Academic Webinar: U.S. Strategy in East Asia
Chris Li, director of research of the Asia-Pacific Initiative and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, leads the conversation on U.S. strategy in East Asia.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2023 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Chris Li with us to discuss U.S. strategy in East Asia. Mr. Li is director of research of the Asia-Pacific Initiative, and a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he focuses on U.S.-China relations, Asia-Pacific security, and technology competition. Previously, he was research assistant to Graham Allison in the Avoiding Great Power War Project, and coordinator of the China Working Group, where he contributed to the China Cyber Policy Initiative and the Technology and Public Purpose Project, led by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Chris, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought we could begin with you giving us your insights and analysis of the Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy in East Asia, specifically vis-à-vis China.
LI: Great. Well, first of all, thanks, Irina, for the invitation. I’m really looking forward to the conversation and also to all the questions from members of the audience and, in particular, all the students on this seminar. So I thought I’d start very briefly with just an overview of how the Biden administration’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific has shaped up over the last two years, two and a half years. What are the key pillars? And essentially, now that we’re about halfway through the first term—or, you know, if there is a second term—but President Biden’s first term, where things are going to go moving forward?
So as many you are probably familiar, Secretary of State Tony Blinken laid out essentially the core tenets of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, of which China, of course, is a focal centerpiece. And he did so in his speech last summer at the Asia Society, where he essentially described the relationship between the U.S. and China as competitive where it should be, cooperative where it can be, and adversarial where it must be. So sort of three different pillars: competition, cooperation, a sort of balance between the two. And in terms of the actual tenets of the strategy, the framing was three pillars—invest, align, and complete.
And so briefly, just what that meant according to Secretary Blinken was really investing in sources of American strength at home. Renewing, for example, investment in technology, investment in STEM education, infrastructure, and many of the policies that actually became known as Build Back Better, a lot of the domestic spending packages that President Biden proposed, and some of which has been passed. So that first pillar was invest sort of in order to o compete with China, we need to first renew our sources of American strength and compete from a position of strength.
The second element was “align.” And in this—in this pillar, I think this is where the Biden administration has really distinguished itself from the Trump administration. Many folks say, well, the Biden administration’s China policy or its Asia policy is really just Trump 2.0 but with a little bit—you know, with essentially a nicer tone to it. But I think there is a difference here. And I think the Biden administration’s approach has really focused on aligning with both traditional security partners—our allies, our alliances with countries like the Republic of Korea, Japan, the Philippines—but also invigorating those nontraditional partnerships, with India, for example.
I think another part of this strategy, another part of this dimension, has also been reinvigorating U.S. presence and U.S. leadership, really, in multilateral organizations. Not only, for example, taking the Quad and reestablishing some of the leader-level summits, the ministerials, proposing, for example, a COVID cooperation regime among new members of the Quad, but also establishing newer frameworks. So, for example, as many of you have read about, I’m sure, AUKUS, this trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. when it comes to sharing of nuclear submarine technology. That’s been a new proposed policy. And I think we’re about to see an update from the administration in the next couple of weeks.
And even with elements of the region that have been unappreciated and perhaps under-focused on. For example, the Solomon Islands was the focal point of some attention last year, and you’ve seen the administration propose the Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative, which seeks to establish greater cooperation among some of the Pacific Island nations. And there was actually a summit hosted by President Biden last fall with leaders of the Pacific Island countries. So that alignment piece I think has really been significant as a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
The third element, of course, competition, I think is the most evident. And we’ve seen this from some of the executive orders on semiconductors, the restrictions on advanced chips, to elements of trade, to even sort of advocacy for human rights and greater promotion of democracy. You saw the Summit for Democracy, which has been a pillar of the administration’s foreign policy agenda. So that’s basically what they’ve done in the last two and a half years.
Now, in terms of where that’s actually brought us, I think I’ll make four observations. The first is that, unlike the Biden—unlike the Trump administration, where most of the policy pronouncements about the People’s Republic of China had some tinge of inducing change in China—that was the phrase that Secretary Pompeo used in a speech on China policy—I think the Biden administration largely has said: The assumption and the premise of all of our policy toward China is based on the idea that the U.S. government does not seek fundamentally to change the Chinese government, the Chinese regime, the leadership, the administration, the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
So that is both a markedly important difference, but it’s also a part of the strategy that I believe remains ambiguous. And here, the problem is, you know, invest, align, and compete, competitive coexistence, where does that all actually take us? And I think this is where analysts in the strategic community and think tank world have said, well, it’s great to invest, of course. You know, there’s bipartisan support. Alignment with partners and allies is, of course, a pretty uncontroversial, for the most part, approach. And competition is, I think, largely a consensus view in Washington, D.C. But where does this actually take us?
You know, for all of its criticisms, the Trump administration did propose a specific end state or an end objective. And I think the Biden administration has just sort of said, well, it’s about coexisting. It’s about just assuming to manage the relationship. I think there are, of course, valid merits to that approach. And on an intellectual level, the idea is that because this is not necessarily a Cold War 2.0, in the words of the Biden administration, we’re not going to have an end state that is ala the Cold War—in essence a sort of victory or demise, you know, the triumph of capitalism over communism, et cetera. In fact, it’s going to be a persistent and sustained rivalry and competition. And in order to harness a strategy, we essentially need to manage that competition.
