President Biden’s top cabinet appointees have almost uniformly proclaimed their opposition to the policies of the Trump administration and have pledged to steer the nation on a new course, whether it be on health, the economy, the climate, or issues of race and racism. In one area, however, senior Biden officials have not only praised Trump’s endeavors but promised to carry them further: mobilizing the nation for a new Cold War, this time with China.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s choice as secretary of state, Antony Blinken, praised many of the anti-China policies enacted by the outgoing administration, saying President Trump was correct in taking “a tougher approach” toward China. “As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge” to US national interests, he declared on January 19.
A similar stance was voiced by Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Defense, retired general Lloyd Austin. While Austin—the first African American to be appointed secretary of defense—received overwhelming praise from Democrats in Congress for his pledge to combat racism in the military’s ranks, he got little reaction to what he claimed was his number-one priority: to better equip US forces to engage in a future war with China.
“The Biden administration will view China as our most serious global competitor and, from a defense perspective, the pacing threat in most areas,” he noted in response to questions submitted by the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If confirmed, I will further focus the Department on China…. That will include investing to maintain our technological advantage and developing new concepts and capabilities to counter China across the spectrum of conflict.”
Why this single-minded focus on girding the nation for a catastrophic war with China, or at the very least, a mutually debilitating Cold War?
There is no single answer, but rather the explanation flows from the confluence of multiple factors on both sides. In the United States, there is an immensely powerful military-industrial complex that fully recognizes that without an overwhelming foreign threat, pressures will grow to cut the bloated defense budget—pegged at $705 billion for the current fiscal year—in order to finance desperately needed investments in health care, infrastructure, poverty reduction, and climate adaptation. Only China poses a plausible threat of sufficient magnitude to perform this role, and so its military capabilities are being vastly exaggerated to justify ever-increasing military spending.
Equally important, US foreign policy elites—Democrats as well as Republicans—view China as a potent economic rival that could, in the very near future—overtake the United States to become the world’s leading economic power. This is the real China threat in the minds of America’s top leaders, and they will do whatever it takes to prevent it from occurring.
For the Chinese, Washington’s stance that China must perpetually accept second-class status is becoming increasingly intolerable, especially as their country grows in wealth in power. “The Chinese nation…has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” President Xi Jinping told the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress in October 2017. His promise to “realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” enjoys widespread support among the population.
But China’s aspirations to attain great-power status inevitably clash with long-held US interests, especially control over the strategically important waterways of the Western Pacific, such as the East and South China Seas. For China, these constitute the nation’s very front door, and so rightfully belong under Chinese control; for the United States, they represent the far western edge of its security zone, and so cannot be surrendered to Beijing. From this strategic impasse springs the very real possibility of minor incidents escalating into World War III.
In pursuit of China’s “national rejuvenation,” moreover, Xi has engaged in authoritarian behaviors that have rightfully produced widespread dismay among American liberals and progressives, including the brutal assault on Uighur Muslim identity and the suppression of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
If unchecked, these forces on both sides will result in an intractable Cold War that will permeate all aspects of international relations and undermine Biden’s efforts to make progress on other issues. Without China’s cooperation, it will prove impossible to halt the acceleration of climate change or prevent further outbreaks of deadly pandemics. A harsh Cold War environment will also stymie any hope of diverting funds from the US defense budget to domestic revival in other areas, such as health, education, and the environment. Worst of all, growing hostility between the United States and China will increase the risk that a minor incident in the East or South China Seas will trigger a major military conflagration.
It is essential, then, that thoughtful, peace-minded people in the United States—and China, wherever feasible—take steps to oppose the rush toward a new Cold War while proposing peaceful, mutually beneficial solutions to the divisive issues in US-China relations. This also means condemning provocative actions on both sides, such as the aggressive air and naval maneuvers now under way in the South China Seas and in waters near Taiwan. Rather than exaggerate threats, the two sides should be encouraged to find points of common interest, such as slowing the pace of climate change and enhancing detection of potential pandemics.
These are the goals of a new organization, the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy, of which I am a founding member. The group has released an “Appeal to Avert a New Cold War” signed by prominent scholars and peace advocates, and will sponsor a webinar on “Biden and China: Challenges and Opportunities” on Wednesday, January 27. Information about the organization and the webinar is available at saneuschinapolicy.org.