The role of the People’s Republic of China in the world is growing every year. China is becoming a world power, both economically and militarily. The development of this country, however, raises concerns and the need to strengthen the position of countries associated in alliances with the US and harnesses the world hegemon, the United States of America, to act. Professor David A. Jones, an expert in the field of US foreign policy and international relations, talked to Jan Hernik, editor-in-chief of The Warsaw Institute Review, about the activities of the Joe Biden administration, the growing position of China in the Indo-Pacific region, and the prospects for the future of relations between world powers.
Jan Hernik: The official strategy for the Indo-Pacific operation of the Joe Biden administration was released in February this year. It assumes, for example:
– ensuring that the seas and skies of the region are governed and used according to international law;
– partnering to build resilience in the Pacific Islands;
– continuing partnership within AUKUS;
– maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
How do you assess the activities of the Joe Biden administration in this regard? Does the US prove that they have not forgotten the main threat of China’s development?
David Jones: Well, I assess the Biden administration’s response in the Indo-Pacific as being a continuation of the response of his predecessors. What we think in international relations, we have to keep in mind continuity and sometimes adoration of continuity based on the personalities of the people involved. The Obama administration and the Trump administration both had a continuation of this policy, and also Biden is continuing it in the Indo-Pacific region. However, in the Obama administration, during his first term, his secretary of state was Hilary Rodham Clinton, former first lady and former New York senator. She was replaced in the second term by John F. Kerry, a former senator from Massachusetts. Hilary Clinton had developed a strategy thatshe calledthe ‘Pivot to Asia’. Pivot, as a turn to face Asia. In some respects, it worked, in other respects, it possibly could be considered similar to His Holiness Pope Francis’s assessment of NATO and Russia. He said that we [NATO] are “barking at Russia’s doorstep”. In some way, he is correct. You could argue that the ‘Pivot to Asia’ did a little bit of growling at the doorstep of China. During the second Obama administration, he backed off a little there. Trump backed off even more, but then bit in the areas of tariffs. I think what Biden wants to do is to keep everything copacetic and keep everything the way it has been throughout most of the 21st century or since the time of Deng Xiaoping as the China leader and then Hu Jintao’s administration up to the early period of the Xi Jinping administration before Xi started to develop this concept of an ‘Asian dream’ that would advance China more than possibly the West would like.
JH: In recent days, we have received information about an agreement concluded by the Solomon Islands with the People’s Republic of China. The result of this agreement may be interference by Chinese troops in the region. There is also talk of the possibility of establishing permanent Chinese military bases on islands less than 2,000 kilometers from the Australian coast. Australia’s head of defense, Peter Dutton, says bluntly that Australia must be getting ready for war. Is he right?
DJ: I think it is very hard to second guess not being a commander responsible for billions of people. I would not purport to second guess President Biden or President Xi Jinping or any such person without the intelligence they have, but I do not have. No, I do not believe that Fiji and its reverse are on course with YSP F4, I don’t think that means war with Australia. It could mean, of course, a Chinese landing space that would be nearer to Australia, not near to Australia, but nearer to Australia. That would be grounds for Australian concern but remember that General Douglas McArthur’s headquarters during World War II was mostly in Australia, which means that Australia can be heavily fortified and is heavily fortified and is part of the Five Eyes intelligence component. It would have the complete support of the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and I don’t think China is planning a war against Australia right now or at any time in the foreseeable future. I think they want Fiji just for posturing.
JH: Many observers of this situation say that 2022 Honiara might be for Australia the same what Havana was for the United States of America in 1962. Would you like to comment on that?
DJ: Remember that President Kennedy was confronted with missiles 90 miles [135 km] from the coast of South Florida. Fiji is way further from Australia than that [4,664 km]. The Havana issues and the Cuban issues have to do with the Soviet Union, which the United States considered at that time to be something much more than the ‘paper tiger’. I would argue that today we have bipolarity, we still have unipolarity for practical purposes. I don’t think China is in a position to take on the United States, much less the United States plus the United Kingdom, even outside of the rest of the Western alliance. I do not think that the People’s Republic of China will immediately, and hopefully never, make a mistake that President Putin and Russia have made: launching aggression when you are not capable of executing it within the normal standards. China does not like to lose face, no Asian people or country like to lose face. Putin has lost a tremendous face in the eyes of the world, and I do not think that Xi Jinping is going to advance to Australia through Fiji or anywhere else right now until he gets his ducks far more in order.
