Following the pre-G20 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Xi’s apparent diplomatic outreach at the G20, China’s defense ministry is open to meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a gathering of ASEAN defense ministers in Cambodia set for Tuesday or Wednesday. An actual meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe has not been officially scheduled, but it does seem likely the two defense chiefs will meet while in Cambodia. Austin and Wei have not met or communicated since China suspended dialogue with the US in August after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. On the surface this appears to be the latest indication that relations between the US and China are moving in a more positive direction now.
Whether this holds true remains to be seen, but it’s evident that Beijing wants to at least be viewed as seeking a more productive relationship with the US and nations in the Western Pacific. For the domestic audience it portrays an image of China being treated as an equal. This has the potential to provide much needed political dividends for Xi down the line as the future of COVID-19 restrictions remains fluid. On the international stage the image of a less assertive and belligerent China should give Xi a temporary buffer and allow him to either deal with the slew of domestic matters or set the stage for the next phase of maneuvers on the geopolitical chessboard. Or both, perhaps.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will hold a face-to-face meeting on Monday in Indonesia just before the opening of the G20 summit. This will be the first in-person meeting between the US and Chinese leaders since Biden took office in January 2021 and comes at a point where Sino-US tensions are on the rise due to several issues from the war in Ukraine to Taiwan. Members of the Biden administration have said the purpose of the mini summit will be to set expectations. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters today that Biden “will get to sit in the same room with Xi Jinping, be direct and straightforward with him as he always is and expect the same in return from Xi.”
It is worth mentioning that Biden tried the same approach with Vladimir Putin in Switzerland back in the summer of 2021 and it failed miserably. Hence the Russia-Ukraine war currently raging.
For this go-around, the stakes are higher for the United States. Xi has consolidated his hold on power and appears to be chomping at the bit to confront the US should Washington decide on a policy of containment to hold back an expansionist move on the part of Xi and China. Biden placed himself and the nation in a corner when he publicly affirmed that the US will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. That comment, coupled with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sent US-China relations plummeting and introduced an period of Chinese military exercises around the island-nation as well as a round of attempted coercive diplomacy by Beijing around the Western Pacific.
As if there were not already enough hotspots around the world, tensions on the Korean peninsula have been steadily increasing in recent weeks. First came a series of North Korean ballistic missile and cruise missile test firings that culminated with a ballistic missile overflying Japan. North Korean warplanes have flown dangerously close to the border between the two Koreas, and hundreds of NK artillery rounds were fired into the sea close to a military buffer zone established between North Korea and South Korea in 2018. Then on Monday of this week, a North Korean merchant ship crossed into South Korean waters, leading to an exchange of warning shots between NK and ROK forces. Seoul has placed responsibility for the incident on Pyongyang’s shoulders.
Usually, the intent behind these heavy-handed North Korean actions is to send a resolute political message to the world and impress domestic audiences with brief glimpses of North Korean military power and technological prowess. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is not paying as much attention to North Korean actions as it normally does. The bulk of global attention is centered on the war in Ukraine and China’s growing assertiveness at home and abroad. In Washington, the Biden administration is dealing with Ukraine and China, as well as inflation and a looming midterm election that will probably not go well for the Democrats. North Korea is not a major priority at the moment no matter how hard Kim Jong Un tries to change that.
With North Korea not receiving an appropriate response from the US, South Korea and Japan, concern is being raised that Kim Jong Un’s regime will soon conduct its seventh nuclear weapons test. Seoul and Washington believe all of the necessary preparations have been completed and Kim is just waiting for the proper moment to order the test. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress now over and midterms approaching in the US, an opportunity could be fast approaching for North Korea.
Over the last week, comments made by senior US government officials and general officers indicate the United States is taking seriously the prospect of China moving faster than earlier thought to take Taiwan. After Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress that the PRC reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to reunify with Taiwan the warning was sounded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The secretary said Beijing has made the “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable” and China is now pursuing “reunification on a much faster timeline.” On Friday, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday picked up where Blinken left off. He stated at the Atlantic Council that the US needs to be prepared for a possible Chinese military move to be made against Taiwan by 2024. Perhaps even by the end of this year.
Gilday’s warning flies in the face of estimates and forecasts that China will not be prepared to move against Taiwan until 2027. The 2027 window has become embedded into the thinking and planning of the US military and intelligence community. Since the Pelosi Trip to Taiwan back in August, circumstances have changed somewhat. Beijing wasted little time in flexing its military muscle in the air and sea space surrounding the island nation. It became clear the Chinese government was moving to permanently alter the status quo. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress coming to a close this weekend and Xi Jinping seeming to have been successful in consolidating his hold on power, the warnings by US officials might indicate growing concern about Xi and his intentions.
Or the warnings could be more self-serving, at least on the part of Gilday. An attempt to cover his own failings as CNO with the prospect of war growing larger amid global geopolitical uncertainty. The current condition of the US Navy is not good, to put it bluntly. Readiness issues, a shipbuilding program dominated by political considerations and lack of a coherent doctrine for taking on a near-peer opponent in the air and at sea plague the service. China, on the other hand, has been preparing the PLAN and PLAAF for an eventual confrontation with the US Navy in the Western Pacific. While Gilday promotes a woke culture and readiness plummets, China is pumping out warships and submarines from its shipyards like hotcakes and focusing on the US Navy as its main enemy.
Very brief update this Saturday afternoon and I’m very sorry for that. Feeling a bit under the weather with the change of seasons. I will post a more detailed entry tomorrow. Monday at the latest depending how I feel.
Xi Jinping will assuredly be granted a third term as China’s leader when the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party begins on Sunday. When the congress concludes next week, Xi will have a free hand to commence efforts aimed at challenging the United States position as the dominant global power. However, Xi might have to delay putting any major efforts on this front into motion until he can contend with the PRC’s growing economic difficulties. Of course, there is always the possibility that China’s economic malaise, should it deepen and pose a threat to Xi’s hold on power, could be the spark that brings on a military clash between China and the United States.
There is much to discuss on this topic, as well as the war in Ukraine, where some US officials I spoke to off the record last week claim Washington is now pushing, quietly and behind the scenes, for Ukraine to explore a negotiated settlement to the fighting.