New Book Hints at Biden’s Strategic Approach to China

July 7, 2021 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaXi JinpingJoe BidenStrategyBook Review

New Book Hints at Biden’s Strategic Approach to China

Given the Biden administration’s mantra—as stated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken—that the U.S.-China relationship “will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, and adversarial where it must be,” Doshi’s discussion of the prospects for bilateral cooperation merits attention.

project leadership [albeit not exclusive] over global governance and international institutions . . . advance autocratic norms at the expense of liberal ones . . . secure deference to Beijing’s prerogatives through a mix of coercion, consensual tools like public goods, and rightful legitimacy . . . split American alliances in Europe and Asia . . . weaken the financial advantages that underwrite US hegemony . . . and seize the commanding heights of the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’

In short, even if Beijing is not trying to establish an exclusively illiberal Sino-centric world, it would be a relentless and ruthless competitor in its efforts to maximize its wealth, power, and influence relative to the United States in a multipolar world.

How should the United States deal with such a challenge? Doshi advocates a largely “asymmetric” competitive strategy that mirrors Beijing’s approach by taking steps to “blunt” China’s power (limiting China’s ability to convert its power into regional and global order”) and “build” America’s power (“reinforcing the foundational elements of American order—particularly its alliances, financial power, military power, technology leadership, role in global institutions, and influence over information flows”). This is partly because Doshi judges that “the United State cannot compete with China symmetrically” due to its “sheer relative size.”

Doshi largely dismisses the alternative approaches of unilateral accommodation, bargaining, reassurance, or pursuing regime change in China as unworkable or “unlikely to succeed.” In his judgment, bargaining and reassurance would require mutual trust that does not exist, and would be unenforceable. But Doshi does not address the possibility that the difficulty and risks of pursuing mutual trust and reciprocal accommodation with China might be less than the risks of an uncompromising and almost exclusively competitive approach. As “perhaps the strongest evidence that credibly reassuring China is exceedingly difficult,” he cites “the persistence of China’s existential threat perception even as the United States pursued a largely benign and welcoming policy toward China under the policy of engagement. . . . What many in the US saw as a kind of concession to China was openly viewed by Party elites as a tactic intended to ‘peacefully evolve’ its very system of government.” But the Chinese were not entirely wrong. Even though U.S. engagement with China (contrary to a widespread view) was not premised on the goal of democratizing China, it was still “openly viewed” in Washington as a means of “peacefully evolving” China’s system of government.

Given the Biden administration’s mantra—as stated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken—that the U.S.-China relationship “will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, and adversarial where it must be,” Doshi’s discussion of the prospects for bilateral cooperation merits attention. As noted earlier, he says “in many places, but not all, [the US-China competition] is a zero-sum game.” But he adds that “in other places, there may be room for mutual adjustment, particularly over the kind of order that results, as well as collaboration on transnational issues.” Moreover, he acknowledges that U.S. strategic objectives “also require maintaining some space for transnational cooperation.” But Doshi warns that “Chinese leaders have sometimes recognized that Washington’s desire to cooperate on these issues provides leverage for Beijing, and they have therefore linked progress on shared global interests to concessions in the US-China bilateral relationship.” He thus advises that Washington “will need to delink the two and hold fast to the rule that there will be two tracks in US-China ties: one focused on cooperation and one on competition.” It is not clear whether and how such a rule can be upheld in practice. Nor is it clear what room Doshi and his colleagues in the Biden administration will allow for “mutual adjustment” with Beijing “over the kind of order that results.”

Much will depend on the leverage the United States brings to the table. Doshi acknowledges that China “may be able to devote more resources to [displacing the US] than the US can devote to preserving its own order.” He also observes that Chinese assessments of U.S. strategic decline are based in part on America’s current political dysfunction and structural weaknesses. Many Chinese observers share “a belief that the US has entered a decline so pronounced that its status as the sole superpower is now in doubt. . . . Many see this Western institutional decline as largely intractable and believe the West is unlikely to resolve it promptly. . . . Some believe dysfunction will prove long-term.” Unfortunately, these views are not uniquely Chinese: they are shared globally, including and especially in the United States itself. Doshi, however, concludes his book by affirming that “a descent into fatalism is likely premature” because “American declinism” has been arrested several times before. Indeed, he speculates that the vehicle for arresting it now could be a collective American “rise to the China challenge.”  

Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018). 

Image: Reuters