JH: Do you believe that, in the light of what you just said, the US still holds this so-called PAX AMERICANA in the region? Or maybe the US has to rely more and more on alliances, both bilateral and multilateral alliances, to build the preventive strength to face the Chinese, the biggest navy in the world right now?
DJ: Sure. We thought that Russia also had the largest army. We saw what happened when they couldn’t manipulate and steer it. To answer your question, I think we know from observation that President Biden is a very conscientious president – no ‘no fly zone’ over Ukraine, no troops or boots on the ground in Ukraine – 36 years in the US Senate, eight years as vice-president, and now 1,5 years as president. For all his infirmities and he may have health problems, I never laugh at them, while some people do, but he is a very conscientious president. I think he wants both PAX AMERICANA, the peace of America, plus Alliances – as many as he can possibly have. In my opinion, America has very strong allies in the Pacific region: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and then the most important ally in many respects – a combination of Australia and New Zealand. They are extremely valuable. Never would the United Kingdom or the United States even remotely consider letting them be invaded without consequence or giving them up. I believe that the answer to your question is both: a very strong PAX AMERICANA, I think President Biden will take this part of Hillary Clinton’s concept of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ very seriously, and, of course, a reliance on American Allies everywhere, including especially the Indo-Pacific.
JH: US Deputy Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Kritenbrink, said the Beijing-Honiara deal had “potential implications for regional security” for the US and other allies. Kritenbrink also did not rule out military action by the American side in the event of actions aimed at establishing military bases of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the Solomon Islands. US-Australian military maneuvers in the northern part of the continent are also scheduled for July. Is this an adequate response from the American side?
DJ: I think number 1, the purpose of the PRC is to try to negotiate some space on the Solomon Islands. It is to minimize the likelihood that the United States would have the same opportunity there because obviously if the US were called upon to defend Australia, which I do not think is likely to be in any near term, but if they are called upon to defend Taiwan it would be useful to have such kind of space. This is, I think, posturing by China to deprive the United States of part of its tiny alliance there or larger landing areas in that region. It is a way of sending a message to the United States “Your alliance is coming undone”. I do not believe this alliance is coming undone, but I believe China would like to send this message. Now, as to Australian and American naval maneuvers, that is reverse posturing, too. These are the United States showing to the world, especially China, that the US is there to support the United Kingdom. In other words, “I have your back” in military terms because Australia and New Zealand are a part of the Commonwealth structure and they have a primary responsibility to defend them. The United Kingdom and the United States have a ‘special relationship’ and this special relationship means rescuing one another. Then you have some other questions there as well. I think this all circulates around the issue of Taiwan. I don’t think China has any ambition toward Australia, nor does Australia need Fiji Islands, America might a little bit.
JH: So, is it just turning the World’s attention towards the Solomon Islands, but, at the same time, China wants to weaken Taiwan?
DJ: Yes. I think this is China’s overriding objective. This has been the case for President Xi Jinping since he came to office in 2012, but also for his predecessors. They all have taken the position that, ultimately, they wanted a reunification of Taiwan. Now, that is an understandable position. That is, Chinese territory, it was occupied by Japan for a long time, but it is a Chinese territory in the modern and postmodern periods. The people on the island of Formosa (Taiwan) are ethnically Chinese. Largely they are ethnically Han Chinese, but they are Chinese. China wants it back. It should be understandable to the world the reasons why China wants it back. I also think it is understandable to China, the world and certainly to the Biden administration that China cannot take it back by violence. It has to take it by a peaceful requisition, a peaceful reunification over time – very much the way Germany was reunified in 1991 and the way probably, eventually North and South Korea will be reunified, the same way North and South Vietnam reunified when the conflict stopped there. Patience is the word that the Chinese culture is very familiar with. They look to the long term, and I just hope they look to the long term because I can assure you that the United States of America, both parties in Congress are very strongly pro-Taiwan independence. After all, the law of the United Nation and the community since World War II has been and that is [that] the people have the right to decide their future, to decide their governance. The people of Taiwan have the same right as anybody else. It would seem very clearly to the people of Taiwan, from their recent elections, that they agree that at the moment Taiwan needs to maintain its independence. I do not think that America or any other country should get involved in trying to make that permanent. This is what China does not want: permanent separation from its own people in Taiwan. Insofar as the moment is concerned, I would hope that China understands that they got millions of people out of poverty with Western trade, the United States of America and the United Kingdom spearheaded that. Trade would be taken away. Don’t do that! Trade should continue with both mainland China and Taiwan. You asked me what the Biden administration’s goal is there… This is exactly what the Biden administration’s goal is and should be.
