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What Posture Should Joe Biden Adopt Toward A Newly Muscular China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Susan Shirk:

United States Vice President Joseph Biden is the American political figure who has spent the most time with Xi Jinping and has the deepest understanding of Xi as an individual. Before Xi’s selection as P.R.C. president and C.C.P. general secretary he served as vice president and travelled around China and the U.S. with his counterpart Joe Biden. The two politicians had days of extended discussion about their respective political systems. This personal relationship should enable Biden to draw out Xi to explain what his intentions are on all fronts, including not only the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, but also the ambitious reform agenda he laid out at the C.C.P. Central Committee meeting in mid-November.

China’s announcement of the ADIZ, coming so shortly on the heels of the reform blueprint outlined at the end of the Third Plenum disrupted the positive story about China moving toward a more market-based economy and replaced it with a story about an assertive, or even aggressive China threatening “emergency defensive methods” if Japanese, American, or any other airplanes refused to cooperate with the rules of this extension of China’s air management administration. The way the ADIZ was announced set up a situation in which the Chinese public was bound to accuse the Beijing government of being a weak “paper tiger” if it didn’t take such “emergency defensive methods” when Japanese or American military jets flew through the zone without prior notification.  It’s hard for me to imagine that Xi Jinping, as the head of the Central Military Commission, would not have had to give his personal approval to the ADIZ announcement. Yet from the outside it almost looked as if some people in China were trying to sabotage the reform agenda by creating international tension over the ADIZ.   It’s what we would have concluded if China were North Korea.

The Obama administration took the ADIZ announcement very seriously as the prompt official announcements from the Secretaries of State and Defense and unannounced  flight of B-52s made clear. Washington’s clear signals helped reassure Japan and South Korea as well as other countries in the region and avoided a Japanese reaction that could have forced a Chinese response and spun out of control. The Obama administration did take a different approach from Japan’s in regard to its civilian airlines by recommending that they notify Chinese as well as Japanese air traffic authorities in order to avoid any accidents, a sensible move in my view, and not one that should create any doubts in Japan or elsewhere about the credibility of American defense commitments to its allies.    

I would hope that Vice President Biden will not allow the ADIZ to dominate completely his conversation with President Xi. President Xi told Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on the day following the C.C.P. Central Committee reform decision that he wanted this reform agenda to provide new opportunities to strengthen relations with the U.S. 

Vice President Biden should be asking President Xi, who took proud ownership of the reform blueprint, how he intends to implement it. What is his political strategy for overcoming the opposition of vested interests like the state owned enterprises and building a coalition of groups who would benefit from the reforms?  Does he believe that acceding to new international commitments like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Trade Organization Information Technology Agreement, and the World Trade Organization Government Procurement Agreement, could provide constructive pressure for the domestic reforms?   What is the timetable for the reforms of the legal system which are essential to creating a level economic playing field and addressing widespread corruption?  How does Xi Jinping see the challenges to implementing reforms that he faces today?  And how does he see these challenges as similar or different from the challenges faced by Deng Xiaoping, who is his role model, in the 1980s and ’90’s?  Xi Jinping is trying to strengthen his authority and rule like a strong leader. Vice President Biden has a rare and valuable opportunity to hear from him directly about how he plans to use this authority to promote his domestic and international agenda.