Strategic Patience: An Excuse For Timidity?


Joseph Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, retired General Lloyd Austin, is simultaneously praised and criticized for suggesting he believes in ‘’strategic patience” towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  There are reasons for and against General Austin’s nomination, but his preference for strategic patience should not be one of the reasons against his nomination.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, strategic patience is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.

Strategic patience is just a handsome way of saying sometimes it’s best “to hold your horses” – or take one’s time.  And sometimes that is a good idea.

Ones liking for the concept more depends on whether you agree with whoever it is being “strategically patient” and how they are carrying it out.

Sometimes there are good reasons for a cautious approach.  For example, a nation is unprepared to act or is unwilling to deal with the consequences – known and unknown.  Sometimes there are competing priorities.  And maybe, wait a while and the object of your strategic patience may weaken – or even give up.

Of course, sometimes “strategic patience” is just an excuse for timidity.  As Abraham Lincoln complained about General George McClellan as having “the slows” and not pursuing Confederate forces.

But what if the target of “strategic patience” uses it as a respite to improve their military capabilities, build up their economic might, and reshape the regional and global political environment in their favor.

You’re in trouble if you haven’t correspondingly increased your own strength or maintained your advantage.   

And that is the worry over a “strategic patience” strategy towards the People’s Republic of China.  

Consider the eight years of the Obama administration’s China policy – effectively “strategic patience.”  Yes, there was the Asia pivot, but anyone who was there knew that de-escalation in the face of Chinese misbehavior and aggression was the White House’s order of the day. 

U.S. capabilities may not have declined, but Chinese capabilities increased at a frightening clip.  And the PRC seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines – a U.S. treaty ally, and were allowed to build seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (three of which are the size of Pearl Harbor).  Beijing later rejected the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against the island-building.  

The Chinese established People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and Air Force (PLAN/PLAAF) patrol stations near the Senkaku Islands, increased their threats to Taiwan, built also built their naval, air, rocket, and space/cyber power, and much more.

Strategic patience also sometimes wreaks of dangerous condescension.  The idea being:  “we can afford to do nothing because the other guy will never be our equal.”  One recalls an INDOPACOM commander referring to the PRC’s artificial islands as “the great wall of sand” and describing U.S. submarines as Ferraris – compared to the PLAN’s “Model T’s.” 

This will surprise, or anger, many people, but the Trump administration in fact showed strategic patience.  How so?  While Trump did much more to challenge Beijing than his predecessors, he never used force in Asia and never played his full hand – particularly on the financial front against the PRC.  Some would say that was a mistake.

But unlike the Obama (and Bush) administrations, both allies and adversaries sensed that the Americans just might fight and its military forces were in better shape than in 2017 when Trump took office.  (Bombing Syria while dining with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago set the tone.) 

But it is also worth remembering that the PLA build-up still continued during the Trump administration – as did pressure on U.S. friends and allies such as Taiwan, Japan, and others.

So here’s the big question:  If a Biden administration plans for “strategic patience” towards the PRC, what does it mean?

Is it a version of the Obama-era strategic patience?  

That means seeking a “reset” or “dialing down” of tensions with the PRC – while offering bold talk about unshakable commitments to rules based orders, open-seas, and shared values among allies.  And slashing defense spending – while prioritizing domestic matters will be part of the deal too.

Do so and Beijing will smell blood.  It will be glad to pocket both the reset and the dialing down – while dialing things up from their side.  Expect a challenge in the first 90 days.  And to have America’s bluff called within a year. 

What might this look like?  A few possibilities:  declaring parts of the South China Sea “exclusionary zones” or making a move against Taiwanese, Vietnamese, or Malaysian territory in the South China Sea, or elbowing the Japanese away from the Senkaku islands.  There is also plenty of unfinished business with the Indians along the borders and full-scale assault on Taiwan isn’t unthinkable.

Or will it be a different sort of “strategic patience” for the Biden administration?  Indeed, more like the Trump version.

Stand up to and challenge the PRC, and fund and build out a military that no adversary will want to take on.  And somehow make it clear that you will use it.  Also take the challenge beyond the military front.  Get America’s finances in order for starters and wean (forcibly if necessary) American business from its China dependency.  That alone would be worth a few dozen aircraft carriers.

Insist on partner’s improving their own capabilities and show some concrete results.  Biden and his team claim they will capitalize from repairing the partner relationships that they claim Trump ruined – despite the evidence.  The Japanese just showed how well that will work. Once Tokyo determined that Biden will be president it cancelled talks on increasing financial support for U.S. forces in Japan.  And then it passed a defense budget that does nothing – absolutely nothing – to fix Japan’s defense shortcomings.  Sometimes it’s better that your friends don’t consider you a pushover.

Beijing probably expects the first option given that so many people on the Biden team were part of the Obama team, and they are also hinting at a “reset.”

It would be nice to surprise the PRC.

Otherwise one will know that “strategic patience” is sometimes just another expression for appeasement and letting America’s defense lapse and leaving its friends in the lurch.

We know how that turns out.