IN THE four years since Joe Biden was last in the White House, Xi Jinping’s China has become more authoritarian at home and more aggressive overseas. This change in China’s behavior presents the Biden administration with both its biggest challenge and its biggest opportunity.
The challenge lies in the growing economic and military strength of an illiberal power. Xi’s China now clearly threatens American influence in the Asia-Pacific. That, in turn, darkens the horizons for liberal democracies in the region—from Taiwan to Australia to Japan. A region in which China is the dominant power will feel very different, from one in which America is the most influential country. And because the Asian-Pacific region is now the core of the global economy—what happens there affects the whole world.
But the changing nature of Xi’s China is also an opportunity because Beijing’s behaviour is increasingly scaring the bejesus out of the rest of the world. Views of China have changed from Delhi to Berlin to Canberra. That presents the Biden administration with a huge opportunity to build up a loose alliance of countries to push back against the prospect of a world dominated by an authoritarian China.
Donald Trump, who specialized in threatening and alienating allies, was incapable of building that kind of coalition. By presenting a more attractive face to the world, Biden could make some rapid gains—as he shapes the world’s response to Xi’s China.
The United States should make it clear to the Chinese people, to the wider world and to Americans what this struggle is and is not about. This should not be an effort to block the rise of China, under any circumstances. The Chinese people have a right to development and a richer and more powerful China is inevitable. An early Biden speech on China could emphasize the positive contributions that China can make to the world—in science, technology, and culture. Nor should this be an effort to force “regime change” on China. The United States should always be sympathetic to those who push for democratic freedoms and should continue to speak out in support of the human rights of the Uighurs, citizens of Hong Kong, and others. But American experience in the Middle East should teach some humility, about the consequences of U.S. efforts to bring about “regime change” in societies it does not understand. America can support Chinese liberals and minorities—without directly threatening the Communist Party or its leadership. Political change in China is desirable. But it has to be internally-driven.
If Washington’s argument with Beijing is not about China’s right to rise, or about the continued rule of the Communist Party—what is it about? Broadly speaking, it is about Beijing’s efforts to expand its global influence through illegitimate means—in particular, by threatening to use military force or economic coercion to intimidate its neighbors (and indeed places as far away as Latin America and Europe).
There is an important military component to the U.S.-China rivalry. Deterrence has a crucial role to play, particularly when it comes to Taiwan. But if deterrence does its work—and in a nuclear age, it should—then the real struggle will be about combatting potential Chinese tactics, which are not so much “divide and rule” as “isolate and intimidate.”
America and its allies should form a united front (to borrow some Chinese terminology) to push back against some of the more objectionable features of Chinese power projection. Beijing has become an expert at isolation and intimidation. If a country steps out of line, as China sees it, then it is liable to be punished with some combination of economic weapons or diplomatic pressure.
There have been numerous examples of this kind of behaviour over the years. When South Korea agreed to host a U.S. missile-defense system, China responded by encouraging consumer and tourist boycotts of South Korea. When Australia suggested an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, it was hit with Chinese trade sanctions. When Canada co-operated in the arrest of a senior executive for Huawei, two Canadian citizens were arrested in China on trumped-up charges—and they remain in detention. And when an NBA executive tweeted out encouragement to the Hong Kong protesters, China pulled basketball from the television schedules.
These incidents illustrate that China’s defense of its own authoritarian system is taking on a dangerous international aspect that threatens freedom of speech in the West. Unable to tolerate criticism at home, Beijing is increasingly seeking to suppress it overseas as well. The new Hong Kong security law, potentially criminalizes criticism of China all over the world—and Western universities are already choosing to adapt how they teach, in response.
Faced with these situations in the past, the world’s democracies have tended to walk on by—or perhaps even to see a friendly country’s misfortune as an opportunity to grab some market share in China. This needs to change. Western and Asian democracies should coordinate their behavior to push back against Chinese intimidation. Unwarranted arrests or trade sanctions aimed at one country should be met by protests and a coordinated response by democracies across the world.
The United States and its allies should also work to strengthen international rules on trade and the rule-of-law, which will help to shape the way China has to behave. In the current political climate in America, it is probably impossible for the United States to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership—negotiated by the Obama administration but abandoned by the Trump administration. But this is the kind of open, norm-setting arrangement that the United States and its allies should work on together, as they cope with the power of a truculent China.
Gideon Rachman is the Chief Foreign-Affairs Columnist at the Financial Times.