So I think that’s—it’s an intellectually coherent idea, but I think one of the ambiguities surrounding and one of the criticisms that has been proposed is that there is no clear end state. So we compete, we invest, we align, but to what end? Do we just keep—does the administration continue to tighten up and enhance alliances with partners and allies, and then to what end? What happens next? And sort of where does this lead us—leave us in ten years from now? So I think that’s the first comment I’ll make about the approach to the Indo-Pacific.
The second is that one of the tenets, of course, as I describe, is this compartmentalization of compete, cooperate. In essence, you know, we will compete—we, being the United States—with China on issues of technology, issues of economics, but we will also cooperate on areas of shared concern—climate change, nonproliferation. I think what you’ve seen is that while the Biden administration has proposed this idea, we can split—we can cooperate on one hand and also compete on the other—the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government, has largely rejected that approach.
Where you’ve seen statements from senior officials in China that have said, essentially, we will not cooperate with you, the United States, until you first cease all of the behavior, all of the negative policies that we don’t like. In essence, if you will continue to sell arms to Taiwan, if you continue, the United States, to restrict semiconductors, to crackdown on espionage, to conduct military exercises in the region, then forget about any potential cooperation on climate, or forget about any cooperation on global health, et cetera.
So in essence, being able to tie the two compartments together has prevented a lot of what the Biden administration has sought to achieve. And we’ve seen that very clearly with Special Envoy John Kerry and his relentless efforts to conduct climate diplomacy. And I think largely—for example, last summer in the aftermath of Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, you saw a lot of those collaborative efforts essentially derailed. That’s the second comment I’ll make, which is while this approach, again, logically to most Americans would seem sound, it’s actually met a lot of resistance because the Chinese reaction to it is not necessarily the same.
The third is I think we’ve seen increasingly, even though there has been an increased alignment since the Trump administration with allies and partners, there’s still a degree of hedging among countries in the region. And that makes sense because from the perspectives of many of those leaders of countries in the region, the United States is a democratic country. We have an election coming up in 2024. And there’s no guarantee that the next president, if President Biden is no longer the president in 2024 or even in 2028, will continue this policy.
And I think all of you, as observers of American politics, know the degree to which American politics has become largely one that is dysfunctional, is almost schizophrenic in a way. And so one would imagine that if you are a leader of a country in the Asian-Pacific region, to support the Biden administration’s engagement, but also to maintain a degree of strategic autonomy, as this is often called. And so what I think we’ll continue to see and what will be interesting to watch is how middle powers, how other countries resident in the region approach the United States in terms of—(inaudible). I think India will be key to watch, for example. Its defense relationship with the United States has increased over the years, but yet it still has close interests with respect to China.
The final comment I’ll make is that on the military dimension I think this is another area of concern, where the Biden administration has said that one of its priorities is creating guardrails, constructing guardrails to manage the potential escalation in the event of an accident, or a miscommunication, miscalculation that could quickly spiral into a crisis. And we needn’t—we need not look farther than the 2001 Hainan incident to think of an example, which was a collision between a(n) EP-3 aircraft and a Chinese intelligence plane. And that led to a diplomatic standoff.
And so I think the United States government is very keen on creating dialogue between militaries, risk reduction mechanisms, crisis management mechanisms. But I think they’ve encountered resistance, again, from the People’s Republic of China, because the perspective there is that much of the U.S. behavior in the region militarily is invalid, is illegitimate. You know, the Chinese government opposes, for example, U.S. transits through the Taiwan Strait. So the idea therefore that they would engage and essentially deconflict and manage risk is sort of legitimizing American presence there militarily. And so we’ve encountered that obstacle as well.
So I think going forward on all four elements, we’re going to continue to see adjustment. And I think, as students, as researchers, I think these are four areas where there’s fertile room for discussion, for debate, for analysis, for looking at history. And I look forward to a conversation. Hopefully, many of you have ideas as well because there’s no monopoly on wisdom and there are many creative proposals to be discussed. So I look forward to questions. I’ll stop there.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you, Chris. That was great. Now we’re going to go to all of you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first written question comes from Grace Wheeler. I believe a graduate student at the University of West Florida. Kissinger proposed the future of China-U.S. relations be one of coevolution instead of confrontation. Is it still realistically possible for the future of China-U.S. relations to be one of cooperation instead of confrontation?
LI: So terrific question. Thank you for the question. It’s a very interesting idea. And I think Henry Kissinger, who I know has long been involved with the Council on Foreign Relations, has produced through his many decades,strategic frameworks and new ways of thinking about cardinal challenges to geopolitics. I have not yet actually understood or at least examined specifically what the concrete pillars of coevolution entail. My understanding on a general level is that it means, essentially, the United States and the People’s Republic of China adjust and sort of mutually change their policies to accommodate each other. So a sort of mutual accommodation over time to adjust interests in a way that prevent conflict.
I think on the face—of course, that sounds—that sounds very alluring. That sounds like a terrific idea. I think the problem has always been what would actually this look like in implementation? So for example, on the issue of Taiwan, this is an issue where the Chinese government has said: There is no room for compromise. You know, the refrain that they repeat is: Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory. It is part of sovereignty. And there is no room for compromise. This is a red line. So if that’s the case, there’s not really, in my view, much room for evolution on this issue, for example. And it’s an intractable problem.
