January 29, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 22

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri January, 2021, Age: 2 years



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January 29, 2020

Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch

$10 billion

The value of a contract awarded to a Chinese consortium to upgrade the Sangley airport in the Philippines’ Cavite province, which was cancelled this week.


Top Stories

Despite fears that the new administration would be soft on China, this week has seen a number of Biden administration officials signal a relatively hawkish China policy on trade, technology, and security issues that bears substantive similarities to the previous administration’s.

New Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described China as the “pacing threat” to U.S. national security during his confirmation hearings last week, and called for allies in the Indo-Pacific to strengthen military ties shortly after being sworn in. To this end, Austin reiterated the U.S.’ regional security commitments to Japan and South Korea in calls with his respective counterparts over the weekend. The U.S. has also continued its maritime maneuvers in the South China Sea, including  sending an aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt to conduct maritime security operations in the region beginning Saturday. In a positive sign for Biden’s proposed “alliance of democracies,” Australia and the UK have announced that they will also send ships to patrol in the South China Sea. As with previous U.S. freedom of navigation operations, Chinese officials criticized the move as being “not conducive to peace and stability in the region.” China also announced new exercises off the coast of Guangdong in seeming response.

While it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will retain former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last-minute order to end long-standing unofficial contact regulations diplomatic personnel on Taiwan, the new government sent a strong signal affirming its commitment to Taiwan by inviting the Taiwanese representative to the United States (ie. Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador) to attend the presidential inauguration on January 20. In response to China’s continued buzzing of Taiwan’s airspace last week, the State Department said that the U.S.’ commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid” and promised to “[continue] deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan.” The statement also contained assurances that the U.S. would continue to support building up Taiwan’s deterrence capability. On Thursday, a Chinese defense spokesperson announced new military exercises in the Taiwan Strait as a “stern response to the interference by external forces and the provocations of the Taiwan independence forces” and warned that “Taiwan independence means war,” marking an escalation of the mainland’s rhetoric on the issue.

Following the new administration’s rollout of climate change executive orders on Wednesday, Biden’s climate czar John Kerry promised that the U.S. would not make tradeoffs in other areas of its China policy in exchange for progress on climate change cooperation. Kerry also took early advantage of the U.S.’s relatively stronger position on climate change to criticize China’s emissions reductions targets as “insufficient.”

On Tuesday, the nominee for Commerce Secretary Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo vowed to “use the full toolkit at my disposal to the fullest extent possible to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of back-door influence” during her confirmation hearings, although she did not commit to keeping telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE on a DoD blacklist.

And in a possible signal of what the new administration’s technology policy could look like, an influential private working group of influential foreign policy experts and technology industry insiders have released a memo to the new administration calling for “technological bifurcation” that is reminiscent of the previous administration’s politicized campaign to “decouple” from China. The working group warns that competition with China is “asymmetric” and suggests a hierarchy of possible responses to the China threat. Their policy proposals also include building more resilient supply chains, improving education and immigration to avert a “brain drain” problem, setting up a national technology forecasting office, and establishing a “T-12” forum for major technological democracies to combat China.

One notable area where the Biden administration could differ from its predecessor is in its federal prosecution of Chinese economic espionage. Under Trump, the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, aimed at “confronting malign Chinese behavior” in the United States, significantly ramped up its targeting of scholars—many of whom were ethnically Chinese—who concealed their ties to the Chinese state while receiving federal research funding from the U.S. government. Although there is bipartisan agreement on the need to counter unlawful Chinese knowledge theft, many criticized the DoJ’s highly publicized and heavy-handed arrests over the last two years as a form of racial profiling that could stifle useful collaboration and innovation. In the strongest-yet pushback, over 100 scientists signed a letter defending an MIT professor arrested and charged with grant fraud in the last days of the Trump administration, arguing that the U.S. government’s strategy so far criminalized and politicized “routine” mistakes. Groups have called on the Biden administration to end the “China Initiative,” arguing that it is as offensive and unacceptable as the term “China Virus.” In somewhat related news, Biden signed an executive order this week targeting COVID-19-related racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Justice Department may be mulling over an amnesty program under which academics could disclose past foreign funding without fear of punishment for their disclosures. The program could allow investigators to better ascertain the scope of foreign money funding U.S. research, but could also undermine ongoing cases.

Both China and India have downplayed last week’s border clash in Sikkim as being relatively minor as the two sides concluded a ninth round of military talks aimed at de-escalating tensions on Monday.  The talks were described in a joint statement as being “positive, practical and constructive,” and both sides agreed to meet again for a tenth round of talks as soon as possible. Although the tone of the press release was cautiously optimistic, it did not include any substantive developments. Meanwhile, complications elsewhere may be exacerbating tensions in the bilateral relationship. In a speech delivered at the 13th All India Conference of China Studies, Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar outlined “three mutuals” and “eight propositions” guiding India’s China policy. Jaishankar called for both sides to respect of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and explicitly tied the ongoing border dispute to the broader bilateral relationship, saying, “advancement of [bilateral] ties….was clearly predicated on ensuring peace and tranquillity [along the LAC],” contradicting a 2005 agreement which sought to delink the two issues and marking a change in India’s perspectives on the relationship. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “ I need to stress that the border issue shall not be linked with bilateral relations.”

Indian media reports in early January appeared to indicate that China has broken the terms of an agreement brokered in September to not send any more troops to the border. The New Delhi-based NDTV also broke the story on a new village constructed near the Tibetan border “4.5 km within Indian territory,” sparking concerns that both sides’ continuing construction and infrastructure build up will further inflame already-delicate tensions. China’s increasing development along its border with India demonstrates that its strategic commitment to the region remains strong — and may be increasingly incompatible with a peaceful resolution to the ongoing border dispute. China also recently held joint military exercises between its ground assault and aviation units near the LAC in an apparent flex to India.

Following a speech by Chinese President Xi at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Monday that urged world leaders to “put aside cold war thinking” and respect each other’s differences, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to express  support for Chinese-style multilateralism: “I would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs.” Merkel said in her address to the same forum. “I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other. This is not my understanding of how things ought to be.”

But other German leaders struck a different tone on China. Norbert Röttgen, who is widely seen to be a strong contender for replacing Merkel after steps down later this year, published a letter along with 70 bipartisan legislators across the international Group of Seven (G7), imploring President Biden to be wary of “China’s selective approach to international law and its aggressive foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific as well as increasingly on a global scale, are the main challenges to the international order, as we have known it since the end of the Second World War.” Röttgen’s more bullish tenor on China comes alongside the announcement that the German Navy has resumed planning to send a warship to the Asia-Pacific region in 2021 following delays related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, several nations in the Indo-Pacific have responded poorly to a new Coast Guard Law passed last week, which grants China’s coast guard authorizations to fire on foreign vessels and demolish foreign structures on territory claimed by China. Foreign experts have warned that such actions in contested territory could be considered an “act of war” and that the new law represents a ticking “time bomb” that could dramatically escalate the potential for violent conflict. Just this week, the small island nation of Vanuatu detained Chinese vessels for fishing illegally in the island’s territorial waters. The move comes after similar actions a month ago by Palau, and demonstrates a new willingness of China’s less-powerful neighbors to stand up against its increasing provocations. The law comes two years after China’s coast guard was placed under the People’s Armed Police, consolidating it as a part of China’s military. The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest in response to the law. At the same time, Japanese lawmakers have pushed for legislation to defend Japan’s claims to the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.

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