JH: Let’s continue the topic of alliances in the region. The QUAD summit will be held at the end of May in Tokyo. We have this alliance, we see AUKUS, and also some time ago there was this partnership between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America called ANZUS. I wanted to ask about your evaluation of this Anglo-Saxon cooperation in the region in terms of security and defense in the region.
DJ: For somebody who has six children, I recognize that you might have alliances within alliances, and sometime they might come undone. I do not believe that the world should be an Anglo-Saxon-only world. I think it should be, it has been, and it should be in the foreseeable future an Anglo-American-led alliance, including the Pacific rim. You are going to have alliances among the participants who reside in the region. You are going to have the QUAD, for example, as a major alliance. We expect our allies to have their own alliances with each other, but not opposed to the United Kingdom or the United States in that relationship. This is what we have. These alliances are not in any way threatening the security of the Western Alliance. Let’s call it ‘Western Alliance’ because I don’t like to use ‘Anglo-American’ too much. These alliances are all very positive in several ways.
Gathering of intelligence – that’s of course the Five Eyes, I guess Six Eyes with the Republic of Korea. We have intelligence capabilities, which are extremely important. We need our local partners to cooperate because it is in their interest to do that. They are very valuable partners. Japan is becoming an extremely pro-Western ally during most of its prime ministerial administrations since World War II. It should be because the United States, with some participation from the United Kingdom, has rebuilt it into a very prosperous country. I have been there, it’s a wonderful country and its alliance is very valuable. The South Korean alliance is very valuable, and the Singapore alliance is also very valuable. Of course, without question, the Australia-New Zealand alliance both with South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan – that area and with the United Kingdom and the United States. These are formidable alliances that no one should take for granted. They could all come undone, but I don’t think they will if we work toward our mutual benefit. I think China knows that. I hope this PRC knows that and respects it, as they always talk about the need to ‘respect’ them. You are talking to somebody who has enormous respect for China. I have been there 20 times. I have been all over. The only place I have not been is Manchuria [Northeastern China]. I have been to this place so many times, I have stayed in people’s homes, I think I know China very well from the grassroots. I do not believe that Chinese people are foolish. I believe they are very smart. I do not believe that President Xi Jinping will make the mistake that President Putin seems to have made in Russia. In one example of that, in the International Court of Justice, in the World Court, in a case of Ukraine against Russia, the president of that court is an American woman [H.E. Judge Joan E. Donoghue]. Of the 15 judges on the court, 13 of them strongly supported Ukraine. Even the Chinese judge was very, very careful. He took his orders very clearly from Beijing. He said: “China respects sovereignty”. Of course, at the same time, it doesn’t recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, understand that, but basically he said that China does not recommend the invasion of other countries. It prefers alliances, it prefers diplomatic negotiations. I believe that this is an important talisman as a forecast of China’s behavior in the near term, in the mid term, and in the long term – at least under the Xi Jinping administration.
JH: Professor, you told us about China, so I have to mention the South China Sea. This is the main place of Chinese interference in the region. We have to be clear here that China breaks international law. This happens in the South China Sea, we talk about the annexation of the islands, which do not belong to China. We see attacks on American ships, for example, the USS Benfold was fired off the coast of the Paracel Islands. How to stop China? It is clearly visible that China does not have to be an enemy…
DJ: It is clearly visible that China not only does not have to be an enemy, China is not an enemy, and should never be an enemy.
JH: Yes, but at the same time they do all the things I mentioned.
