi reportedly stressed that “the East is rising while the West is declining.” The remark is taken to reflect Xi’s lack of intent to moderate its approach to the U.S. while trying to supplant America as global hegemon.


The American magazine Foreign Policy drew attention as it published a co-authored commentary in its March 31 online edition that noted the difficulty of reasonable coexistence between China under the CCP and the U.S., and forecast that the frictions between the two will continue into the foreseeable future.


Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who co-authored the commentary, expressed doubt whether Beijing would change its behavior.


“Five years ago, many people thought that we could change China’s concerning behavior. But today, more and more people are unsure,” Cooper wrote. “The result of the U.S.-China talks in Alaska suggests to me that hopes for stable coexistence between China and the United State are growing slimmer. I hope that is wrong, but I fear it is right.”


“We have to be realistic that the peaceful coexistence model might fail, so we may have to consider plan B,” Cooper continued. “Specifically, we should further strengthen our alliances and partnerships by building a set of global coalitions to offset China’s destabilizing behavior.”


If the Sino-American political war continues to intensify, it may develop into a new cold war and increase military tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea. Geographically, Japan will stand at the front line.


As a top-priority issue, Japan needs to work closely with the U.S. and counter China in competition for hegemony in the maritime and high-technology fields, said University of Tokyo professor Shin Kawashima, a China expert. At the same time, Japan should not abandon efforts to play a possible role to prevent the Sino-American confrontation from developing into an armed conflict, Kawashima said.


“Sooner or later China will enter a phase where a hard-line policy alone will become difficult because its economic growth is slowing as a result of its dwindling birthrate and aging population,” he said. “That is why China is trying to rapidly attain the target. China’s policy of increasing military strength cannot be stopped but its schedule may be delayed. Japan should not abandon but continue efforts to have China ease its hard-line stance.”


For example, China examined a plan to establish an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea after it established one in the East China Sea during the Barack Obama administration in 2013, but has not carried out one in the South China Sea yet because of opposition from many countries.


In February, China passed a law to give its coast guard quasi-military powers, including the right to fire on foreign vessels. “If countries effectively impose pressure, a delay in the rigorous enforcement of the law is not impossible,” Kawashima said.


There were views in Japan that the Biden administration might become weak-kneed on China. But Japan is directly facing the opposite course of U.S. policy, which makes it more difficult for Tokyo to deal with China.

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