The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If there is going to be a grand strategy focused on China ...

Do not turn America’s greatest strength into its greatest weakness

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, is joined by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, right, while speaking with Yang Jiechi, second from left, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi, left, China’s state councilor and foreign minister, at the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage on March 18. (Frederic J. Brown/Reuters)
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Last week senior officials from the United States and China met in Anchorage for the first bilateral meeting since President Biden was inaugurated. The news coverage indicates that in this instance “meeting” means “airing of grievances.”

This is no longer surprising. The list of issues generating friction between the world’s two most powerful countries is long and distinguished, ranging from North Korea to Hong Kong, Taiwan, the treatment of Uyghurs, 5G, intellectual property, the South China Sea, cyberespionage, restrictions on student visas and fundamental disagreements about the nature of each other’s regime. China has been accelerating its “wolf warrior” diplomacy for well over a year. A few weeks ago the Biden administration said China “is the only competitor potentially capable ... to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

So yes, conflict is inherent in the Sino-American relationship for the foreseeable future. There are other issues, however, such as climate change and pandemic response where zones for cooperation exist. Even some of the issues listed in the previous paragraph could have ententes of one kind or another. There are costs to viewing the relationship with China as strictly zero-sum.

Tom Wright wrote an excellent piece in the Atlantic making the case for the full and frank airing of disagreements between Washington and Beijing. Rather than offer up platitudes for cooperation, he argues it was better for the Biden administration to prioritize rebuilding alliances designed to counter China (such as the Quad or the coalition sanctioning China over its treatment of Uyghurs). This signals that the United States views this relationship differently than in the past. According to Wright: “The greatest risk is for either side to miscalculate the resolve or intentions of the other. By getting real in Anchorage, both sides have taken the important first step toward a more stable relationship by acknowledging the true nature of their relationship.”

Whether Wright is right depends on a few things. The first is whether the Biden administration can persuade China that the narrative of U.S. decline is erroneous. This is largely a function of what happens here at home, and serves as yet another reminder that domestic policy will be foreign policy in the ’20s. There are grounds for optimism here. The United States excels at shooting itself in the foot — and also at recovering from shooting itself in the foot far more quickly than foreigners expect.

The second is whether overall tensions disable issue-specific cooperation or mechanisms for preventing crisis escalation. The evidence here is mixed. Wright offers some encouraging words, noting, “A senior administration official [said] that the moment the cameras left, the Chinese side went back to business as usual, working through the list of issues on the agenda, including nonproliferation and Iran.”

If true, this suggests the relationship can continue on two tracks, public and private. The former can have plenty of contestation, while the latter can have its constructive moments. On the other hand, the Economist’s Gady Epstein explains why this optimism might be misplaced.

The last point is something that most foreign policy observers probably have not considered but need to start doing as soon as possible: making sure that Sino-American contention does not translate into blowback against Asian Americans.

The data on racist attacks against Asian Americans is meager but suggestive of an increase over the past year. It does not take a crack social scientist to connect the dots between former president Trump’s racist pandemic rhetoric and the animus directed against Asian Americans.

If the pandemic was the match inflaming animus toward Asian Americans, the Trump administration made sure the kindling was dry as they ratcheted up tensions with China. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s first director of policy planning used an explicitly racist lens to discuss the Sino-American rivalry. At the Munich Security Conference last year, I saw senior Trump officials devote long speeches to bashing China with only boilerplate references distinguishing the Chinese populace from the Chinese government.

As Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong noted in these pages last week:

It’s true that China is an extremely bad actor when it comes to espionage and human rights. But decades of official U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric from the pundit class have had a unique effect on Asian Americans. When the government frets about Russian hacking and election interference, there is little consequence for Americans of Russian heritage. When officials express fears over China or other Asian countries, Americans immediately turn to a timeworn racial script that questions the loyalty, allegiance and belonging of 20 million Asian Americans. Most Americans are not skilled at distinguishing between people of different Asian origins or ancestries, and the result is that whenever China is attacked, so are Asian Americans as a whole.

The Biden administration seems more cognizant of the potential for blowback and they have said the right things in the wake of recent tragedies.

If the Sino-American competition is going to be the new normal, however, then the Biden administration needs to take more long-lasting steps in both word and deed to prevent a bigger wave of anti-Asian sentiment. Policymakers need to make sure that this country’s greatest strength — its ability to take folks from anywhere in the world and turn them into proud Americans — is not felled by its greatest weakness.