Stop Looking for Beijing’s Big Test of the Biden Administration
China doesn’t go out of its way to probe new U.S. leaders.
Analysts and journalists alike have agonized for months over how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might test the incoming Biden administration. Would it be a close clash at sea? An incursion into U.S. airspace? Underlying this is a broadly accepted assertion that such tests, probably involving the military, are de rigueur in U.S.-China relations when new leadership emerges in Washington and China looks to push the envelope.
During past presidential transitions, oft-quoted voices like Gordon Chang referred to this phenomenon as a given, while U.S. media organizations like MSNBC released commentaries referring to a “long history of China taking advantage of a U.S. presidential transition period to test a new president.” Headlines like “Is Trump Ready for China’s Inevitable Test of American Power?” blared from news outlets. Even the Myanmar coup has been proposed as a test of President Joe Biden’s will.
The only problem with this idea is that there’s no evidence for it and, in fact, the scholarship contradicts it. The activities that analysts see as tests are just the routine churn of Chinese action. By attributing unwarranted significance to events early in a new U.S. presidency, analysts risk locking in a flawed perspective on the state of relations between the two giants and cherry-picking evidence to support their favored perspective. This overweighting of certain events contributes to a false narrative on China as well as an American impulse to overlook events of actual import in favor of a few low-level security-centric case studies.
Go back to March 2001. President George W. Bush had just taken office when a Chinese frigate “aggressively confronted” a U.S. hydrographic survey ship in the Yellow Sea. Ordered to depart the area by the Jianghu III-class frigate, the unarmed USNS Bowditch changed its course and departed the area, returning later accompanied by a U.S. warship to complete its survey. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing followed up with a diplomatic protest to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Less than one month later, a Cold War-era People’s Liberation Army Navy J-8 fighter collided with an American electronic surveillance aircraft near Hainan Island, one of China’s most sensitive submarine facilities. The collision killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American aircraft into an emergency landing on Hainan, with the crew members racing to destroy sensitive equipment before leaving their destroyed aircraft. The crew would be held for 10 days, subjected to interrogation by Chinese officials at all hours, and the plane was only released, in pieces, in July of that same year. The Bush administration offered a letter, known as the “The Letter of Two Sorries,” in which the administration expressed sorrow for the Chinese pilot’s death and for the United States entering Chinese airspace but stopped short of apologizing or admitting wrongdoing.
Respected voices on U.S.-China relations such as Andrew Erickson have considered this the first test of a U.S. administration by a rising China. But the sheer randomness of the event plays against that. How else would an adversary treat a situation in which a sensitive surveillance aircraft and its crew fall into its lap? Even if the legendary—by which I mean, mythical—strategic acumen of Chinese leaders seized the opportunity, Beijing emerged from the diplomatic whirlwind with very little to show for the whole affair except another entry in its very long and frequently recited book of grudges against the world. Chinese interceptions of U.S. flights were reduced, and the United States made no substantive concessions.
Fast forward to March 2009. Less than two months after President Barack Obama took office, five Chinese vessels aggressively harassed a U.S. surveillance vessel in the international waters of the South China Sea in an action reminiscent of the Bowditch incident. Chinese military, law enforcement, and civilian ships conducted a coordinated interdiction that forced the USNS Impeccable to an emergency stop to avoid collision and then made attempts at seizing its towed array (used for oceanographic survey) with grappling hooks. The Chinese craft eventually allowed the Impeccable to depart, and it returned to its survey operations the following day, accompanied by an American guided missile destroyer. As in 2001, the end result of the dangerous Chinese action was mostly inconvenience.
Attempts to make a pattern out of these two incidents face the problem of 2017. President Donald Trump’s first year in office seems to break from this presumed pattern of tests, with no consensus on which event, if any, was “the test.” At the time, pundits and foreign-policy insiders labeled a bevy of activities as tests of the Trump White House. Patrick Cronin, then-senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, labeled China’s seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle as a “calculated act of coercive diplomacy approved at the top.” Others pointed to bomber flights around the “nine-dash line,” China’s expansive, discredited maritime claim extending into the South China Sea. A routine transit of the Taiwan Strait by China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was identified as another possible test of Trump’s resolve.
As former naval officer and analyst Steven Stashwick pointed out at the time, all three of those incidents took place before Trump’s inauguration, which certainly calls into question their value in terms of testing Trump’s yet-to-be-installed administration. In the case of the Liaoning’s transit of the Taiwan Strait, it is a glaring double standard for the U.S. defense community to regularly defend American transits of that waterway as exercising basic maritime freedoms but label a Chinese transit as a “show of force” or potential “test of U.S. resolve.” Treating these events as pivotal moments creates crisis from routine events, ratcheting up tensions in response to what are becoming regular military operations for Chinese forces and leaving little room for maneuver on the day that a real crisis emerges.
Now, with Biden in the Oval Office, the specter of “the test” lurks behind every Chinese action of any import, from the CCP’s recent sanctions against outgoing Trump officials to its large (but not unprecedented) aerial incursion into Taiwan’s airspace. China’s National People’s Congress passed the new coast guard law less than a week after Biden’s inauguration, allowing the China Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels and demolish foreign structures on Chinese-claimed reefs. It would be convenient to align that law’s passage with the change in administration, but it was released in draft form last year. China’s increasingly muscular coast guard will be a challenge for the Biden administration to deal with, but its development has been a yearslong process, not a reaction to a change in American leadership.
The idea that the incidents of 2001 and 2009 were intended as tests of American resolve is hard to accept in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Even today, Chinese bureaucracy is famed for its stratification and near-paralysis in unexpected crises. As the failure to react in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak showed, it takes days or weeks for the system to align itself—even if when it does, it acts with massive force. Communications are limited, and direction from above can be slow to arrive. To assume that a U.S. aircraft plunging from the skies 20 years ago was a gift to Jiang Zemin’s government is to give the CCP an enormous amount of unwarranted credit.
A more likely explanation for the crisis was that local authorities acted to seize the crew and aircraft while Beijing scrambled to find an equitable way of ridding itself of the crew and their plane while deriving at least some benefit from the whole affair. Considering the survey ship interdictions, research published by Ryan Martinson of the U.S. Naval War College indicates that the tasking to interdict the Impeccable came not from Beijing but from the local head of the South China Sea branch of China’s Fisheries Law Enforcement. There is also a degree of uncertainty in ship deployments, so to assume that Beijing planned out its interdictions carefully to gauge the reaction of the Bush and Obama administrations requires a significant leap of faith. Implying that Xi Jinping or his close advisors were behind the seizure of a small drone that happened to be on the surface of the South China Sea, without a scrap of supporting evidence, should be greeted with incredulity rather than broad acceptance.
These tactical-level engagements are entirely confined to the conventional military realm. Capitalizing on an aircraft collision and instigating maritime confrontations could have signaling value but are also products of two large militaries operating in close proximity. If they were intended as tests, they were poor ones—events easily attributable to China’s discomfort with American close-in surveillance operations near Hainan Island, preceded and followed by years of similar unsafe operations. How then to distinguish these signals from China’s normal operations?
Lastly, these events seem near-universally divergent from the actual trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship. The United States came away from both the Hainan collision and the survey ship incidents without making significant concessions or telegraphing any great weakness of either administration. Yet, between 2001 and today, China has steadily increased its power and influence relative to the United States—particularly in nonmilitary fields such as international institutions, trade, and elite influence. How do these military confrontations occupy center stage in conversations rather than, for instance, the effects of the financial crises of 1997 and 2008?
The mistaken idea that the outcomes of these three relatively minor crises helped dictate the course of 16 years of policy is misguided. The long-term interactions of superpowers simply cannot be reduced to or explained by a handful of incidents. It also reflects a troubling degree of political narcissism. Do credible voices on China really believe that Beijing is consulting the U.S. political calendar in scheduling significant actions associated with its core interests? There is an element of signaling to Chinese actions, but it’s not that easy to determine the intended recipient of those signals and what exactly the intended message might be. And some actions, despite not being intended as tests, may still offer the CCP certain insights into how the Biden administration reacts to, say, a number of People’s Liberation Army Air Force bombers entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
The CCP will test the Biden administration countless times in the course of the next four years; that is the nature of geopolitics. Attempting to reduce great-power relations to a series of tactical-level military interactions is a recipe for flawed analysis and risks missing the forest for the trees.