Realists have long argued for a national security perspective regarding the prospects of global economic interdependence and high-tech cooperation. In this view, strategic rivals are more prone to base their foreign policy decisions in terms of relative-gains considerations, that is, the more inimical the relationships, the weaker the trust and more tenuous their inter-cooperation could be sustained. Moreover, how adversarial states perceive one another determines the intensity of their animosity and antagonism.
Indeed, the deepening U.S.-China competition has given ascendancy to an increasingly potent “fortress America” ideational orientation within the United States, which attributed America’s economic woes (i.e., the loss of manufacturing jobs, widening trade imbalances, theft of intellectual property and business secrets, to name just a few) to the longstanding predatory practices of the Chinese Communist Party that took advantage of America’s generosity, open society, and free-flow of information. The widespread Covid-19 pandemic (with most experts pointing the outbreak’s origin to Wuhan, China, though further investigations are required to assess whether the virus was transmitted through animal contact or laboratory accident) further inflamed Washington’s fury and plunged America’s opinion of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to an all-time low. These events hardened the U.S. pushback on the PRC and emboldened its calls for an economic decoupling with the world’s second-largest economy during the Trump administration. These calls have continued into the Biden administration.
The China Challenge
President Joe Biden, a seasoned internationalist who had advocated for a constructive engagement with Beijing both as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as Barack Obama’s vice president, has readjusted his longtime foreign policy position and adopted a U.S. China strategy amendable to these changing international and domestic realities. “We’ll take on directly the challenges posed [to] our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China,” the president stressed in a February foreign policy speech. Whether meeting with the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in March, Japan’s prime minister in April, or South Korea’s president in May, responding to the PRC’s destabilizing behaviors in the Indo-Pacific region comprised the president’s primary talking points.
During his first overseas trip to Europe in June, Biden reaffirmed “America is back” at the G7, NATO, and European Union summit meetings, promising at every venue to rally Washington’s democratic allies and partners to make “concerted commitments” in both meeting the challenges and deterring the threats of this new age.
The joint statements and communiqués released all raised the challenges Beijing presented to the rules-based world order. The concerns also included Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy that has come under China’s unrelentingly escalated coercive pressures: “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
The president even discounted the influence of Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom Biden met on the last day of his Europe trip. He underscored Russia’s decline and “economic struggles,” while Beijing moves ahead seeking to become the most powerful economy and military in the world. The underlying message: it’s in neither Washington’s nor Moscow’s national interests to restart the Cold War with each other for the common threat is China.
The Biden Doctrine
Hence, the Biden administration has promoted a multilateral nationalist agenda to charter its China course. The emerging strategic doctrine embraces the post-World War II globalist inclination while retaining some of Donald Trump’s “America first” bent: advancing the economic interests and benefits of America’s middle/working-class. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained, the “distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away. Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined.” The U.S. would approach and confront the PRC in a principled and results-oriented fashion that clearly benefits the interests and values of the American people.
This program requires (1) bolstering U.S. economic resilience by stepping up investments in education and infrastructural renewal; (2) deepening cooperation with like-minded Indo-Pacific and European allies and partners to ensure the security and integrity of semiconductor supply chains and other cutting-edge technologies freed from malign disruptions caused by China; and (3) revitalizing democratic legitimacy and efficacy in an ongoing struggle with authoritarian statism. Taiwan is apparently at the core of this vision.
In addition to Taiwan’s democratic values and soft-power appeal, it also hosts one of the world’s most valuable chip-making companies, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC). As semiconductors define the economy and military of the future ranging from electric cars, smartphones, and artificial intelligence to aircraft carriers and drones, Taiwan has become a critical piece to America’s and its fellow democracies’ technological security and supply-chain integrity. Thus, the Economist magazine has described Taiwan as the “most dangerous place on earth,” given the increasing cross-strait and U.S.-PRC tensions. Any military conflict or instability on the island would be detrimental to U.S. interests and the well-being of the global economy.
In response to Taiwan’s recently surging Covid-19 cases and deaths as well as China’s alleged attempts to undermine the island’s efforts to purchase more vaccines from the global marketplace, both Japan and the United States generously donated 1.2 million and 2.5 million doses, respectively, to the island. A Biden administration official criticized Beijing’s blocking for political purposes as “reprehensible.”
Will It Work?
Yet, despite Biden’s goal to forge an international democratic coalition to counter the PRC and support Taiwan, it is far from clear whether Washington and its allies/partners are genuinely in unison on these issues. First, many suspect whether the Biden presidency is merely an aberration, as Trump (who still holds dominance over the Republican Party and a significant sector of the U.S. electorate) or one of his nationalist adherents may be elected to the White House come January 20, 2025. America, after all, remains a deeply divided and polarized country. The fear of an eventual return to America First puts a dent into Biden’s ability to revamp multilateralism and America’s Transatlantic and Indo-Pacific alliances.
Second, motivated by their own economic and commercial interests, many states such as Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, and India do not desire a total rupture of relationship with Beijing. Aside from their declaratory languages, one finds their support for Taiwan as well as other anti-PRC issues as more symbolic than substantive. Finally, though Putin is fully aware of China’s growing military and economic clouts, the Russian president isn’t showing much enthusiasm, at least for now, to Biden’s “reverse Nixon strategy,” stating clearly that “We do not believe China is a threat to us… China is a friendly nation. It has not declared us an enemy, as the United States has done.”
Consequently, it remains to be seen whether Biden’s strategic plan would pull off in the long run.
Dean P. Chen, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He can be reached at [email protected].