Biden didn’t mention China by name during his Tuesday speech at the United Nations, but he did refer to his strategy for setting the troubled U.S.-China relationship on a sustainable course. He pledged the United States would “compete vigorously,” relying on its values and opposing any attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones using military, economic, technological or disinformation tools.
“But we’re not seeking — I’ll say it again — we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres also said this week that the United States and China needed to cooperate more on issues such as climate change and “avoid at all cost a Cold War.” Even Xi, who addressed the assembly virtually, called for cooperation and pressed for all sides to “reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games.”
The problem is that China’s actions do not match Xi’s words. The Chinese government has responded to the Biden foreign policy team’s repeated outreach attempts with antagonism, while doubling down on its military expansion, economic aggression, domestic atrocities and wholesale disregard for the international community’s legitimate concerns about all of this behavior.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese leaders in Anchorage, they lectured him publicly. When Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited China to establish working-level ties, Chinese authorities criticized the United States in a news release before the meeting even ended. Beijing used former secretary of state John F. Kerry’s repeated trips to China to send a clear signal China won’t cooperate on climate change unless the Biden administration reverses every single Trump administration policy it finds objectionable.
These diplomatic failures led Biden to reach out personally to Xi in a phone call this month, according to a senior administration official. The Biden team believes that it may only be Xi who can make the decisions necessary to set the relationship on a more stable footing.
“I think this is kind of a training period,” the official said. “It’s going to take time to make clear, number one, to Beijing that this is our framework; we’re not moving off it. And we’re not going to end up in a place where we’re going to trade away progress on a transnational issue for something that’s not in the interest of, or consistent with, the values of the American people.”
In other words, the Biden team won’t give up on human rights in exchange for progress on climate change, for example. But a series of smaller concessions to Beijing have already been made. The Justice Department has dropped cases against Chinese researchers indicted for concealing their links to the Chinese military. Blinken has softened his tone on the Hong Kong protests. Biden’s promises to press China on allowing a real investigation into the origins of covid-19 appear to have been quietly shelved.
The Biden administration’s nuanced approach to dealing with Xi makes sense in theory, but Xi’s actions inside China show that his priority is consolidating power internally and externally, not repairing relations with Washington, said Joshua Eisenman, associate professor of politics at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.
Although the internal workings at the top of the Chinese Communist Party are opaque, it’s clear Xi is working with the security services to crack down on an ever-expanding list of targets, including the tech, education, entertainment, housing and financial sectors. Expecting a turn toward cooperation with Washington in that environment may simply be too optimistic.
“Despite Biden’s outreach, China continues to double down on its aggressive policies while hand-wringing and blaming the United States,” said Eisenman. “The regime has become more difficult to work with on every issue, more controlling, more manipulative, more recalcitrant. We may have come to the right policy, but two years too late.”
That doesn’t mean the United States should stop trying to engage China. In fact, where engagement is still possible without sacrificing national interests or values, it is crucial. But being clear-eyed about the current state of play means we must prepare for the worst case. The United States and its partners must increase their strategic deterrence, reduce their economic and technological dependence on China, and speed up their own plans to compete. The Biden team’s moves to strengthen alliance relationships in the region are a solid but insufficient step.
As many point out, a Cold War with China would be more complex and more dangerous than the U.S.-Soviet struggle of the 20th century, because of our deep interconnectedness and China’s immense economic power. But it takes two sides to avoid such an outcome. If Beijing insists on heading down that road, the only choice left for us is to make sure we prevail in the end.