What Biden and Blinken Got Right on China
If Washington is prepared to acknowledge that it can coexist with China, the strategic rivalry could be managed peacefully, and not exclude strategic cooperation that is mutually and globally beneficial.
In a long-awaited speech on May 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s strategy toward the People’s Republic of China, which he summarized as “invest, align, [and] compete.” Washington will invest in rebuilding America’s strength at home, align with allies and partners abroad “in common cause,” and—from that position of strength and with global support—“compete with China to defend our interests and build our vision for the future.” Although this is a new rhetorical formulation, it echoes in substance multiple statements by Biden administration officials over the past year on the key components of their approach to “strategic competition” with China. As a slogan, it is wholly appropriate and commendable. Blinken’s speech affirmed the administration’s recognition that the primary prerequisite for an effective strategy toward China is for the United States to get its internal act together and focus on reviving its global competitiveness. Moreover, Washington’s longstanding network of allies and other international relationships is the ideal force multiplier, especially when facing a common challenge.
Blinken is correct when he asserts that China is “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order,” and that “the scale and scope” of that challenge “will test American diplomacy like nothing we’ve seen before.” But this is where a close examination becomes necessary of the underlying assumptions and terms of reference of the Biden administration’s China strategy. The scale and scope and nature of the challenge from China are not quite what Blinken presumes them to be. And a challenge is not necessarily a threat. Without clarity on these foundational issues, Washington’s investment, alignment, and competition directed against China run the risk of being misguided and counterproductive.
Blinken uses the term “international order” interchangeably with the “rules-based order,” which he said Beijing “is undermining” with its growing authoritarianism at home, facilitation and even promotion of it abroad, and recurring violations of international law and standards of conduct. It is certainly true that Beijing wants to make the world “safe for autocracy” and socialism at the expense of any presumption of the universal appeal and applicability of democracy and capitalism. And China’s willful neglect of liberal democratic values in the conduct of its foreign policy is likely to erode those values internationally. It is also true, as Blinken asserts, that Beijing has “the intent to reshape the international order.”
But “reshape” is not the same as “replace” or “destroy.” On the contrary, Beijing agrees with Blinken that China has benefited greatly from the existing international order. Instead, Chinese leaders consistently talk about the need for the “reform of global governance” to make it more representative of the balance of power and interests in the world today, compared to what that balance was when the United Nations and other core multilateral institutions were established after World War II. But Blinken himself highlighted Washington’s desire to “reform” and “modernize” the international order to make it more representative. China and the United States thus share a similar approach, albeit with competing preferences: both sides want to revise the existing order to make it more conducive to their own values, interests, and objectives. That is the nature of the competition in the structural arena. It is not a contest between retaining the current system or replacing it.
As for the order being “rules-based,” it depends on whose rules. Beijing often claims that Washington’s “rules-based order” partly reflects rules and obligations crafted outside the UN framework and/or by a small group of major countries without much input from the developing world (much of which was comprised of colonies rather than independent countries when the UN was founded). That is why Beijing’s vision for “reform of global governance” emphasizes greater attention to the priorities of smaller countries and those within East Asia. This theme resonates across the Global South, as does the view that the United States itself is selective and cynical in its adherence to international rules. Again, Beijing seeks a larger voice and role in setting the rules within the existing system, not to overturn it.
In framing China’s challenge to both the international order and to U.S. interests and security, Blinken stated succinctly that Beijing “has announced its ambition to create a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” But Beijing has announced neither of those goals. It is true that China aspires to a sphere of influence, and even preeminence, in the Indo-Pacific. But China already has a sphere of influence in the region, and there is little evidence to support the presumption that Beijing necessarily intends for it to be exclusive of and hostile to the United States. In any event, it is not clear what Blinken would cite as Beijing’s “announcement” of its regional objectives.
In this regard, many commentators have interpreted Xi Jinping’s 2014 speech to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), in which he said, “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia,” as a declaration of Beijing’s intention to exclude the influence of the United States and other outside powers. But Xi immediately added that “Asia is open to the world” and “we welcome all parties to play a positive and constructive role in promoting Asia’s security and cooperation.” Moreover, two months later, Xi told a visiting American delegation that “the vast Pacific Ocean has ample space to accommodate our two great nations.”
Similarly, Blinken did not specify when Beijing “announced” its goal to become “the world’s leading power.” But two other speeches by Xi have frequently been cited in this regard. The first is an internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) speech from 2013 in which Xi reportedly said that China needed to concentrate on “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” Harvard scholar Alastair Iain Johnston, however, has persuasively argued that “a more linguistically precise and contextualized translation” of that excerpt strongly suggests that it is “not a reference to China seeking a ‘dominant position’ in global affairs” and that it “does not refer to spreading socialism around the globe but to showing its superiority within China.”
The second speech often cited about Beijing’s global ambition is Xi’s report to the CCP’s Nineteenth Party Congress in 2017, in which he said China was “moving closer to center stage” and that one of Beijing’s goals for the 2049 centennial of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is to “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.” But is it crucially important here to recognize the distinction between “a” global leader and “the” global leader. Beijing consistently frames its ambitions in terms of China being “one of” the leading global powers, not the only one. Chinese rhetoric invariably promotes a multipolar rather than a unipolar world, almost certainly because Beijing recognizes that unipolar global hegemony would not be sustainable, and that pursuing it would be costly, destabilizing, and probably counterproductive. This is why Beijing is focused on legitimizing its model and maximizing its influence, leverage, and role in global rule-making relative to the United States, rather than on imposing its model on other countries and supplanting the United States to establish a Sino-centric world.
In sum, Blinken would have been more accurate to simply invoke the U.S. Intelligence Community’s more clinical assessment that China aspires to be “the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage.”
Getting these premises right is essential to the future of U.S.-China relations because of the risks inherent in what might be called the “leadership security dilemma” between the two sides. Beijing’s pursuit of a role in global leadership will be driven in large part by its assessment of how much will be necessary to secure and advance China’s interests. Washington’s apparent determination to retain its own global leadership in virtually every realm ensures that Beijing will feel compelled to assert its own influence rather than accept what presumably would be perpetual subordination to the United States. In short, Beijing will maximize its pursuit of international leadership as long as it perceives that Washington seeks to deny it any.
This makes it imperative for the United States and China to explore whether and how they might actually share global leadership. The prevailing view is that neither side is willing to do so, or believes that the other is ready to do so. For the reasons noted above, however, China almost certainly is prepared and seeking to share global leadership with the United States. But if Beijing does not perceive that option to be on the table, it probably will conclude (as Washington itself apparently already has) that it faces a zero-sum game and accordingly must focus on maximizing its exclusive global leadership. In this strategic dynamic, CCP leaders would only adopt the goal of forging a PRC-led world order if they concluded that the only other option was resignation to U.S. hegemony.