For two years, in 2016-18, Susan Thornton was the acting US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Today she a senior fellow at Yale University Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
In Delphi earlier this month, she had a revealing conversation with Kathimerini about the urgent need for nuance in foreign policy, explaining that the current state of US-China relations is keeping her up at night.
It looks as if the US has made a strategic decision to stop the rise of China.
I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily been that clear. Now we have this dual containment policy, de facto, to contain both Russia and China. Certainly the “contain China” strategy started under Trump, with the national security strategy that he issued. But Trump’s foreign policy was not very consistent. Trump had his own ideas and people who wrote the national security strategy had their own ideas. With Biden coming in, you see a real chance to consolidate this into something that is understandable. And what they have decided is the containment of China strategy. So now I think it is a deliberate strategy, even though we say, when we talk to the Chinese, that we are not pursuing that containment strategy. And when we talk to lots of other countries we say, “We’re not asking you to choose,” but nobody believes us.
So what is this strategy about? It does have risks, doesn’t it?
Yes, it has serious, huge risks. The one that keeps me up at night is the Taiwan risk. Our speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, is taking a delegation to Taiwan imminently; that will be a huge provocation. And she’s a Democrat, so it’s not like you can blame it on the opposition. You can say Congress is a separate branch of government.
Could President Biden have stopped it if he wanted?
‘I think the positive could be that we are deterring China from adventurism or aggressiveness’
Certainly that’s how the Chinese will view it. And you know, if he can’t have stopped it, then what does that say about Biden and his leadership? [Note: The high-level congressional delegation did visit Taiwan a few days after this conversation, but Pelosi, who had tested positive for Covid, stayed back in Washington, DC.]
Could there be a balance? Give me the positive reading of this policy.
There’s overfocus on the military instrument because we have a problem in the US now with trade policy; we can’t really talk about trade policy and trade expansion because there’s a backlash against trade in the US domestically. I think the positive could be that we are deterring China from adventurism or aggressiveness. That would be the read about the purpose of all these arrangements, the AUKUS [trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US], the Quad [strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US], the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The problem is if you only pursue deterrence and you also at the same time do not reassure about your intentions, the other side may misread the situation. We pursued deterrence and reassurance in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, there was mutually assured destruction in the nuclear area, but we were also discussing things with them, like arms control. They knew that we didn’t want to take them on militarily, that we were going to stop short of the ultimate conflict with them. So you can have that kind of reassurance, even though it doesn’t sound like much. With the Chinese right now, we don’t seem to find any reassurance. You saw this in the Biden-Xi phone calls, where the Chinese are continually asking: “Are we still doing this policy of peaceful coexistence? Are we going to find a way to avoid war? Are we going to find a way to coexist with each other in this international system, on this planet, without having a conflict?” The answer comes from the US “yes,” and when you look at what we are doing it looks different than that, to the Chinese at least. They don’t hear any reassurance. President Biden says we don’t support Taiwan’s independence, but then a congressional delegation is going there and ships are going through the Taiwan Strait, there are big exercises in the region. And without diplomatic channels of communication being open, where we are explaining to them what we are doing, and telling them that it is not meant to be aggressive or provocative, it is very difficult for them to handle.
Aren’t the channels of communication open?
I don’t think that we have very much conversation going on on a day-to-day basis with the Chinese. We had recently the visit of the special envoy for North Korea to the US, the video meeting between Biden and Xi, and we also had [National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan meet with his counterpart in Rome. Those are three things that have happened recently. I hope there is an indication that there will be more channels and more communication, more diplomacy. But the relationship is so complicated. You can’t think of an issue in the world on which the US and China don’t have major interests and where they wouldn’t benefit from some kind of coordination. That hasn’t been happening. The overfocus on the conflict and the contestation and the absence of any attention to some kind of collaboration is going to drive the narrative into a continually negative direction. And you see that happening already, these narratives that each country has of the other are caricatures. One-dimensional, very negative, and that has its own dynamic.
What are the real issues in your view?
I think that we shouldn’t be lacking in confidence in our system, our democracy or the competitiveness of our economy, but we must do some serious domestic reforms and they don’t have much to do with China at all. I’m not really worried about China as a major competitor, as far as their system goes, maybe because I know a lot about China. Again, the focus on the competition is misplaced. It’s going to prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done at home and to allocate the resources we need to be allocating to tackle these problems.
And what is it that’s keeping you awake at night? How could this competition go off the rails?
I really do think Taiwan is THE issue. The Chinese have been warning. One of the reasons why this issue with Ukraine is so neuralgic is because the Chinese have been in their media portraying it as the fault of NATO and the West that Russia invaded Ukraine. This is completely absurd οn the face of it. What they see is Russia has been complaining about our disrespect or ignoring their security and they keep talking about it and we keep ignoring it. They see the exact mirror image happening in the Pacific, where they have been saying ever since Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016, “Be careful. Be careful. This is a problem. Stop doing that,” and we just keep ignoring them and pushing forward in their view. And so they see an exact parallel; it’s very dangerous. I don’t think the Chinese want to make a military move on Taiwan, I don’t think that’s their preferred scenario and I don’t think they want to do it now for sure, but they will be forced to respond to something we do, if they think it crosses a line.
What is the line?
The line of Taiwan moving irrevocably in a direction of permanent separation from China. The US even under the Biden administration has said things like Taiwan is an integral part of our Indo-Pacific strategy and a strategic asset, which to Chinese ears sounds like we will not permit Taiwan to be reunited with the mainland. Because then how can it be a strategic asset? Military cooperation between the US and Taiwan, official interaction – these are all areas that get really close to the line.
So are we close to a possible military confrontation?
A group of experts and scholars that look at China that I’m involved with was doing a poll last week about what the chances are of a US-China military conflict, not just a crisis, but actual conflict in the next 10 years. Some of the answers ranged up to a 60% chance of that happening. I don’t think anyone was lower than 5%, which in my view is way too high already. Sixty percent is unacceptable for responsible global powers at this stage of our humanity’s history.
Is the crisis in Ukraine driving China and Russia closer together?
Yes, I think it is, although the part that drives them together is, as I mentioned, the part where they feel being ignored, disrespected, besieged by the West. They had this joint declaration on February 4 saying there are “no limits” to their friendship, but then the invasion tested that. I don’t think the Chinese are too happy with the war. This is an important year in China for Xi Jinping, it’s his political year and he doesn’t want to have all these problems, he’s already got a big problem with Covid-19. Damage to the economy from this war, problems with the international community, opprobrium heaped on China, secondary sanctions on China. He does not want this problem and because of Putin, now he has it. That’s making them a little bit unhappy but you won’t necessarily see public indications of that. I think China doesn’t want bad relations with Russia so they will make efforts to keep the relationship steady.
There’s talk of sanctioning China as well.
The longer the war drags on, people will be extremely irritated by China helping Russia economically. They will be tempted definitely to sanction Chinese companies that trade with Russia.
Do we see a pole forming then?
Yes, it would have that effect. But here is a difference between Russia and China regarding globalization. China really wants to keep globalization, they have benefited so much from it, whereas the Russians haven’t benefited as much, so they seem quite happy to disrupt the international system in many ways. They have a lot of differences, I am skeptical of close China-Russia relations in the long run, but definitely, this anti-Western dynamic is driving them closer.