And so I don’t necessarily know how to apply the Kissinger framework to specific examples. And, but, you know, I do think it’s something worth considering. And, you know, I would encourage you and others on this call to think about, for example, how that framework might actually be adapted. So I think it’s an interesting idea, but I would—I think the devil’s in the details. And essentially, to think about how this would be applied to specific issues—South China Sea, human rights, trade—would be the key to unpacking this concept.
I think the second part of your question was, is cooperation possible? And again, I think, as I stated in my remarks, the Biden administration publicly says—publicly asserts that they do seek to maintain a space for cooperation in climate, in nonproliferation, in global health security. I think, again, what we’ve encountered is that the Chinese government’s view is that unless the United States ceases behavior that it deems detrimental to its own interests, it will not pursue any discussion of cooperation.
And so I think that’s the problem we’re facing. And so I think there are going to be discussions going forward on, well, given that, how do we then balance the need for cooperation on climate, in pandemics, with, for example, also concerns about security, concerns about military activity, concerns about Taiwan, et cetera? And I think this is the daily stuff of, of course, the conversations among the Biden administration and senior leadership. So personally, my view, is I hope cooperation is possible, of course. I think there are shared issues, shared vital interests, between the two countries and, frankly, among the global community, that require the U.S. and China to be able to work out issues. But I’m personally not optimistic that under this current framework, this paradigm, there will be a significant space open for cooperation.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Going next to Hamza Siddiqui, a raised hand.
Q: Thank you. Hi. I’m Hamza Siddiqui, a student from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
And I actually had two questions. The first was: What kind of role does the U.S. envision Southeast Asian states—especially like the Philippines and Vietnam—playing in their U.S. strategy when it comes to Asia-Pacific security issues, specifically? And the second is that for the last few years there’s been some discussion about Japan and South Korea being formally invited to join the Five Eyes alliance. And I wanted to get your take on that. What do you think are the chances that a formal invitation would be extended to them? Thank you.
LI: Great. Thank you for the question. Two terrific questions.
So, first, on the role of countries in Southeast Asia, I think that under the Biden administration they have continued to play an increasing degree of importance. So you’ve seen, for example, even in the Philippines, which you cited, I think just last month Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a visit there. And in the aftermath of the visit, he announced a new basing agreement. I haven’t reviewed the details specifically, and I’m not a Philippines expert, but in short my understanding is that there is going to be renewed American presence—expanded American presence, actually, in the region.
And the Philippines, just based on their geostrategic location, is incredibly important in the Indo-Pacific region. So I think that the administration is very active in enhancing cooperation on the defense element, but also on the political and economic side as well. So with the Quad, for example, in India, you’ve seen cooperation on elements of economics as well, and technology. I think there’s an initiative about digital cooperation too. So I think the answer is increasingly an important role.
On Japan and Korea, there have, of course, been discussions over the years about expanding the Five Eyes intelligence alliance to other countries in Asia as well. My assessment is that that’s probably unlikely to occur in a formal way in the near term. But I could be wrong. And that assessment is primarily based on the fact that the countries that currently are part of the Five Eyes agreement share certain elements of linguistic convergence. They all speak English. There are certain longstanding historical ties that those countries have. And I think that to necessarily expand—or, to expand that existing framework would probably require a degree of bureaucratic sort of rearrangement that might be quite difficult, or quite challenging, or present obstacles.
I think what you will see, though, is enhanced security cooperation, for sure. And we’ve seen that even with Japan, for example, announcing changes to its military, its self-defense force, and increased defense spending as well in the region. So I think that is a trend that will continue.
FASKIANOS: Next question I’m taking from Sarah Godek, who is a graduate student at the University of Michigan.
What do guardrails look like, from a Chinese perspective? Thinking how China’s foreign ministry has consistently put out lists of demands for the U.S. side, I’m wondering how guardrails are formulated by Wang Yi and others.
LI: Great. Thanks for the question.
So I guess I’ll step back first and talk about what guardrails, in my view, actually entail. So I think the idea here is that in the event of a crisis—and, most of the time, crises are not planned. (Laughs.) Most of the time, crises, you know, occur as a result of an accident. For example, like the 2001 incident. But an accidental collision in the South China Sea between two vessels, the collision accidentally of two planes operating in close proximity. And as Chinese and American forces operate in closer proximity and increasing frequency, we do have that risk.
So I think, again, the idea of a guardrail that essentially, in the military domain, which is what I’m speaking about, entails a mechanism in place such that in the event of an accident or a crisis, there are ways based on that mechanism to diffuse that crisis, or at least sort of stabilize things before the political leadership can work out a solution. In essence, to prevent escalation because of a lack of dialogue. And I think for those of you who’ve studied history, you know that many wars, many conflicts have occurred not because one power, one state decides to launch a war. That has occurred. But oftentimes, because there is an accident, an accidental collision. And I think many wars have occurred this way.
So the idea of a guardrail therefore, in the military domain, is to create, for example, channels of communication that could be used in the event of a conflict. I think the easiest parallel to imagine is the U.S. and the Soviet Union, where there were hotlines, for example, between Moscow and between Washington, D.C. during that era, where the seniormost national security aides of the presidents could directly reach out to each other in the event of a crisis.
In the China context, what has been difficult is some of those channels exist. For example, the National Security Council Coordinator for Asia Kurt Campbell has said publicly: We have hotlines. The problem is that when the Americans pick up the phone and call, no one picks up on the other side. And in short, you know, having just the structure, the infrastructure, is insufficient if those infrastructure are not being used by the other side.
I think with respect to the U.S.-China context, probably, again, as I mentioned earlier, the largest obstacle is the fact that guardrails help the United States—or, in the Chinese perspective—from the Chinese perspective, any of these guardrails would essentially allow the U.S. to operate with greater confidence that, in the event of an accident, we will be able to control escalation. And from the Chinese perspective, they argue that because the United States fundamentally shouldn’t be operating in the Taiwan Strait anyway, therefore by constructing that guardrail, by, for example, having dialogue to manage that risk, it would be legitimizing an illegitimate presence in the first place.
So that’s always been perennially the problem. And I think the argument that the United States has made is that, well, sure, that may be your position. But it is in your interest as well not to have an accident spiral into a conflict. And so I think we’ve seen not a lot of progress on this front. I think, for example, in the aftermath of Speaker Pelosi’s visit, there—you know, a lot of the defense cooperation ties were suspended.
But the last comment I’ll make is that that doesn’t necessarily mean that all dialogue has been stayed. There are still active channels between the United States and China. We have embassies in each other’s countries. From public remarks, it seems like during moments of enhanced tension there are still ways for both governments to communicate with each other. So I think the good news is that it’s not completely like the two countries aren’t speaking to each other, but I think that there are not as many channels for reducing risk, managing potential crises, in the military sphere that exist today, that probably should exist.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Michael Long. Let’s see. You need to unmute yourself.
LI: It looks like he’s dropped off.
FASKIANOS: It looks like he put down his hand. OK. So let’s go next to Conor O’Hara.
Q: Hi. My name is Conor O’Hara. And I’m a graduate student at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.
In one of my classes, titled America’s Role in the World, we often talk about how America really does not have a comprehensive understanding of China. Not only China’s military and state department, but really China as a society. How can Americans change that? And where does America need to focus its efforts in understanding China? And then also, one other thing I think of, is, you know, where does that understanding begin? You know, how early in someone’s education or really within, say, the United States State Department do we need to focus our efforts on building an understanding? Thank you.
LI: Great. Well, thanks for the question. It’s a great question. Very hard challenge as well.
I think that’s absolutely true. I think the degree of understanding of China—of actually most countries—(laughs)—around the world—among senior U.S. foreign policy practitioners, I think, is insufficient. I think particularly with respect to China, and also Asia broadly, much of the diplomatic corps, the military establishment, intelligence officers, many of those people have essentially cut their teeth over the last twenty-five years focusing on the Middle East and counterterrorism. And that makes sense because the United States was engaged in two wars in that region.
But going back farther, many of the national security professionals before that generation were focused on the Soviet Union, obviously because of the Cold War. And so really, you’re absolutely correct that the number of people in the United States government who have deep China expertise academically or even professionally on the ground, or even have the linguistic ability to, you know, speak Mandarin, or other countries—or, languages of other countries in East Asia, I think is absolutely limited. I think the State Department, of course, has—as well as the intelligence community, as well as the Department of Defense—has tried to over the last few years reorient and rebalance priorities and resources there. But I think it’s still—my understanding, today it’s still limited. And I think there’s a lot of work to be done.
I think your question on how do you understand China as a society, I think with any country, number one, of course, is history. You know, every country’s politics, its policy, its government is informed by its history of, you know, modern history but also history going back farther. And I think China is no exception. In fact, Chinese society, and even the Communist Party of China, is deeply, I think, entrenched in a historical understanding of its role in the world, of how it interacts compared with its people, its citizens, its foreign conflicts. And so I think, number one is to understand the history of modern China. And I think anyone who seeks to be involved in discussions and research and debate on China does need to understand that history.
I think the second point is linguistics is actually quite important. Being able to speak the language, read the language, understand the language is important. Because so much of what is written—so much of our knowledge as, you know, American think tank researchers, is based on publicly available information in China. And a lot of that primarily is in Mandarin. So most speeches that the senior leadership of China deliver are actually in Mandarin. And some of them are translated, but not all of them. A lot of the documents that they issue, a lot of academics who write about—academics in China who write about foreign policy and international relations, write in Mandarin.
And so I think that an ability to be able to read in the original text is quite important. And in fact, you know, a lot of the nuances, and specifically in the Communist Party’s ideology, how it sees itself, its role in the world, a lot of that really is best captured and best understood in its original language. Some of the—you know, the ideology, the campaigns of propaganda, et cetera.
And I think the last part of your question was how early. I am not an education scholar. (Laughs.) I don’t study education or developmental psychology. But, you know, I imagine, you know, as with anything, linguistics, language, is best learned—or, most easily learned early on. But I think that does not mean that, you know, someone who’s in college or graduate school can’t begin to learn in a different language. So I’d answer your question like that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next written question from Lucksika Udomsrisumran, a graduate student at New York University.
