In last night’s address to a joint session of Congress — the first of his presidency — Joe Biden made the case for massive investments in the American economy, infrastructure, and society. To do so, he summoned fears of a rising China, declaring that the United States is “in competition with China and others to win the 21st century.”
It is commendable that President Biden did not employ the extreme ideological rhetoric of the Trump administration in characterizing China and the bilateral relationship. Such language crowds out any rational discussion of what China’s rise means for the U.S. and the West and simply provokes a similar hardline response from many ordinary Chinese, making the effort to craft an effective policy toward Beijing even more difficult.
But it is unfortunate that Biden nonetheless felt the need to justify his domestic proposals — positive and necessary steps towards ensuring prosperity for all Americans, and for reviving our flagging democracy — by placing them in the context of a global struggle against autocracy, and specifically with China.
The U.S. (along with other democratic nations) certainly has differences with China over various political norms and human rights values, and China’s rise presents a challenge to America in a number of arenas. But China is hardly an existential threat, nor the preeminent threat facing the United States today. Rather, the greater threats — many of which the president highlighted in his speech — are internal and global.
Domestic extremism, racism, and violence, political deadlock, and transnational perils like climate change and pandemics all present dire threats to the stability of the United States and the well-being of Americans. To present our challenges as the usual struggle between great powers is a distortion of reality; we will not be able to solve our problems through an all-consuming struggle with any other nation.
Biden stressed that he welcomes competition with China, but does not want conflict. The United States, he says, will “correct abuses” by China, and maintain its military strength in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
On this, the devil is in the details: how the administration defines the goals of U.S. policy in Asia, and the tone and means with which it pursues them. The U.S. can no longer treat Asia as if it remains the sole provider of hard security, or the primary economic partner, for that region and others.
It should no longer police the world and try to assert its military primacy at all costs. Instead, the United States must try to effectively work with all major nations to reduce conflict and pursue cooperative solutions to global problems. This will require deterrence towards rival powers like China — but it also requires credible reassurance on key interests. We will not stabilize Asia by pursuing the kind of bipartisan, hostile, zero-sum strategy exemplified by some of the Biden administration’s rhetoric or the China-focused legislation now making its way through Congress.
President Biden said many good things last night, but his remarks regarding China continued to reflect the absence of an overall strategy reflecting the complex reality of our relationship with China, and with other nations.