U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has repeatedly requested, since Biden’s presidency, a meeting with China’s top military officer, only to be rebuffed, according to information revealed by U.S. defense officials in a May 21 Financial Times report. Beijing’s snub of Mr. Austin is being interpreted by some, optimistically, as a petty bureaucratic rivalry. However, the dispute indicates dangerously self-defeating behavior on the part of both Beijing and Washington D.C., just as military tensions are increasing between the United States and allies on one side, and China and its allies, on the other.
The United States is showing weakness by seeking military meetings with China, and China is broadcasting aggression through its imperious approach to America’s leading defense official. The combination sets conditions for a Chinese overstep, and American militarized response.
Tensions with China include those over Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, China’s territorial transgressions against India, Myanmar (Burma), and Bhutan, China’s kidnapping of foreigners, including the approximately 900-day illegal detention of Canada’s Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Uyghur genocide, and continued intellectual property theft from the United States valued as high as $600 billion annually. Xi Jinping appears particularly focused against Taiwan, whose air defense identification zone (ADIZ) suffered a record number of Chinese military incursions in March. This year, China’s air force simulated attacks on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.
The list of U.S. and allied grievances with Beijing is so high as to increase frustration significantly in Washington, and in particular at the Pentagon. The U.S. military’s strength, along with its commitment to human rights, a system of free and independent nation-states, and international law, give it a special responsibility to protect Americans and world order, which it has been attempting to do against would-be dictators from Joseph Stalin in the 1930s to Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in the 21st century.
China should be jumping at the chance to engage with Biden’s top defense official, if nothing else to gauge his level of frustration and the risk of war. Yet, Beijing is not only skipping the opportunity to meet Mr. Austin, but humiliating him and his team, including President Biden, publicly.
Mr. Austin’s imbroglio indicates that Xi Jinping is not reversing his belligerent course. Since Biden became president, Xi has publicly threatened war against Taiwan, and against the United States in an only slightly more veiled manner. The public nature of Xi’s threats is relatively new, though according to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, he made a private threat against the U.S. ally in 2017.
According to the Financial Times, Secretary Austin made three requests to speak directly with General Xu Qiliang, China’s most senior military official. Three individuals briefed on the matter said China refused to engage. A U.S. defense official told the FT, “The Chinese military has not been responsive” to requests for an Austin-Xu meeting. Instead, the regime offered Mr. Austin a lower-ranking officer, Wei Fenghe, who does not sit on the 25-member ruling politburo.
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also not spoken to his counterpart since early January, just before Joe Biden was sworn in as president.
China’s bureaucratic protocol issues with meeting U.S. military officials appears to be a persistent problem. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Heino Klinck told the Financial Times that agreement on protocol for meetings with China was always challenging. Klinck, who has eight years of experience living and working in the Asia-Pacific area, attributed the bureaucratic impasse to the different military structures of the two countries. I disagree.
More likely, China is attempting to intimidate, or assert symbolic dominance over, the United States by withholding its top leadership from meetings with the top leadership of the United States and other countries. By doing so, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to establish that the United States and other countries are subordinate, not equal, to China. Exceptions are made when countries are particularly submissive, in which case Xi Jinping and his top lieutenants might “grant” an audience. Exceptions can also be made towards powers seen as dangerous or highly necessary to China.
That domineering approach would be consistent with China’s historical view of itself as the ”central kingdom” (zhongguo, 中国) ruling over “all under heaven” (tianxia, 天下). There is a blurring of the concept of the Chinese state, and the world, here, that clashes with Western notions of the clearly-demarcated system of Westphalian states, but does not clash with the imperialism that, since the early-to-mid 20th century, the United States and allies have rejected.
The terms “Chinese” and “China” are also subject to a historical fluidity that unfortunately allows intellectually for China to claim new territories and peoples, for example Tibetans and Uyghurs, and turn them into “Chinese” living in “China.” Americans and other liberal Westerners have done the same in their own territories, for example against Native Americans in the 19th century, but less so in and after the 20th century.
Conversely, Xi Jinping appears to still be living in a 19th-century world in which might makes right, and in which he has a chance at avenging past wrongs against “China” by returning the country to its “rightful” place as the central kingdom of a global empire. Beijing does not seem to demonstrate equal respect for other members of the international system, especially its neighbors, and is using incrementalism (the salami slicing tactic identified by Thomas Schelling) to take their territory. China’s recent protocol issues with the Pentagon are indicative of the Xi regime’s imperialistic mindset.
But the CCP’s snub of Mr. Austin is also a mistake of our own making. The Secretary should never have sought a meeting in the first place. Neither should former Secretary of Defense James Mattis have done so in 2018, when he managed to meet Xu Qiliang in Beijing. The Pentagon’s readout of that meeting notes that “Secretary Mattis acknowledged potential areas of cooperation, including shared interest in the denuclearization of North Korea.” There was no mention of a like interest in “cooperation” by Mr. Xu.
U.S. secretaries of defense who placate foreign enemies with meetings broadcast weakness, and open themselves up to compromise. Mr. Mattis, for example, is now working for Cohen Group, which is led by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. The group opened two offices in China in 2006 and 2007. Mr. Austin’s apparent desperation to meet with Chinese officials could be seen by Xi Jinping as a similar attempt at obtaining personal gain.
The better American military approach to the Xi regime is to leave diplomacy to the State Department, and if China gets too close, prepare for battle. This is the image we need of our military. Aloof and dangerous. That’s the only way to retain the CCP’s respect and keep it at a distance. When they come asking for a meeting, refuse.
Against a highly aggressive adversary like Beijing, projecting strength includes inspiring fear in the enemy. Xi understands the tactic only too well. As should be clear from the recent snub of Mr. Austin, Beijing is starting to use it against us.
Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.