What is the implication of the Biden administration’s three pillars of the Indo-Pacific strategy on the Mekong and the South China Sea? Which pillars do you see these two issues in, from the Biden administration’s point of view?
LI: OK. I think, if I’m understanding the question correctly about South China Sea, you know, I think in general the South China Sea probably would most easily fall into the competition category. There are obviously not only the United States and China, but other countries in the region, including the Philippines, for example, are claimants to the South China Sea. And so I think there’s always been some disagreement and some tensions in that region.
I think that that has largely been—the U.S. response or U.S. policy in South China Sea is just essentially, from the military perspective, has been to—you know, the slogan is, or the line is, to fly, sail, operate, et cetera—I’m not quoting that correctly—(laughs)—but essentially to operate wherever international law permits. And so that means Freedom of Navigation Operations, et cetera, in the South China Sea. I think that, of course, raises objections from other governments, mainly China, in the region.
So I would say that probably belongs in the competition category. And we spoke about earlier the idea of managing some of the risk that occurs or that emerges when the PLA Navy and the United States Navy operate in close proximity in that region. So from that perspective, if you’re talking about risk reduction and crisis management, that actually could fall into collaboration or cooperation. But I think primarily it’s competition.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Joan Kaufman. And, Joan, I know you wrote your question, but if you could ask it that would be great.
Q: Yes, will. Yes, certainly. Hi, Chris. Really great to see you here during this talk.
LI: Yeah, likewise.
Q: A proud Schwarzman Scholar.
I wanted to ask you a question about Ukraine and China’s, you know, kind of difficult position in the middle almost, you know, as sort of seemingly allied with Russia, or certainly not criticizing Russia. And then just putting forth this twelve-point peace plan last week for—and offering to broker peace negotiations and a ceasefire for Ukraine. You know, there’s no love lost in Washington for China on, you know, how it has positioned itself on this issue. And, you know, frankly, given China’s own kind of preoccupation with sovereignty over the years, how do you see the whole thing? And what comments might you make on that?
LI: Right. Well, first of all, thanks so much, Joan, for joining. And very grateful for all of—all that you’ve done for the Schwarzman Scholars Program over the past. I appreciate your time very much.
The Ukraine problem is an incredibly important one. And I think absolutely China is involved. And it’s a very complicated position that it’s trying to occupy here, with both supporting its security partner, Russia, but also not directly being involved in the conflict because of U.S. opposition and opposition from NATO. So I think it’s—obviously, China is playing a very delicate balancing role here.
I think a couple points. So the first is that I think my view is that, for the Chinese leadership, Ukraine—or, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a deeply uncomfortable geopolitical situation, where there is essentially not a—there’s no good outcome, really, because, as you mentioned, Ukraine is a country with which China has diplomatic recognition. It recognizes it. It has an embassy there. And the Chinese foreign ministry, Chinese foreign policy, has long very much supported the concept of sovereignty, and being able to determine your own future as a country. And I think, in fact, that’s been one of the pillars and one of the objections to many American actions in the past. So on one hand, it says: We support sovereignty of every country, of which Ukraine is a country that is recognized by China.
And on the other hand, though, Russia, of course, which has had long complaints and issues with NATO expansion, is a partner of China. And so it’s obviously supporting Russia. It has alignment of interests between Russia and China in many ways, in many dimensions, including objections to, for example, U.S. presence in Europe, U.S. presence in Asia. So it’s a delicate balancing act. And I think from what we’ve seen, there hasn’t been sort of a clear one-sided answer, where you’ve seen both statements, you know, proposing peace and saying that, you know, all sides should deescalate. But on the other hand, the U.S. government, the Biden administration, is now publicly stating that they are concerned about China potentially lending support to Russia.
So, you know, in short, I think it’s very difficult to really understand what exactly is going on in the minds of the Chinese leadership. But I think that we’ll continue to see sort of this awkward back and forth and trying—this purported balancing act between both sides. But I think, you know, largely—my assessment is that it’s not going to go very clearly in one direction or the other.
I think the other comment I would make is that I think, from Beijing’s perspective, the clear analogy here is one for Taiwan. Because—and this has been something that has been discussed in the think tank community very extensively. But the expectation I think among many in Washington was that Ukraine would not be able to put up much resistance. In short, this would be a very, very easy victory for Putin. And I think that was a—you know, not a universal consensus, but many people believed that, in short, Russia with all of its military might, would have no issues subjugating Ukraine very quickly.
I think people have largely found that to be, you know, a strategic failure on Russia’s part. And so today, you know, one year after the invasion, Ukraine is still sovereign, is still standing, is still strong. And so I think—from that perspective, I think this—the war in Ukraine must give many of the leaders in China pause when it comes to thinking about a Taiwan continency, especially using force against Taiwan. Because, again, I think the degree of support, both militarily, politically, economically, for the resistance that Ukraine has shown against Russia among NATO members, among other Western countries, I think has been deeply surprising to many observers how robust that support has been. And I think that if you’re sitting in Beijing and thinking about what a potential response to a Taiwan contingency might be, that would absolutely inform your calculus.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Lindsey McCormack, a graduate student at Baruch College.
