A cold war is brewing between the United States and China. We outmatch them in most measures—contrary to many scaremongers, they do not pose an imminent military threat—but they’ve been playing the ‘Great Power’ game more cleverly than we have, and it seems they might outmaneuver us again when two of President Biden’s top officials meet on Friday, in Anchorage, Alaska, with their Chinese counterparts.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have run hot and cold for more than a half-century, but in the past decade, under President Xi Jinping’s reign, China has assumed a more ambitious and aggressive posture. It has built up military power in the South China Sea (violating accepted boundaries of international waters), embedded its technology and supply chains in trade deals around the world, stepped up intellectual-property theft targeting the U.S. and other democracies, and imposed authoritarian rule on Hong Kong, violating a treaty that guaranteed the former British colony autonomy until 2047.
Elizabeth Economy, an Asia scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees these moves as pieces of a strategy to “replace the United States as the preeminent power in the Asia Pacific” and, ultimately, to achieve a “transformation of the world order.”
Though President Trump lambasted China more loudly than some of his predecessors (except when he was lauding Xi as a great friend and leader), the actions he took either had no effect on Beijing’s power or strengthened it. His entire response to Xi’s unfair trade practices was to wage a trade war, which hurt American farmers and manufacturers at least as much as it did Chinese enterprises. More damaging still, he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—an trade treaty among Asian and North American allies that would have formed a potent bulwark against Chinese economic expansion—and alienated those allies and many others, in every other way imaginable, giving Beijing wide leeway to fill the vacuum with its own overtures.
Biden is focused on correcting Trump’s errors. This week, as a prelude to Friday’s meeting in Anchorage, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to South Korea and Japan to assure those allies of U.S. solidarity. More important, Biden himself met virtually with the leaders of India, Japan, and Australia—which, with the U.S., is known as the Quad, a coalition designed to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region—to outline joint policies to appeal to developing countries, including the supply of millions of doses of the most effective vaccines against COVID-19. (Beijing has also been practicing “vaccine diplomacy,” but with its own, less effective vaccine.)
Just as Biden hopes that tangibly helping victims of the pandemic’s economic downturn will sway Americans to vote for him and other Democrats in future elections, so he hopes that the same sort of assistance—demonstrating the tangible benefits of an alliance with the U.S.—might sway foreign countries away from a nexus with China.
Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who will be attending the Anchorage meeting, have said that they do not plan to hold negotiations with their Chinese counterparts. Instead, they will treat the session as an “airing of grievances” about Chinese misbehavior—and suspect that the Chinese will reciprocate—to demonstrate that Biden’s private words match his public words: in short, to demonstrate America’s seriousness.
However, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday afternoon that China has decided to throw a wrench in the works by proposing that the U.S. suspend the Trump-era tariffs against Chinese goods, offering to suspend its own tariffs against American goods in return. If Blinken and Sullivan don’t accept the offer, Chinese diplomats will tell the world that the Americans are obstructionists, hellbent on conflict and turmoil. Many will believe the claim. Beijing will thus trap the American diplomats in their own rhetoric. “The Chinese understand this game very well,” says Daniel Sneider, a lecturer at Stanford University and a longtime observer of Asian politics. “They can play it with the best of them.”
Maybe Blinken and Sullivan, having no doubt read the Journal piece, are altering their own game plan, to allow for some accommodation—a relaxation of tensions, however slight. Doing so might strengthen their wider effort to coordinate a tougher China containment policy, which might be more credible and effective if it isn’t dogmatic—if opportunities for cooperation, when it’s in both sides’ interests, are pursued as well.
Biden has long said that the only way to beat China is to do so with allies, but there are limits to this approach. Some U.S. allies, in Asia and elsewhere, don’t want to get confrontational with China because they don’t see China as a direct threat, they rely too much on China for markets and cheap labor, or both. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, has said she doesn’t want to be roped into an America-led cold war with China. The South Koreans don’t want to upset Xi because they see China as crucial to a peace deal worked out with North Korea—and they want such a deal much more avidly than Washington does. (It is telling that the joint statement, released Thursday after Blinken and Austin’s meeting with South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers, said nothing about the “denuclearization of North Korea” or about China.)
