(CNN) — President Joe Biden was flanked on Monday by a 377-foot submarine — the USS Missouri — as he announced an accelerated timeline for Australia to receive its own nuclear-powered submarines early next decade.
But looming much larger was the increasingly tense US relationship with China, which has emerged as a central focus of Biden’s presidency. That relationship has been magnified in recent weeks by a slew of global events, from the dramatic downing of a Chinese spy balloon to the revelation that Beijing is considering arming Russia — all taking place amid Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented consolidation of power and a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington about the risks China poses.
US officials readily acknowledge that tensions with China are higher than they have been in recent years and that Beijing’s heated public rhetoric of late is reflective of the state of private relations. It’s why Biden’s multi-pronged China strategy has involved a bid to normalize diplomatic relations even as the US pursues policies like Monday’s submarine announcement designed to counter China’s global influence and its military movements.
“Today, as we stand at the inflection point in history, where the hard work of enhancing deterrence and promoting stability is going to affect the prospects of peace for decades to come, the United States can ask for no better partners in the Indo-Pacific, where so much of our shared future will be written,” Biden said Monday, standing alongside his Australian and British counterparts.
The effort to re-open lines of communication with China, especially between each country’s top military brass following the spy balloon incident, has shown no signs of progress, according to a senior administration official.
“Quite the contrary, China appears resistant at this juncture to actually move forward in establishing those dialogues and mechanisms,” the official said. “What we need are the appropriate mechanisms between senior government officials, between the military, between the various crisis managers on both sides to be able to communicate when there is something that is either accidental or just misinterpreted.”
Against that backdrop, Biden faces a series of decisions over the coming weeks and months that have the potential to exacerbate tensions further, including placing new curbs on investments by American companies in China and restricting or blocking the US operations of the popular social media platform TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company. And in Beijing, Chinese officials must soon decide whether to flaunt US warnings and begin providing lethal weaponry to Russia in its war in Ukraine.
Monday’s update on the new three-way defense partnership between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom is the latest step meant to counter China’s attempts at naval dominance in the Indo-Pacific and, potentially, its designs on invading self-governing Taiwan. Australia will now receive its first of at least three advanced submarines early next decade, faster than predicted when the AUKUS partnership launched 18 months ago, and US submarines like the USS Missouri will rotate through Australian ports in the meantime.
“The United States has safeguarded stability in Indo-Pacific for decades, to the enormous benefits of nations throughout the region from ASEAN to Pacific Islanders to the People’s Republic of China,” Biden said during his remarks. “In fact, our leadership in the Pacific has been the benefit to the entire world. We’ve kept the sea lanes and skies open and navigable for all. We’ve upheld basic rules of the road.”
His British counterpart was more explicit, naming China as a cause for concern.
“China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea all threaten to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “Faced with this new reality, it is more important than ever, that we strengthen the resilience of our own countries.”
Even before Biden traveled to Naval Base Point Loma in California to herald that progress alongside the British and Australian prime ministers, China was quick to lambast the move as advancing a “Cold War mentality and zero-sum games.”
That China did not wait for the announcement itself to lash out is a sign of just how closely Beijing is watching Biden’s moves in the Pacific, where the US military is expanding its presence and helping other nations modernize their fleets.
China’s Foreign Ministry again condemned the AUKUS deal Tuesday, saying “the three countries… have completely ignored the concerns of the international community and gone further down a wrong and dangerous road.”
It’s another example of Biden’s view of China as the leading long-term threat to global peace and stability, even as Russia’s war in Ukraine consumes current US diplomatic and military attention.
The first shipment, due in 2032, will be of three American Virginia-class attack submarines, which are designed to employ a number of different weapons, including torpedoes and cruise missiles. The subs can also carry special operations forces and carry out intelligence and reconnaissance missions.
That will be followed in the 2040s by British-designed submarines, containing American technology, that will transform Australia’s underwater capabilities over the course of the next 25 years.
Before then, US submarines will rotationally deploy to Australia to begin training Australian crews on the advanced technology, scaling up American defense posture in the region.
The submarines will not carry nuclear weapons and US, Australian and British officials have insisted the plans are consistent with international non-proliferation rules, despite Chinese protestations.
The message sent by the announcement is unmistakable: The US and its allies view China’s burgeoning naval ambitions as a top threat to their security, and are preparing for a long-term struggle. Already this year, the US announced it was expanding its military presence in the Philippines and welcomed moves by Japan to strengthen its military.
“It’s deeply consequential,” a senior administration official said of the AUKUS partnership. “The Chinese know that, they recognize it and they’ll want to engage accordingly.”
US officials said Britain’s participation in the new submarine project is a sign of Europe’s growing concerns about tensions in the Pacific — concerns that have emerged within NATO, even as the alliance remains consumed by the war in Ukraine. And in conversations with European leaders over the past month, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday, Biden has raised the issue of China in the hopes of developing a coordinated approach.
The looming question now is whether China will choose to reengage and improve diplomatic relations with the US despite the heightened tensions.
Successive phone calls and a November face-to-face meeting with Xi have so far yielded only halting progress in establishing what administration officials describe as a “floor” in the relationship.
Four months after that meeting, progress has largely stalled on reopening lines of communication between Washington and Beijing, once viewed as the primary takeaway from the three-hour session in Bali. Speaking to CNN in late February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it had been months since he’d spoken to his Chinese counterpart.
And public remarks from Chinese leaders, including Xi, have begun to sharpen over the past week, a sign the confrontational approach of the past year is not waning.
Biden and his advisers have largely downplayed the new, sharp tone emanating from Beijing. Asked by CNN on Thursday about the meaning of new rebukes from Xi and Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Biden replied flatly: “Not much.”
On Monday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said a conversation between Biden and Xi would likely occur now that China’s National People’s Congress has concluded and a slate of Chinese officials take up their new positions following the rubber-stamp parliament’s annual meeting.
“We have said that when the National People’s Congress comes to a close, as it now has, and Chinese leadership returns to Beijing, and then all of these new officials take their new seats, because of course you now have a new set of figures in substantial leadership positions, we would expect President Biden and President Xi to have a conversation. So at some point in the coming period,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One.
He said there was no date set yet for a Xi-Biden phone call, but that Biden “has indicated his willingness to have a telephone conversation with President Xi once they’re back in stride coming off the National People’s Congress.”
Tensions appeared to hit a new level last week after Xi directly rebuked US policy as “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us.” Qin, in remarks the next day, defined the “competition” Biden has long sought to frame as central to the relationship between the two powers as “a reckless gamble.”
“If the United States does not hit the brakes but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation,” Qin said.
A senior administration official acknowledged that Xi’s recent rhetoric has been “more direct” than in the past, but said the White House continues to believe that Xi “will again want to sit down and engage at the highest level” now that he has completed his latest consolidation of power.
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