How is the Biden administration’s compete, cooperate, limited adversarial approach playing out with climate policy? What are you seeing right now in terms of the Chinese government’s approach to energy security and climate?
LI: Yeah. It’s a great question. Thanks for the question.
You know, we mentioned earlier, you know, I think the Biden administration’s approach has been, you know, despite all of the disagreements between the United States and the Chinese government, there should be room for cooperation on climate because, as the Biden administration says, the climate is an existential risk to all of humanity. It’s an issue of shared concern. So it’s one that is not defined by any given country or constrained to one set of borders. I think it’s largely not been very successful, in short, because China has not seemed to display much interest in cooperating on climate with the United States. And, again, China has largely coupled cooperation, linked cooperation in climate—or, on climate to other issues.
And so, you know, I think it’s been reported that at several of the meetings between Secretary Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and their Chinese counterparts, the Chinese officials had essentially given the American officials a list saying: Here are the twenty-something things that we object to. Why don’t you stop all of these, correct all of your mistakes—so to speak—and then we’ll talk about what we can do next. And so I think, again, that—you know, that, to me, indicates that this framework of compartmentalizing cooperation and competition has some flaws, because the idea that you can simply compartmentalize and say: We’re going to cooperate at full capacity on climate, but we’re not going to—you know, but we’ll compete on technology, it just—it actually doesn’t work in this situation.
I think the other comment I’ll make is that what the Biden administration has done is—which I think has been effective—is reframed the notion of cooperation. Where, in the past, cooperation was sort of viewed as a favor that the Chinese government did to the Americans, to the American government. That if we—if the United States, you know, offered certain inducements or there were strong elements of the relationship, then China would cooperate and that would be a favor.
And I think the Biden administration has reframed that approach, where cooperation is now presented not as a favor that any country does to another, but rather sort of is shared here. And that this is something of concern to China, to the United States, to other countries, and so all major countries need to play their part, and step up their game, to take on. I think, unfortunately, it hasn’t been extremely successful. But I think that there—I hope that there will be future progress made in this area.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Jeremiah Ostriker, who has raised—a raised hand, and also written your question. But you can ask it yourself. And you have to accept the unmute prompt. Is that happening? All right. I think I might have to read it.
Q: Am I unmuted now?
FASKIANOS: Oh, you are. Fantastic.
Q: OK. First, I’ll say who I am. I am a retired professor from Princeton University and Columbia University and was an administrative provost at Princeton.
And our China policies have puzzled me. I have visited China many times. And I have wondered—I’ll quote my questions now—I have wondered why we are as negative towards China as we have been. So specifically, does the U.S. foreign policy establishment need enemies to justify its existence? Is it looking around the world for enemies? And why should we care if other countries choose to govern themselves in ways which are antithetical to the way that we choose to govern ourselves? And, finally, why not cooperate with all countries on projects of common interest, regardless of other issues?
LI: Great. Well, first of all, thank you for the question—or, three questions, which are all extremely important. I’ll do my best to answer, but these are very difficult questions, and I think they touch on a more philosophical understanding of what is American foreign policy for, what is the purpose of America’s role in the world, et cetera. But I’ll try to do my best.
I think on the first part, does the United States need enemies, is it looking to make enemies? I think if you asked any—and these are, of course, my own assessments. I think if you asked any administration official, whether in this current administration or in previous administrations—Republican or Democrat—I don’t think anyone would answer “yes.” I think the argument that has been made across administrations in a bipartisan fashion is that foreign policy is fundamentally about defending American interests and American values. In essence, being able to support the American way of life, which obviously is not necessarily one clearly defined entity. (Laughs.)
But I think, therefore, all of our policy toward China is sort of geared at maintaining, or securing, defending U.S. interests in the region. And where the argument about your question comes into play is that I think a lot of—the Biden administration, the Trump administration, the Obama administration would argue that many of the concerns that the United States has with China are not fundamentally only about internal issues, where this is a question of how they govern themselves. But they touch upon issues of shared concern. They touch upon issues that actually affect U.S. interests.
And so, for example, the South China Sea is, again—is a space that is—contains much trade. There are many different countries in the region that access the South China Sea. So it’s not necessarily just an issue—and, again, this is Secretary Blinken’s position that he made clear—it’s not just an issue specific to China. It does touch upon global trade, global economics, global rules, and global order. And I think this is the term that has been often used, sort of this liberal international rules-based order.
And while that’s sort of an amorphous concept, in essence what I think the term implies is the idea that there are certain standards and rules by which different countries operate that allow for the orderly and for the peaceful and the secure exchange of goods, of ideas, of people, of—so that each country is secure. And I think this—again, this broader concept is why I think successive U.S. administrations have focused on China policy, because I think some of, in their view, China’s behaviors impinge on U.S. interests in the region.
I think the second question is why should we care about how other countries govern themselves? I think in a way, the answer the Biden administration—this current administration has given to that question is: The U.S. government under President Biden is not trying to fundamentally change the Chinese system of governance. And I think you’ve seen Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken say that publicly, that they are not seeking the collapse or the fundamental change in the Communist Party’s rule of China. So I think in that sense, they have made that—they have made that response. I think, again, where there are issues—there are tensions, is when actions that the Chinese government take then touch upon U.S. interests. And I think we see that in Taiwan. We see that with economics. We see that with trade, et cetera.