There is also some risk in portraying the contest with China—as Biden and Blinken have sometimes done—as one of democratic values vs. authoritarian rule. Some of our Asian and European allies are drifting away from democracy, not least India, a member of the Quad. Even some of China’s less clever diplomats could call “Hypocrisy!” on that line; they might even invoke recent cases of voter suppression and gerrymandering in the United States. Nor is it clear that this sort of pressure would work. Asked at a Senate hearing this week about China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic protesters (for which Biden recently sanctioned 24 Chinese officials), Elizabeth Economy said, “On core sovereignty issues, I’m not certain any amount of sanctions will change China. It could make them hunker down.”
However, Economy said, speaking out on human rights and democracy—even making it a central element of U.S. policy—is not only a good thing to do but could also improve our standing with developing countries. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has supplied loans for investment throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America—in exchange for which these countries support China. “We need to make inroads” with these countries, in part for its own sake, in part to dry up global support for Beijing. “If China finds they have no support, they’ll feel the heat,” she said.
In this arena, the U.S. has many potential strengths and China has vulnerabilities. The Belt and Road Initiative is hitting roadblocks, as the partnering countries are growing frustrated with the punitive terms of China’s loans and the shoddy quality of its infrastructure projects. The United States could step in and offer its own terms and supplies as an alternative. Many countries would welcome the overture. Trump did nothing in this arena; he shrank the budgets for foreign aid and investment; Biden could make huge advances if he scaled them up.
Trump wasn’t the only president who miscalculated on China. Many of Biden’s officials, who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations, now realize that they erred in thinking that drawing China into the global economy would turn the country into a rules-abiding democracy. It’s now clear that China—certainly under Xi—is more intent on reshaping the world to their own interests.
But Xi has overplayed his game. His aggressive behavior and belligerent rhetoric have backfired. Countries, once happy to benefit from Chinese markets and cheap goods in exchange for a bit of dependence on its political demands, are bristling at the arrangement—another reason Biden could step in, offer an alternative, and reopen wide avenues for U.S. influence.
China also lags well behind us in high technology. Seif Khan, research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, testified in Senate hearings this week that China is heavily dependent on the U.S. and other countries for semiconductor chips, jet engines, space technology, and quantum computing.
Meanwhile, though, U.S. military officers and defense contractors are taking advantage of the fears and turbulence, using the China Threat as the rationale for building a lot more ships, airplanes, and missiles. (When Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., proposed shifting $1 billion of seed money away from a new nuclear missile to help combat COVID-19, Rep. Liz Cheney denounced him as a shill for China.) Not just U.S. commanders in the Pacific are getting into the act. Earlier this month, Adm. Craig Fuller, the head of Southern Command, which controls U.S. forces in Latin and South America, told Congress that his area is the new “front line” in the competition with China. (China is making diplomatic and economic inroads in South America, but has no military presence there.)
Defenses do need to be shored up in Asia, but China is not 10 feet tall. Its navy and air force, though growing, are not yet capable of sustaining military operations even a little bit away from its shores. (A new book of speculative fiction, dramatizing a world war between the U.S. and China, is titled 2034—not 2024, much less 2021.)
True, the U.S. and much of the West is also dependent on China for many supply chains—in manufacturing, medicines, and consumer electronics. Biden’s team is trying to create new supply chains within the United States or with dependable allies, at least for vital economic sectors. It will take years to reverse this trend, and we probably won’t ever climb out of it entirely. (Does anyone want a $5,000 iPhone?)
However, the biggest challenge facing Biden is to figure out not so much how to counter China but how to reshape U.S. foreign policy broadly in a fast-changing world where the precepts of the Cold War—and even of the decade or so after the Cold War ended—have less and less relevance to measures of power and prosperity.
Blinken and Sullivan have said that the United States’ main advantage over China is that we have allies and they don’t. But the U.S. needs to focus on more than just allies, many of which are allies on some issues, less so on others. “We have to have our own view of what the world should look like in 2049 and our place in it,” Elizabeth Economy said at this week’s Senate hearing. Rather than merely react to Chinese moves, she added, “we need a Belt and Road Initiative strategy of our own, with a clear statement of what the U.S. can bring to the table.”