The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued by the Biden Administration on March 3 correctly recognizes the unprecedented breadth of the security challenges now confronting the United States, from climate change to extremist right-wing terrorism. Unfortunately, regarding China, it largely repeats the same old conventional language of contention and hostility, while grudgingly acknowledging that the U.S. will need to work with Beijing in some areas.
This is indicative of the overall stance taken by the Biden Administration on by far the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. We can and should do better.
Before taking office, Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and others who have now joined the Biden Administration explicitly stated that they do not favor a Cold War with China, titanic ideological struggles, or fruitless efforts to restore American primacy. And they certainly expressed a desire for more positive consultation with allies and partners than occurred during the failed Trump Administration.
But since taking office, the dominant themes and initiatives on China and East Asia today sound more like the old zero-sum, dominance-oriented Trump “strategy” toward Beijing of yesterday. These include repeated references to strategic competition and the correctness of Trump’s basic hardline approach to Beijing, the formation of a Pentagon Task Force focused on how best to counter China, and assertions of a need to restore America’s “traditional role” in Asia. There have been formal statements by leading Biden officials hyping the central importance of the “pacing threat” posed by China, and, as noted above, the usual throw-away lines about cooperation with Beijing in some areas, as needed. While correctly stressing the top-priority requirement to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and Washington’s image in the world, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, as with other Biden documents and statements, seems to avoid talking specifically about how best to engage Beijing and East Asia in more positive-sum, cooperative ways that benefit all parties.
The continued (albeit slightly reduced) Biden emphasis on great-power competition with China both inflates the threat China poses to the United States and risks downplaying the need to cooperate deeply with Beijing on handling an array of urgent transnational perils, including (but not limited to) climate change and pandemics. It also seems to ignore the risks and costs of a China-centered East Asia policy in which Washington is apparently to play its traditional role as the dominant regional security guarantor. This will increase, not decrease, the likelihood of crises and conflict with Beijing, something no Asian nation wants.
At a time when Washington should focus beyond all else on combating the COVID-19 pandemic, building resilience against the worsening climate crisis, and strengthening the foundations of the global economic order, the Biden administration should avoid making conflict with China more likely. And, despite showing greater negativity toward China, the American public seems to agree. A survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation from last September found that a majority of Americans support working with other countries to tackle global issues and participate in international institutions, more so than maintaining a large overseas troop presence and security commitments.
To be sure, China’s rise creates many challenges, some threatening, to certain U.S. interests, especially in the economic and technological arenas. And Beijing at times takes actions that violate its own constitution and international agreements it has signed, including with regard to human rights. But it does not pose an existential threat to the United States, and the United States, for its part, does not have the capacity to return to its former hegemonic role in the world or even in East Asia, in order to keep China in place— a role that has had corrosive effects on our democracy.
Moreover, China’s growing global role and its mutually beneficial relations with many countries, including Washington’s allies, clearly demand a U.S. strategy that is far more flexible and varied than what we have heard from Biden officials thus far. Indeed, few if any other nations will endorse a renewed U.S. claim to global leadership animated by a struggle between democratic and authoritarian states.
In short, a bold rethinking of U.S. priorities and modes of interacting with China and other nations is in order, one that truly prioritizes domestic revitalization and diplomacy over great power contention, balance and mutual accommodation over dominance, and transnational threats over adversarial state-centered rivalries. In the critical East Asia region, such a strategy must prioritize regional cooperative security efforts, including both bilateral and multilateral collaboration to counter common threats. It should pursue a denial- (not control-) oriented military strategy toward China (coupled with more diplomacy to reduce tensions over Taiwan and maritime disputes). On the Korean Peninsula, it should follow a pragmatic policy of peace and phased denuclearization, and efforts to enhance the mutual benefits produced via trade, investment and technology development.
In all of this, Washington should reassure other Asian nations that it will not take actions that further polarize the region.
If U.S. foreign policy leaders truly want to serve the interests and expressed desires of the American middle and working classes, the Biden Administration will need to recognize that Washington’s most serious challenges require extensive levels of cooperation and mutual accommodation with other nations, including China. While some levels of competition, deterrence, and constrainment toward Beijing remain relevant, policies in support of such efforts will only prove effective if they are placed within a larger strategic context centered on much more than great power competition.