In a few brief lines in that interview, Biden sketched his stance toward China, which his administration has named as the most significant threat to U.S. security moving forward. “I’ve said to [Xi] all along that we need not have a conflict,” he said, describing the Chinese leader as smart and tough but undemocratic. “But there’s going to be extreme competition. And I’m not going to do it the way that he knows, and that’s because he’s sending signals as well. And I’m not going to do it the way [former President Donald] Trump did.”
There’s much to like here—but also a worrisome aggressive turn. Lacking Trump’s habit of superlatives, Biden’s description of Xi was diplomatic without giving praise the autocrat does not deserve. And far more important than this personal style, of course, is Biden’s aversion to conflict between the United States and China.
The president is here rejecting dire forecasts of a Thucydides trap, the notion that war is nearly inevitable when a rising power is perceived to challenge an extant great power’s dominance. Biden’s right to dismiss that fallacy at the outset of his term. It will be difficult for Washington to navigate Beijing’s rise, for “China has shown a desire for greater economic interdependence abroad, to protect its own internal security, and control a relatively small sphere of influence,” as Richard Hanania has argued at Real Clear Defense. But “this is the behavior exhibited by all major powers,” Hanania continues, and China “has shown little appetite for the kinds of military investments that would allow it to project its power globally.” As Biden himself said, competition need not mean conflict.
But will Biden’s own policies steer us through that often-narrow strait? That’s much less obvious. The phrase the president used—“extreme competition”—is juvenile (is the competition in question a snowboarding tournament?) and vague. It’s also clearly antagonistic, maybe even dangerously so.
Biden’s comments elsewhere reinforce that impression: He wants to work with U.S. allies to “pressure, isolate, and punish China,” he said last year, and in December he indicated he’d keep the Trump administration trade war on China intact for the time being, despite its harm to American taxpayers generally and farmers specifically. He chose a secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has backed sanctioning China in an (almost certainly futile) attempt to change its governance of Hong Kong. Indeed, Biden campaigned as a China hawk, and “extreme competition” is far more in that vein than the restraint toward which he nodded in the comment about needless conflict.
A more prudent perspective came—somewhat surprisingly, but welcome—from Blinken in his own interview earlier this month. “There’s no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge to us of any other country, but it’s a complicated one,” he said. “There are adversarial aspects to the relationship, there’s certainly competitive ones, and there’s still some cooperative ones, too.”
This has a nuance “extreme competition” lacks. It acknowledges the obvious, namely that the U.S.-China relationship is rivalrous and will include clashes (perceived and actual) of national interest. But Blinken’s mention of cooperation is not to be missed.
A zero-sum approach to engagement framed entirely around competition will not only harm China’s interests. It will also harm the interests of the United States. This trade war—let alone a more expansive antagonism—has hurt America’s economy and complicated U.S.-China relations, undoubtedly exacerbating the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Continuing to prosecute it is not rebuilding U.S. industry. It is making Americans pay an additional, regressive tax on consumer goods while raising tensions with China instead of lowering them.
If Biden truly wants to pursue a new course with Beijing, engaging differently than Trump did and differently than Xi expects, the task at hand is not “extreme competition,” which sounds like Trump-era escalation just barely warmed over. U.S. policy toward China should rather center on honest but pragmatic diplomacy which neither downplays the Xi regime’s brutality nor makes empty demands Beijing will not concede without a war America realistically will not fight. Mutually beneficial trade—which is cooperative as much as competitive—should continue, while U.S. military build-up in close quarters with the Chinese military should not.
There will always be some competition between the United States and China. But extremity in great power relations is reckless, unserious, and should not be our goal.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.