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How CBS’s Norah O'Donnell tried to out-hawk Antony Blinken on China

The 60 Minutes anchor repeatedly tried to bait the secretary of state into taking a more militaristic approach.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rightfully been criticized for his assertion during a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday that the U.S. goal with respect to China is to prevent it from upending the so-called “rules based international order,” one that the United States itself apparently has never once even thought of violating

Indeed, Blinken and the Biden administration have so-far established a somewhat antagonistic tone on China and, according to Quincy Institute East Asia program director Michael Swaine, the administration has “failed to present a realistic strategy toward Beijing that reflects a recognition of the urgent need to stress shared leadership and military restraint over primacy and zero-sum rivalry.” 

But oddly, during his 60 Minutes interview, Blinken was the one who was forced to tone down the antagonistic rhetoric toward China emanating from his interviewer, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell. 

At every opportunity throughout the interview, O’Donnell tried to bait Blinken into getting tough on China, painting the U.S.-China relationship in overtly zero-sum terms, depicting China’s rise as a direct threat to the United States. And at every turn, Blinken seemed eager to steer the conversation away from a more combative and militaristic approach to Chinese behavior and toward a more nuanced discussion about China’s newfound global power and its relationship to the United States. 

At the outset of the interview, Blinken said the Biden administration’s goal isn’t to contain China or to keep it down, but instead to maintain the aforementioned global order (however misguided that particular view is). 

But O’Donnell didn’t appear to be satisfied and escalated the conversation straight to military terms. 

“I know you say the goal is not to contain China, but have you ever seen China be so assertive or aggressive militarily?” she shot back. 

O’Donnell then went through a litany of menacing facts about how China’s military has grown in size and capacity over the years, saying that it could use its large Navy “to invade Taiwan, a democratic island and long-standing U.S. ally.”

“Do you think we're heading towards some sort of military confrontation with China?” she wondered.

In response, Blinken had to take the conversation down a notch. “I think it's profoundly against the interests of both China and the United States to get to that point, or even to head in that direction,” he said, emphasis added. 

But O’Donnell wouldn’t let it go. She then got into China’s gross human rights abuses against its Uyghur population in Xinjiang — no doubt a legitimate issue for which China deserves criticism. 

But O’Donnell used the issue to invoke a “red line,” which most often in foreign-policy-speak, refers to military action. “If Xinjiang isn't a red line with China, then what is?” she asked. 

Once again, Blinken was forced to cool the rhetoric down. “Look, we don't have the luxury of not dealing with China,” he replied, noting that “there are real complexities to the relationship, whether it's the adversarial piece, whether it's the competitive piece, whether it's the cooperative piece.” 

(Note that the “cooperative piece” was nowhere to be found during this interview.)

O’Donnell wasn’t done though, and appeared to be slightly annoyed that Blinken wasn’t taking the bait. She then took a more direct approach with the secretary of state. 

“The Chinese have stolen hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars of trade secrets and intellectual property from the United States,” she later noted, adding: “That sounds like the actions of an enemy.”

Come on Tony! These are bad guys! Let’s get ‘em! 

But once again, Blinken walked O’Donnell off the ledge and moved away from the “enemy” talk. “[That] certainly sounds like the actions of someone who's trying to compete unfairly and increasingly in adversarial ways,” he replied in a matter of fact tone. 

O’Donnell then wondered if President Biden gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a good scolding during a recent phone call between the two leaders about China’s unfair business practices, and took one last swing at painting China as a growing menace threatening U.S. global domination, as if she was going down a list of bad things China does in order to solicit some kind of domineering response from Blinken. 

“China's gross domestic product is expected to surpass the United States as early as 2028,” she said.

“Well, it's a large country, it's got a lotta people,” Blinken responded dryly. 

O’Donnell then shot back: “If China becomes the wealthiest country in the world, doesn't that also make it the most powerful?”

Once again, to his credit, Blinken offered a more nuanced response about the future of Chinese economic and military power and about how it’s more important to “maximize their potential …  if we’re smart about it.”

And that’s the key line from the interview: “if we’re smart about it.” 

O’Donnell’s presentation of China as a menacing threat that must be dealt with in zero-sum terms isn’t smart. And it’s indicative of the mainstream media’s penchant for glorifying U.S. primacy and setting up anything that stands in the way of militarism as an enemy that must be pacified. 

The reality is that, as Blinken noted, the China issue is complex and there are many issues on which the U.S. and China must cooperate. But that view was not presented during this interview, and 60 Minutes didn’t bother to examine any of the likely pitfalls that come with taking an overly confrontational and adversarial stance on China.

Indeed, the Biden administration’s approach to China has its own problems on that front, it doesn’t need anyone pushing it into a fight. 

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