President Joe Biden announced at the G7 summit in Japan last month that he was open to détente with Beijing and “the beginning of a thaw [of the Sino-U.S. relationship] very soon.” Since then, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rhetoric and actions suggest Biden’s détente is wishful thinking.
Last week, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China sent its J-16 fighter jet to conduct “an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver,” as the U.S. military characterized it. It was dangerously close (about 400 feet) to a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane over the South China Sea in international air space. The incident took place when U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Japan. Almost exactly a year ago, a Chinese fighter jet made a similar move against an Australian reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea. Australia’s defense ministry called the encounter “a dangerous maneuver that posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew.”
Toward the end of last week, China’s defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, rejected the U.S. request to meet with Austin at an annual security conference in Singapore. The U.S. government has put Li on its sanctions list since 2018 after Li “purchased combat aircraft and missile equipment from Russia,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Instead, Li used his meeting with Singapore’s defense chief, Ng Eng Hen, to vow that the PLA would “absolutely not” renounce the use of force on Taiwan. He also said Beijing wouldn’t tolerate Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, seeking support from other countries for Taiwan’s independence.
As if to prove Li’s point, on June 3, the eve of the 34th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a Chinese warship reportedly came within 150 yards of hitting the American destroyer USS Chung-Hoon in the Taiwan Strait, forcing the U.S. destroyer to “alter course and slow down to avoid a crash.” At the time, the U.S. destroyer was participating in a joint Canada-U.S. mission sailing through the international waterway in the South China Sea. Capt. Paul Mountford, commander of Canada’s HMCS Montreal and an eyewitness, deemed that the incident was “instigated by the Chinese.” In a statement, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command called the Chinese warship’s maneuvers “unsafe.”
When reporters asked Li about the incident at the Singapore conference, rather than expressing any regret, he defended the Chinese warship’s actions and accused the U.S. of provoking Beijing by sailing in China’s territorial waterway (Beijing regards Taiwan as a province of communist China and the Taiwan Strait as Chinese waters). National Public Radio’s reporter Emily Feng tweeted that Li told the audience in Singapore (unmistakably directing it at the U.S.), “Mind your own business … Take care of your territorial space and waters; if that’s the case, no future problems.”
Li’s inflammatory remark followed the CCP’s typical playbook of never taking responsibility, always acting like a victim, and blaming the other side for China’s aggression. Someone should ask Li whether his remark applied to the Chinese spy balloon that floated across the continental U.S. early this year.
Why the Close Calls?
There are several explanations for the PLA’s increasingly frequent “close calls” with foreign militaries.
First, they are part of the CCP’s intimidation tactics. Through these intentional and risky close encounters, the CCP hopes to put risk-averse civilian and military leaders in the U.S. and among its allies constantly on edge, so they may eventually concede the international waters and airspace over the South China Sea to the PLA to avoid costly military conflict against China. Additionally, by relentlessly challenging the U.S. and allies’ militaries in the South China Sea and over international airspace, the PLA intends to “strongly discourage” China’s Southeast Asian neighbors from following the U.S. lead in assisting Taiwan’s defense.
Second, what we are witnessing could be a preview of how the PLA’s invasion of Taiwan will unfold. The PLA probably hopes that as these precarious encounters become more frequent, the U.S. and its allies’ militaries will get used to them and become complacent, until one of those “close calls” becomes an actual collision. The PLA could then claim it has been provoked by the U.S., and China would launch its invasion of Taiwan under the pretense of self-defense.
Third, historically, the more the CCP feels insecure, the more antagonistic its behavior and rhetoric get. The party has many reasons not to feel secure right now. Domestically, China’s economy faces serious structural problems. For example, The Wall Street Journal reported that “about a third of China’s major cities are struggling to pay just the interest on the debt they owe.” Saddled with debt, many municipalities had to cut social welfare benefits, an unpopular move that drove seniors in several Chinese cities to stage protests in what many dubbed the “silver hair revolution.” The most concerning issue is the stubbornly high unemployment rate for Chinese youth (about 20 percent for those between the ages of 16 and 24), which severely threatens the social stability the CCP craves.
Internationally, the CCP feels more isolated in some circles after the Covid-19 pandemic. Global opinion of China and its leader, Xi Jinping, took a nose dive. Sino-U.S. relations reached a historical low, and the U.S. has strengthened economic and military cooperation with China’s Asian-Pacific neighbors, such as India and Japan. Even the usually sleepy leadership of the European Union called for a more muscular foreign policy to counter China’s “systemic change of the international order.”
Biden Administration’s Approach
The PLA’s recent aggressive maneuvers and inflammatory rhetoric likely manifest the party’s insecurity as it struggles to address these domestic and international challenges. Yet, when the Biden administration, hoping to defuse tensions, tried to reopen high-level engagement and establish new communication channels with the PLA, Beijing refused to engage unless Washington meets Beijing’s demand for concessions.
All signals from Beijing suggest the CCP has no interest in reciprocating Biden’s détente. The Biden administration must stop treating the CCP as a regular political entity that will abide by established international rules and that can be appealed to through dialogue, reason, logic, and common sense. From the CCP’s ruthless crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the party’s coverup in the early days of the pandemic, one profound lesson we should learn from the last three decades is that the CCP is willing to cause harm to its people and those outside of China as long as the party accomplishes its goals.
For now, and in the foreseeable future, one of the CCP’s goals under Xi is to drive the U.S. and its allies out of the South China Sea so Beijing can do whatever it wants in the region, including “re-uniting” with Taiwan. No dialogue or engagement will dissuade the CCP from moderating its behavior or adjusting its goals. Instead, the CCP sees the Biden administration’s détente as a sign of weakness and will continue to react with hostility. Since the CCP recognizes solely raw power, it will only adjust its actions when encountering a mightier opponent. Thus, the Biden administration must discard its delusional détente with Beijing and instead focus on increasing the U.S. and its allies’ military readiness.
As these recent “close encounters” in the South China Sea have demonstrated, the CCP will likely force the U.S. into a military conflict at a time and place of its choosing unless the U.S. and its allies can show their military power is far superior to the PLA’s.