DJ: Well, we do a lot, too. We, meaning the Western Alliance. You talk about the artificial islands, and of course, we did have a court case in the Court of Arbitration of the United Nations. That was the case of The Philippines against the People’s Republic of China and The Philippines won. It was a strong victory for the Philippines saying what you just summarized, that the South China Sea area does not belong to China. China claims a historical right to this area, but these are international waterways today. We see very clearly that to the extent that some of the waters are coastal waters, they would belong under current international law to the countries that they surround, the Philippines, for example, as well as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, for example. This is not Chinese territory. I suppose your explicit question is why China built these airbases on atolls and some type of coral reefs there. Of course, I don’t know, because China doesn’t tell me that, but I think it is very transparent that their purpose is to enable them to control that area. It is partially posturing, it is partially saying that ‘if you guys go to war with us, we will cut off the easiest trade access from East Asia to Europe – it’s through the South China Sea. There would not be trade with China if we were at war with China, but there would still be trade with Japan and South Korea. They would be going to try to block that – that’s posturing, and on the other hand, these atolls might be taken by the United States pretty easily. I think it is simply a showing tongue ‘here we are, we are a big country, we are a proud country, we have a strong heritage, we have provided many goods and widgets to the West and you want to respect our military capability.’ I think it would be foolish for any country not to respect the military capabilities of the PRC. However, this does not mean that the Biden administration or the Johnson administration in the UK or any of the Western administrations, have to capitulate to Chinese aggression in that region or anywhere else. There are other areas in question too, areas of India, for example, and the Indian subcontinent, or Sri Lanka. These are areas of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. China has huge investments in Asia and outside of Asia, much more than Russia does. Senator John S. McCain, III, late Republican from Arizona, once said that Russia “is a gas station masquerading as a country”. You cannot say that about China. China is a very realistic nation, a proud nation, a major nation, and it has invested heavily in trying to connect to neighboring countries, at least in its wide region. This is a country trying to move forward, I believe, peacefully. I think someone like Xi Jinping would not want to give all of that up by making a foolish move like Vladimir Putin did for Russia in Ukraine. To get nothing out of it, to become far, far worse off than better off. That is my hope.
JH: Yes. Let us hope that the peace will be respected by both sides. The last question I will have for you is the one regarding the present situation in the world. Today, many political scientists and geopolitics experts mostly observe the war in Ukraine. It seems that many experts in this field forgot about the Indo-Pacific, at least in the Polish media. Don’t you feel that it is the way I said it?
DJ: Well. I do read the Polish news and I think your assessment is accurate, but one of the reasons is that Poland is so approximate to Ukraine, a straight rocket that hit Lviv is a very serious problem for your country. There is a danger of a straight rocket hitting Poland, so of course, Poland is very focused on the war in Ukraine. I am not convinced that the rest of the world is. I am not convinced the Biden administration needs to be. I believe that the Biden administration is focused on pan-global bases, and I believe that this is one of the reasons President Biden did not want to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine. America would have to enforce it by shooting down Russian jets. That is also the reason he did not want American troops on the ground, and I think Americans did not want that either. I think he is right there. Insofar as to where everybody else stands, it is a good question. I think that most of the Western Alliance keep their eyes on everything, but one area we need to keep our eyes on even more, but that I think has slipped a little, and that is the Russian Federation with the American sanctions which are now being obeyed even by Germany with the pipeline. This is tough to give up, as one would prefer not to give up a chocolate cookie, but it is necessary. The only lifeline that the Russian Federation really has is a Chinese economic lifeline. They have already asked China for troops, and China said “no” – very wisely. I hope it is not going to change its mind. China has been pouring some money into Russia, diplomatically I would like that to stop. In 1955-56, the Eisenhower administration asked Soviet defense minister Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov to pull Mao Zedong back from the shelling of Quemoy-Matsu islands in the Taiwan Strait. They backed off. I think sovereign nations might do that in reverse right now. I think somebody needs to talk to Xi Jinping and the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China and say: “You know guys, we got you out of poverty, do you want to go back to poverty? We love Chinese products. The western people really are friends of the Chinese people”, and so am I. Someone should say to Xi: “You don’t want to be a part of this war crime effort, you don’t want to be killing children in their homes and doing these disgusting things. Surely, you don’t want to be lining up your tanks in formation where drones can fly over and pick them off. You don’t want to have that kind of incompetence in your general staff and, President Xi Jinping, you do not have such incompetence in your general staff. So back off from Russia, let it go its own road, stay with us the way things have been and everything will work out well.” My prediction would be that within 20 years or a shorter period of time, there will be a peaceful reunification of the territory that is considered to be pan-Chinese, the Taiwan Strait area. Peaceful.
JH: Let us hope that this relationship will be based on peace and mutual respect. Thank you so much for your time and expertise!
DJ: Thank you very much Jan, anytime, my pleasure!