Unlike sessions of the U.S. Congress, dynamism, power, and democracy are not associated with the relatively boring, choreographed, and rubber-stamp nature of China’s annual “two sessions” of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). However, they have political theater in common. While the 2021 two sessions predictably endorsed China’s Outline of the fourteenth Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and Long Range Objectives Through the Year 2035, the participation of China’s top leaders and the release of various reports indicate China’s foreign policy priorities for 2021 and beyond. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan prepare to meet with Chinese officials in Alaska, here’s what they should keep in mind from China’s two sessions.
Many have already noted the changes that will be made to Hong Kong’s electoral system—only pro-Beijing candidates will be allowed. The United States responded with disappointment, but there is little more it can do. The Joe Biden Administration could levy more sanctions and make it easier for dissidents to obtain refugee status, as well as continue to issue unilateral and multilateral statements, yet Hong Kong’s trajectory will remain the same. Despite international democratic displeasure, Beijing will continue to ensure Hong Kong’s full integration with the Mainland. The real question is if the Biden Administration will make Hong Kong a hill to die on at the expense of advancing American security, economic, health, and environmental interests.
Similarly, China reiterated its continued support for unification with Taiwan. Compared to speeches made in 2020, peaceful reunification was re-added to the equation in Premier Li Keqiang’s Government Work Report and the National Development and Reform Commission’s Report on the 2021 Draft Plan for Economic and Social Development. Although a welcome return, Beijing’s military activities across the Taiwan Strait do not inspire confidence in peaceful reunification.
Contributing to this uncertainty is the NPC’s intention to use law to uphold the One-China principle, protect the One-China framework, and resist Taiwan independence. Whatever laws are enacted, the Biden Administration should carefully analyze them and develop policies that do not harm American interests. Of course, under political pressure, the Administration will likely react with harsh rhetoric and perhaps send a naval vessel to visit the Taiwan Strait. But going beyond reason and exacerbating U.S.-China military tensions, such as declaring the end of strategic ambiguity, may increase the chance of armed conflict.
Although not forming major sections of the various reports, ethnic minority regions will remain on Beijing’s mind throughout 2021. The Ministry of Finance’s Report on the Draft Central and Local Budgets for 2021 states that it will support new forms of development in Western China, which includes Xinjiang and Tibet, over the next five years. And Premier Li restated China’s long-time policy of religious Sinification. Perhaps most significantly, President Xi Jinping met and addressed development issues—including “ethnic unity”—with the legislative delegations of Inner Mongolia and Qinghai, provinces with a significant number of minority groups. Emphasis on enhanced development in border regions and the Sinification of religion—which has partially led to minority forced labor in Xinjiang, Tibet, and throughout China—indicates that Beijing may continue human rights abuses in the name of stability.
The Biden Administration should monitor human rights abuses in the border regions to help inform policy. But human rights policies should have concrete and achievable goals that do not unnecessarily endanger American security and prosperity for the thrill of touting our values and morals.
In addition to considering China’s territorial and national sovereignty concerns, the United States will continue to face China’s increasingly modernized military. The Government Work Report stresses the importance of military modernization, meaning a well-trained, high-tech, intelligent, and agile force. To accomplish this, Beijing is putting its money where its mouth is by increasing the defense budget by 6.8 percent to over $200 billion—and we know this is only part of what China spends on its military. Though much less than the Pentagon’s budget, China’s greater purchasing power and focus on regional issues will make the People’s Liberation Army a more potent force vis a vis the U.S. armed forces in the Indo-Pacific. Washington must consider Beijing’s enhanced military capabilities, choose to avoid military conflict, and recognize that American security is of greater importance than escalating tensions with China by building up our military infrastructure in the region.
It is no surprise the United States and China disagree on issues Beijing considers to be “core interests.” In 2021, China will continue to highlight these red lines and do it with an increasingly powerful military. The Biden Administration should carefully consider Beijing’s resolve and capabilities when crafting and implementing its China strategy. Failure to do so would certainly set back American interests.
Quinn Marschik previously served in the Trump administration as the policy advisor to the deputy undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor.