One defining characteristic of the 21st century is that the United States has proven to be an easily distracted superpower. Since the dawn of the new millennium, both Republican and Democratic administrations have promised to take China more seriously as a threat, only to have that policy get sidelined more pressing concerns.
The early months of George W. Bush’s first term were filled with dire portents of a cold war with China, including a tense drama in April 2001 over a downed American spy plane. But 9/11 and Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq put China on the back burner. Barack Obama’s foreign policy goal was to leave behind those wars and pivot to Asia. This however was easier said than done, since Obama found it difficult to withdraw from Iraq and impossible to leave Afghanistan. In any case, the Global War on Terrorism and the Arab Spring continued to destabilize the region and motivate new interventions in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.
Donald Trump came to power as a China hawk and did launch a partial trade war with the Asian superpower. But, as on many issues, Trump was inconsistent, managing both to blame China for Covid and repeatedly praise Chinese’s handling of the pandemic. On January 24, 2020, Trump tweeted, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
The Biden administration is now demonstrating the same seesaw pattern as previous administrations: on the one hand, talking loudly and ominously about a China threat—but then softening hawkish words out of prudential concerns.
The logic behind this constant foreign policy whiplash is clear enough. If your goal is preserving American global hegemony, China is clearly the only major potential rival: It is the world’s second-largest economy, and already well on its way to eventually surpassing the United States. But China’s economy is also completely intertwined with the American economy. Any open conflict between the two countries would result in economic disruption far exceeding current supply chain problems, perhaps approaching the shocks produced by the two world wars. Given that the supposed threat posed by China remains almost entirely theoretical—since leaders in Beijing are far more concerned about continuing to consolidate internal power than external policy—Biden’s commitment to containing China remains an aspiration rather than a reality.
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But even aspirational belligerence carries dangers. Indeed, one path to war is for a major power to make threats that it can’t yet back up by force, thus inviting a rival to strike early. Joe Biden ran exactly such a risk last week on May 23 when he said the United States would get militarily involved if Taiwan was attacked. Biden’s commitment flew in the face of long held United States policy to maintain “strategic ambiguity” on precisely this question. As sometimes happens with Biden, it was hard to know if this was a deliberate attempt to shift policy (a move from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity”) or a blunder. The latter possibility might be more likely, since the White House quickly tried to walk back the president’s remarks.
Three days later, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken gave a lengthy address at Georgetown University that surveyed USA/China policy and reiterated the traditional stance of strategic ambiguity.
Blinken’s address, much anticipated as a definitive statement on American intent in Asia, adds more evidence to the conclusion that the United States remains deeply conflicted about China policy. On the one hand, it made the familiar arguments about the need for a pivot to Asia.
According to Blinken, “Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order—and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”
“China is the only country,” the secretary of state added, “with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”
A close reading of the speech reveals that even though China is named as the “most serious” challenge to the American-led world order, Blinken also wants to have it both ways—with continued cooperation alongside international competition. “We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War,” Blinken declared. “To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.” The theme of the speech is that competition will be balanced by cooperation on issues like climate change, pandemics, and continued efforts at economic integration.
To borrow the language of professional wrestling, Blinken wants a kayfabe Cold War, a pretend conflict where the two parties are rivals in the ring but continue to be part of the same money-making system.
The administration’s pro-wrestling policy will require increased military spending, increased spending on cyber security, increased spending on infrastructure, and, at least nominally, more diplomacy. Blinken at least promises more diplomacy, but, as the shrewd foreign policy analysist Daniel Larison, writing in Responsible Statecraft, notes, Blinken’s calls for more diplomacy aren’t actually backed by any concrete new efforts to build alliances: “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.” Larison points to a recent Financial Times editorial making the same point: “[T]he 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.”
In delivering his speech, Blinken noted with gratitude that Republican Senator Mitt Romney was in the audience. This helps explain the underlying logic of the rhetorical hawkishness towards China. The lesson of the last century has been that meaningful bipartisan cooperation is possible only when there is a perceived external threat to American power, whether real or imagined. The United States had a measure of bipartisan unity during World War II and the more militant phases of the Cold War—and in the early days of the Global War on Terrorism.
As part of Joe Biden’s policy of ancien régime restoration, the president is hoping to use the mythical China threat to recreate bipartisan comity. We can only hope that the leadership of China understands this pantomime and doesn’t take Biden’s ratcheting up of rhetorical threats too seriously.
In his Georgetown speech, Blinken said, “As President Biden likes to say, the only conflict worse than an intended one is an unintended one.” The danger of Biden’s Taiwan comment is that it might lead to exactly such an unintended conflict.