And then finally, why not cooperate with every country in the world? I think obviously in an ideal world, that would be the case. All countries would be able to only cooperate, and all concerns shared among different nations would be addressed. I think unfortunately one of the problems that we’re seeing now is that large major powers, like China and Russia, have very different worldviews. They see a world that is very different in its structure, and its architecture, and its organization, than the one that the U.S. sees. And I think that’s what’s led to a lot of tension.
FASKIANOS: So we have a written question from Julius Haferkorn, a student at California State University and Tübingen University, in Germany.
Ever since the escalation of the Ukraine war, there are discussions about the risk that, should Russia be successful with its invasion, China might use this as a template in regards to Taiwan. In your opinion, is this a realistic scenario?
LI: Great. Thanks for the question.
I think there are definitely analogies to be drawn between Ukraine and Taiwan, but I think there are also significant differences. The first is the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is one of two sovereign nations that the United States and international community recognizes. I think with Taiwan, what has—going back to our history question—Taiwan is a very complicated issue, even with regard to U.S. policies. The United States does not recognize Taiwan formally as an independent country. The United States actually does not take a position on the status of Taiwan. Briefly, the One China Policy, as articulated in the three communiques, the three joint communiques, essentially says that the United States government acknowledges the Chinese position that there is one China, and Taiwan is part of China, et cetera, et cetera.
And that word “acknowledge” is pretty key, because in essential its strategic ambiguity. It’s saying, we acknowledge that the PRC government says this. We don’t challenge that position. But we don’t necessarily recognize or completely accept. And, obviously, the Mandarin version of the text is slightly different. It uses a term that is closer to “recognize.” But that ambiguity, in a way, permitted normalization and led to the democratization of Taiwan, China’s economic growth and miracle, its anti-poverty campaign. So in essence, it’s worked—this model has worked for the last forty-something years.
But I think that does mean that the situation across the Taiwan Strait is very different, because here the United States does not recognize two countries on both sides of the strait. Rather, it has this ambiguity, this policy of ambiguity. And in short, the only U.S. criterion for resolution of issues across the Taiwan Strait is peace. So all of the documents that the U.S. has articulated over successive administrations essentially boil down to: As long as the resolution of issues between Taiwan and the PRC and mainland China are peaceful, then the United States is not involved. That the only thing that the United States opposes is a forceful resolution—use of military force, use of coercion. And that’s what is problematic.
I think what you’ve seen increasingly over the last few years is a sort of—it’s not a formal shift away from that policy, but definitely slowly edging away from that policy. Now, any administration official will always deny that there are any changes to our One China Policy. And I think that’s always been the refrain: Our One China Policy has not changed. But you’ve actually seen within that One China Policy framework adjustments, accommodations—or, not accommodations—but adjustments, recalibrations. And the way that the successive U.S. administrations defend that or justify it, is because it is our—it is the American One China Policy. Therefore, we can define what that One China Policy actually means.
But you have seen, in essence, greater increased relations and exchanges between officials in Taiwan, officials in the United States. I think it was publicly reported just a couple weeks ago that some of the senior national security officials in Taipei visited the United States. Secretary Pompeo at the end of his tenure as secretary of state changed some of the previous restrictions on—that were self-imposed restrictions—on interactions between the government in Taiwan and the government in the United States. So we’re seeing some changes here. And I think that has led to—or, that is one element that has led to some of the tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
Obviously, from Beijing’s perspective, it sees that as the U.S. sliding away from its commitments. Now, on the other hand, Beijing, of course, has also started to change its policy, despite claiming that its policy is exactly the same. You’ve seen greater military incursions in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, with planes, fighter jets, that are essentially flying around the island. You’ve seen greater geoeconomic coercion targeted at Taiwan in terms of sanctions. So you’ve seen essentially changes on all sides.
And so the final point I’ll leave here—I’ll leave with you is that the refrain that the United States government articulates of opposing any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side, to me, is actually quite ambiguous. Because there’s never been a status quo that has truly existed. It’s always been a dynamic equilibrium between Taipei, Beijing, and Washington, D.C. Where Beijing is seeking to move Taiwan toward unification. Taiwan, at least under its current leadership, under Tsai Ing-wen, is obviously seeking, in a way, to move from at least—at least to move toward de facto or maintain de facto independence. Whether it’s moving toward de jure is a topic of debate. And then the United States, of course, is enhancing its relationship with Taiwan.
So there’s never been a static status quo between the three sides. It’s always been a dynamic, evolving and changing equilibrium. Which is why the concept of opposing unilateral changes to the status quo, in my view, is almost paradoxical, because there has never been a status quo in the first place.
FASKIANOS: There has been some talk that Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, is planning a trip to Taiwan. Given what happened with Speaker Pelosi, is that a—what do you think of that musing, to go to Taiwan, to actually do that?
LI: Mhm, yes. I think that’s obviously been reported on. I think it’s an area of close attention from everyone watching this space. I haven’t seen any reports. All I can say is based on what I’ve seen reported in the media. And it seems like, based on—because of domestic preoccupations, that trip, whether it happens or not, is right now, at the moment, on the back burner. But I think that if he were to go, I think it would certainly precipitate a quite significant response from China. And I think whether that would be larger or smaller than what happened after Speaker Pelosi’s visit, I think is something that is uncertain now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We’ll go next to Autumn Hauge.
