Biden Administration & China: Understanding Beijing's Political Threat

Then-vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 4, 2013. (Lintao Zhang/Reuters Pool)

What recent speeches by Biden and Blinken say about the administration’s wrongheaded emphasis on cooperation with China.

Top Biden administration officials have largely kept their promises to vigorously compete with China. Building on the Trump administration’s China policies, they’ve pressed Beijing on its horrific human-rights abuses, bolstered U.S. support for Taiwan using the previous administration’s framework, and built out the Quad of Pacific democracies. In addition to that, the Biden team’s own focus on multilateral action has started to yield some results: This week, they announced sanctions on Chinese officials, coordinated with the U.K, the EU, and Canada, to punish CCP officials for their role in the Uyghur genocide.

But this flurry of activity has been joined, puzzlingly, with a deliberate effort to leave room for meetings such as last week’s rancorous U.S.-China summit in Alaska and President Biden’s decision to invite the CCP’s general secretary to a global climate summit.

To hear Biden appraise the challenge posed by the CCP is to listen to a meandering description of his recent phone conversation with its general secretary Xi Jinping, as he did yesterday. “I made it clear to him again what I’ve told him in person on several occasions: that we’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition.”

No one wants a military conflict, but if calling out an authoritarian regime’s human-rights abuses and international bullying is anything, it is confrontation. In other words, the policies and statements of the president’s own administration belie a need to call the situation what it is, and not a sugarcoated version of the truth.

The problem is not that officials have backed down from speaking out on the CCP’s transgressions. On a trip to Tokyo earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of using “coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea” in violation of international law. If that doesn’t put a fine enough point on matters, Blinken has accused the Party of genocide in Xinjiang and referred to Taiwan as a “country” (a notable use of the term for a top U.S. official) as the mainland continues its airborne harassment of the world’s only Chinese democracy. Blinken and Biden both have defined this contest as a fundamental battle between democracy and authoritarianism in the 21st century.

Biden yesterday, in his answer about China but also speaking more broadly, said that “most of the scholars I dealt with at Penn agree with me around the country — that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”

In their view, the competition with China is one of the most major aspects of this battle between two systems. It’s a jarring prognosis — and yet, their diplomacy has failed to meet the occasion that they describe by seeking cooperation where it cannot exist, and therefore downplaying the CCP’s threat to American interests.

Blinken’s trip to Brussels this week is a prime example of this contradiction. The Biden-Blinken emphasis on collaboration with U.S. allies to counter the CCP has led to some more coordination, as this week’s sanctions announcements attest.

But Blinken soon undercut that move with a speech to a NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday:

The United States won’t force our allies into a “us or them” choice with China. There’s no question that Beijing’s coercive behavior threatens our collective security and prosperity, and that it is actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share. But that doesn’t mean that countries can’t work with China where possible, for example, on challenges like climate change and health security.

His remarks were all the more self-defeating because other parts of the speech contained a compelling explanation of why the U.S. and its allies must work together to confront Beijing. And if the Biden administration’s assertions — about the CCP’s drive to snuff out the democracy across the Taiwan strait, the Uyghur genocide, and the contest between democracy and autocracy — are to be taken seriously, competing effectively with Beijing requires that America’s allies shun the single greatest threat to the values on which the transatlantic relationship finds its premises. They do face a choice.

And if the Anchorage summit demonstrated anything, it’s that Chinese diplomats are more interested in playing to a global audience whom they hope will discount America’s ability to lead in the world than in earnestly engaging on climate change and infectious-disease prevention. The meeting only succeeded in providing an opportunity for top CCP officials to reach that desired audience.

Biden seems not to have recognized this yet, which is why he said yesterday that “I don’t criticize them for the goal” of becoming “the leading country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.”

He added, “That’s not going to happen on my watch.” But unless Biden and his team adopt more pointed rhetoric and dispense with the idea that their warnings about the CCP can reasonably be accompanied with cooperation on climate change and other issues, they will have trouble defending global democracy from the very authoritarian threat that they claim to recognize.

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