Blinken China policy speech: Nothing new to see here
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a frankly underwhelming address outlining the Biden administration’s policy towards China on Thursday.
The speech at George Washington University had been scheduled for earlier in the month, but it was postponed because Blinken tested positive for COVID the day before he was set to give it. Coming on the heels of Biden’s visit to Asia and his controversial remarks committing the U.S. to intervene to defend Taiwan, Blinken’s speech offered little more than a rehashing of previous administration statements.
Administration officials had of course emphasized to reporters in the weeks leading up to the speech that it would not contain any new announcements, and it did not. The speech served mainly as an occasion to give an overview of Biden’s China policy without providing much useful detail of how they intend to execute it.
Biden’s China policy is modeled closely on that of the Trump administration, and it is arguably the one policy where there is the greatest continuity between Biden and his predecessor. There is good reason why Biden’s policy so far has been perceived as little more than “Trump lite”: not only are there very few substantive changes from the previous administration’s approach, but the Biden administration also fails to emphasize the differences that do exist.
As Jeffrey Bader observed earlier this year, “The pursuit of a so-called “bipartisan” policy toward China in practice has been the adoption of the Trump policy, at the expense of grassroots Democratic views.”
Secretary Blinken framed his speech in terms of upholding the international order and presented China as the principal threat to it. As he has done before, he denied interest in a new Cold War, but then recited the same litany of old complaints about Chinese aggressiveness that paints China as a destabilizing force that needs to be contained. He repeatedly said that the U.S. “does not seek conflict,” but any strategy that is defined so heavily by competition is bound to create tensions that can lead to conflict. While Blinken spoke about major issues where U.S.-Chinese cooperation is needed, including climate change and arms control, competition remained the focus of the speech throughout.
Considering the U.S. and Australian panic over the recent security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, it was strange to hear Blinken repeat the usual rhetoric about seeking to have a region “where countries are free to make their own sovereign decisions.” The message from Washington just a few weeks ago made it clear that our government believes that this freedom does not extend to security cooperation with other major powers.
There is an inevitable tension between respecting the sovereign decisions of other countries in the region and pursuing an anti-Chinese containment policy in all but name, and we should not be surprised if other states assume that the latter will come at the expense of their sovereignty sooner or later.
Blinken’s claim that “we put diplomacy back at the center of U.S. foreign policy” is difficult to take seriously when U.S. diplomatic engagement in Asia and the Pacific remains so limited. To the extent that there has been more diplomatic activity in recent months, it is because the U.S. has been furiously playing catch-up after a very slow start. The ASEAN summit that he mentioned in the speech was an encouraging sign that the administration was making more of an effort to engage with Southeast Asian nations, but the overall lack of diplomatic and economic engagement with the region continues.
Furthermore, the $150 million development pledge for Southeast Asia that the U.S. made at the summit was paltry and showed that the resources that the administration was prepared to offer remain quite limited.
One of the least persuasive parts of the speech was when Blinken assured the audience that “this is not about forcing countries to choose, but about giving them a choice.” Sarang Shidore has noted the contradiction between U.S. rhetoric and actions with respect to Southeast Asia: “Washington routinely stresses ‘ASEAN centrality’ and has stated that it does not seek to force Southeast Asian states to choose between the United States and China. But Washington’s actions on the ground tell a different story.”
One reason why the U.S. has had so little luck in gaining greater influence with many Southeast Asian states is that many of their governments do feel pressured to take sides and do not welcome that pressure. Many of the same governments likewise may not trust U.S. intentions and they are understandably suspicious when our officials pose as nothing more than high-minded defenders of international order. In this case, U.S. officials are protesting too much to be believed.
Blinken made sure to namecheck the administration’s other initiatives and summits over the last year, including the recent meeting of the “Quad” with the leaders of Japan, India, and Australia. He touted the new “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” but the limited scope of this initiative underscores how inadequate U.S. economic statecraft in Asia has become. The full details of IPEF have not yet been worked out, but because it does not provide for lower tariffs or market access it will likely have limited appeal.
For all the talk of competition with China, the U.S. is barely showing up to the contest when it comes to economic statecraft. This reflects the imbalance in U.S. policy as the Biden administration continues with a “military-first” approach to the region. As Edward Luce has observed, “A superpower that is happy to discuss military aid and weapons, but reluctant to talk of trade and investment, is telling both partners and foes that is speaks just one language.”
The elephant in the room on Thursday was Biden’s answer to a question about whether the U.S. would become “involved militarily” to defend Taiwan if it were attacked. The meaning of the question was clear, and Biden answered yes. Blinken did not acknowledge Biden’s answer, but just restated longstanding U.S. policy as if the president had not flatly contradicted it only days earlier.
Perhaps he thought that by insisting that the policy hasn’t changed that this would lay the issue to rest. Ignoring the president’s statement about a commitment to Taiwan will satisfy very few people. It makes it seem as if the administration is trying to have things both ways by signaling a willingness to fight for Taiwan without making a formal change in policy, but it could also suggest that the president and the rest of his administration are not on the same page.
Blinken said at one point that “there is no reason why our great countries cannot coexist peacefully,” but if the president keeps making off-the-cuff security commitments to Taiwan there is a much greater risk of conflict with China than there needs to be. The fact that Biden’s Taiwan error completely overshadowed the rest of his Asia visit drives home that there was not much else to overshadow. As the Financial Times editors noted recently, “the US president’s sabre-rattling against China was a great deal more prominent than his willingness to offer meaningful economic engagement with US partners in Asia.”
Until the U.S. is prepared to offer that kind of engagement, it will likely be frustrated in its pursuit of greater influence.