Q: Hi. I’m Autumn Hauge. I’m a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
So my question is, since a focus of the Biden administration’s foreign policy is the relationship between the United States and China, and another focus is to invest and grow a presence in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically looking at the relationship between the United States and the Micronesian country of the Republic of Palau, whose government has openly shared their support for Taiwan, do you think that the United States’ long history with the Republic of Palau, and their connection to their support—the Republic of Palau’s support to Taiwan, halters the ability for the U.S. to grow a positive relation with China? Thank you.
LI: Great. Thanks for the question. It’s a great question.
I am not an expert on Palau or its politics. I do know that Palau has enhanced its exchanges, it relationship with Taipei, over the last few years. I think we saw Palau’s president, I think, visit Taipei. I think the U.S. ambassador to Palau actually visited Taipei. And there have been increasing—during COVID, there was a discussion of a travel bubble between Taiwan and Palau. So there’s definitely been increasing exchange.
I think in general this has always been a key obstacle to U.S.-China relations, which is any country that still recognizes the Republic of China—that is the formal name of the government currently in Taiwan—I think presents a significant issue. Because for the PRC, recognition of the One China—what they call the One China Principle, the idea that there is one China, Taiwan is part of that China, and the legitimate government of China is the People’s Republic of China, is a precondition for any diplomatic normalization with Beijing. And so I think certainly, you know, there are a small handful of countries that still recognize the ROC, but I think that they—you know, for those countries and their relationships with the PRC, of course, that’s a significant hindrance.
In what you’ve seen in the U.S. government in the past few years is that for countries that derecognize Taipei and sort of switch recognition to Beijing, the PRC, there’s been discussion—I think, there have been several bills introduced, in essence, to punish those countries. I don’t necessarily think that those bills have ended up becoming law, but I think there is, given the current political dynamics, the sort of views on China in Washington, D.C., there is this sense that the U.S. needs to support countries that still recognize Taiwan, the ROC, and be able to provide support so that they don’t feel pressured to switch their recognition.
My personal view is that I think that that is, on the whole, relatively insignificant. I won’t say that it’s completely not significant, but I think that in general issues around the Taiwan Strait, cross-strait relations, I think military issues, I think political issues related to exchanges between Taiwan and Beijing, I think those issues are much more important and much more critical to driving changes in the relationship across the Taiwan Strait.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to try and sneak in one last question from Wim Wiewel, who’s a student at Portland State University.
Given your pessimism about cooperation combined with competition, what do you think is the long-term future for U.S.-China relations?
LI: OK. Well, thanks for the question. I’m not sure that I can provide a satisfying answer. And, in fact, I don’t have the answer. You know, I think if anyone had the answer, then they should immediately tell the Biden administration that they’ve solved the problem.
Even though I am pessimistic about this current framework, just because of its demonstrated effects, I still think that in general the likelihood of a real war, which I think people have floated now—you know, Professor Graham Allison, who I used to work for, wrote a book called Destined for War? I still believe that the probability of all-out great-power conflict in a kinetic way, a military way, is still relatively low. I think that there are significant differences today compared to the era during World War I and World War II era.
I think that the degree of economic interdependence between China and not only the United States but the rest of the world, I think is a significant gamechanger in how countries position themselves vis-à-vis China. I think Europe is the great example here of how there are many countries that invest, have business relationships, have trade with China. And so therefore, their policy on China has been a little bit more calibrated than what the United States has been doing.
And so on the whole, I think most people still recognize that any great-power war between the United States and China would be utterly catastrophic. And I think that despite all the tensions that exist today, I think that that recognition, that consensus is pretty universally held, that a great-power war between the U.S. and China would be extremely bad. I think that is—that is probably something that is understood by Republican administrations, Democratic administrations, folks in Beijing, folks around the world, in the region. And so I think that, hopefully, that idea, that despite disagreements, despite political tensions, the need to prevent all-out global conflict is quite important, is a vital interest, I think, hopefully, to me, provides some optimism. And hopefully we’ll be able to continue to carry our relationship with China through.
And I’m hopeful especially that all of you students, researchers, who hope to study, and write about, and even perhaps participate in American foreign policy, will continue to think. Because so much of the future of the U.S.-China relationship and U.S. foreign policy is going to be determined by your generation. So with that, I guess this would be a perfect place to stop. And I thank you for the question.
FASKIANOS: Absolutely. Well, Chris, this has been fantastic. I apologize to all of you. We had many more—many questions in the written part and raised hands. And I’m sorry that we could not get to all of them. We’ll just have to have you back and continue to cover this issue. So we really appreciate your insights, Chris Li. So thank you again.
The next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, March 22, at 1:00 p.m. (EDT). Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly will lead a conversation on U.S. relations with South America. And in the meantime, please do learn more about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at CFR.org/careers. You can follow us at @CFR_academic, and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. And I’m sure you can also go to the Belfer Center for additional analysis by Chris Li. So I encourage you to go there as well.
Thank you all, again, for being with us, and we look forward to continuing the conversation on March 22. So thank you, all. Thanks, Chris.
LI: Thank you.