President Biden’s remarks at a CNN town hall on Thursday that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack it has caused confusion and anger around Washington, Beijing and the Western Pacific. The White House and administration have scrambled to either walk back or clarify Biden’s comments without much success. The Chinese government’s response was foreseeably stern. “When it comes to issues related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions, and no one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will and strong ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told the AP.
This is the second time in his short tenure as president that Biden has publicly said the United States will aid or defend Taiwan if China attacks. Given the current state of the US-China relationship, ill-considered comments are bound to have an effect on future decisions and action by both sides. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that Biden and his handlers really grasp the fact that the game has changed. China is no longer a nation-state hemmed in by adherence to the main components of international order. The PRC has reached the point where it feels confident enough to move in direct contrast to the rules and norms of the international community. China’s moves in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, along with Beijing’s response to investigations on the origins of COVID-19 are examples of China throwing caution to the wind, so to speak. Xi Jinping’s behavior and actions in the last eighteen months have made it apparent that Chinese foreign policy and economy are driven by expansionism. These drives are being fueled by China’s growing military capabilities in the Pacific region and beyond.
US policies, actions and rhetoric have yet to catch up. Even as members of his own party become more cognizant of these realities, Biden continues to regard China as an up-and-comer instead of as a threat to American security and interests.
The Chinese government has made official a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system. The changes include restrictions on democratic representation in the city that will help Beijing consolidate its grip over the city-state. Since the passing of the national security law last June, the Chinese government has moved cautiously with regard to Hong Kong. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the world was watching Chinese actions carefully and Beijing believed it best not to rock the boat. Now, the situation has changed enough for further action to be taken.
One major change will affect the Hong Kong legislature. The number of directly-elected representatives is going to be reduced to 20 from 35 while the amount of representatives appointed by Beijing will rise considerably. A vetting system will be installed to screen potential candidates for public office. This will allow Chinese government to select candidates who are loyal to Beijing and making certain pro-democracy voices in the city-state are minimized. These measures, coupled with the national security law passed last year, constitute the largest overhaul of Hong Kong’s government and political infrastructure since the handover in 1997. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, herself a figurehead of the Chinese government, has expressed unabashed support for the overhaul. “I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said yesterday. Later in the day, she said the changes will be submitted to the Legislative Council next month and are expected to be fully approved by the end of May.
Later this week at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) the government of the People’s Republic of China is expected to present a plan to significantly reform Hong Kong’s electoral system. The few details of the plan which have come to light suggest the plan will bring major changes to Hong Kong politics and place more pressure on pro-democracy activists and politicians in the territory. The plan comes in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on political dissent in Hong Kong. Remarks made last week by senior Chinese official Xia Baolong indicate the plan is a series of systemic changes designed to allow only candidates loyal to Beijing, and hand-selected by the Chinese government, to hold public office in Hong Kong. Even though no specific details were mentioned, the tone of Xia’s remarks seem to suggest changes to how Hong Kong’s legislature is elected at the very least.
Pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong were fast to denounce the planned changes. “It totally destroys any hope for democracy in the future,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy former member of Hong Kong’s legislature. “The whole concept of Xia Baolong is that the Communist Party rules Hong Kong and only those that support the party can have any role.” Lee is currently on trial for unlawful assembly charges stemming from a protest in the summer of 2019.
With Hong Kong now a major roadblock for Sino-US relations, part of Beijing’s motivation for locking up the political future of the territory is to remove Hong Kong from the gameboard. The national security law, crackdown on pro-democracy activists and now the coming plan are all components of that action. The moment is approaching when Hong Kong will irreversibly enter the mainland’s sphere of influence entirely. The moment that happens, Washington will no longer be able to factor Hong Kong into its future US-China policies and dialogue.
China will be a major foreign policy challenge for the new Biden Administration. This week’s crackdown in Hong Kong demonstrates Beijing’s determination to rid the territory of as many opposition figures as possible. On Wednesday, Hong Kong police arrested over 50 activists, former lawmakers, and academics. All of those arrested had played a role in the July 2020 effort to nominate opposition candidates for a legislative election that was cancelled later on. Under the national security law passed by Beijing, those arrested now face sentences ranging up to life in prison if convicted.
The crackdown brings into question how the incoming Biden administration will contend with China’s actions in Hong Kong, as well as what the future US response will be to Beijing’s more aggressive moves in the region and globally. Wednesday’s arrests offer a glimpse at the shape these coming policies might take. Biden’s selection for secretary of state Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights. The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Blinken’s tweet certainly sound nice and strike an appropriate balance of concern for human rights, and assurance that a Biden administration will oppose China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. But actions speak louder than words. Will a Biden administration levy sanctions against Beijing for Hong Kong? Or will the matter be quietly swept under the rug in order to proclaim a fresh start to the US-China relationship after four years of its predecessor consistently taking a hard line on China? Time will tell.
Taiwanese concern over continued Chinese military exercises and activity in and around Taiwan Strait is once again becoming apparent. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, while conducting an interview with Stan Grant of Australia’s ABC News program The World voiced his belief that the risk of a military conflict in that area is increasing. Through the summer and fall months of 2020, when world attention was focused elsewhere, Chinese naval and air activity in the Taiwan Strait area was extensive. Wu went on to say that Taiwan’s government is now ‘very concerned’ about the prospects of a Chinese invasion of the island. China’s increased military posture around Taiwan comes as part of multiple Chinese moves beyond its borders. From leashing Hong Kong and dragging it fully into the Chinese sphere of influence, to the territorial expansions into the South China and East China seas.
Taiwan faces an uncertain future at the moment. Its close relationship with the United States will become even more valuable through the next four years. A Biden administration is not going to provide Taiwan with the material support that the Trump administration has. Nor will it stand firmly behind Taiwan as a counterbalance to recent Chinese actions and behavior in the Western Pacific. Although Joe Biden claims his administration will continue to support Taiwan, a look back at the relationships that the Obama, and Bush administrations had with Taiwan earlier in the century show that Taipei has valid reason to worry.
Even now as relations between Beijing and other powers in the Western Pacific have turned sour it provides no advantage for Taiwan. In the event of a large-scale PRC military operation against the island, Taiwan will have no formal allies it can turn to for assistance. Historically, the United States is the only friend it can rely on in the event of a crisis. But with Joe Biden sadly likely to take power in January, 2021, even that is no longer a guarantee.