Joe Biden arrives in Asia for the first time as president today. He’s traveling to South Korea and Japan, but the subtext of the trip is that it’s all about China.
Last week, the Biden administration convened southeast Asian leaders in Washington; in Tokyo, he’ll meet with the heads of state of Japan, India, and Australia. In both gatherings, the Biden administration is seeking to strengthen relationships and muster alliances in the region against China, much as it has done to counter Russia in Europe.
In a speech on Saturday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will lay out Biden’s China approach. The rising power has the world’s second-largest economy, a growing and increasingly advanced military, and the wherewithal to push back against US primacy in foreign affairs.
Blinken encapsulated the administration’s policy last year: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”
Yet beyond the somewhat catchy flourish (well, catchy for foreign policy wonks), the goals are not all that well articulated. If China is an adversary, how do you cooperate? If the US and China are competing, how does the US “win”?
It’s unlikely that complete answers will emerge from Biden’s Asia tour. Much of diplomacy is symbolic and simply about showing up. But several Asia experts said they fear that the China-centric approach is too narrowly focused, and that Biden’s team should set a new agenda for diplomacy in the region that emphasizes economic development and trade, climate, and public health.
“Instead of getting China right by getting Asia right, they’re running around Asia making every policy, relationship, and initiative derivative of American competition with China,” said Evan Feigenbaum, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s no affirmative vision for the region that doesn’t begin and end with competing with China.”
A Biden administration member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Asia strategy it has launched is “the most comprehensive strategy ever” and presents an affirmative message that builds on Biden’s engagement with leaders across the continent, both one on one and in multilateral forums. “On security and economics, on technology and energy, on investment in infrastructure, we think this trip is going to put on full display President Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said recently.
Biden’s China policy is less combative than Trump’s — but some substance is similar
By the end of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo basically called for regime change in Beijing. Anxiety surrounding the possibility of a US preemptive strike led the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, to phone his Chinese counterpart to assure him no such attack was planned.
It was all much more combative and undiplomatic than Biden’s posture. Yet a year and a half in, the Biden administration maintains a lot of Trump’s policies, including tariffs and sanctions on Chinese companies.
That’s in part because a hawkish consensus on China has taken hold in the US.
“The only difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to Asia and China is that, under Biden, the US is more restrained and marginally more competent,” said Van Jackson, an international relations scholar at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “That’s about as low of a bar as you could possibly have.”
The Chinese government sees the Biden administration as similar to the Trump administration, says Wenran Jiang, president of the Canada-China Energy and Environment Forum. For China, “the basic orientation of the American bipartisan consensus and continuity on hostility toward China has not fundamentally changed. It’s just the tactics that change,” he explained.
In Washington, the term “strategic competition” is in vogue to describe the tense relationship with China. As Biden puts it, the US must win out in this competition economically and militarily, or else China will “eat our lunch.”
From China’s perspective, the Biden administration is lining up nations in Asia and around the world to unfairly target China, using international law and World Trade Organization rules, as Jiang said, “to crush and prevent China’s development and rise.”
What it means to compete with China
There are other aspects of this trip. Biden wants to show he has the bandwidth to lead in Asia despite the Ukraine war and political challenges in the US. Japan and South Korea are important democracies in their own right, with major economies and relatively new leaders that Biden wants to get to know. US intelligence suggests that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may brazenly test a nuclear weapon or missile while Biden is on the continent.
But at the White House podium, the first item national security adviser Jake Sullivan noted as the trip’s goal was “to reaffirm and reinforce two vital security alliances” with South Korea and Japan — rhetoric that puts China at the center of the agenda.
Central to this effort is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, focused on supply chains, green energy, and infrastructure, which Biden will launch on the trip.
It’s an opportunity to add heft to policies that, up until now, have been unable to counterweight China’s economic prowess.
China’s state-driven economy is a form of mercantilism that economists say unfairly bests American and global businesses. The gargantuan Chinese international development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, will connect Europe, Asia, and Africa to China through new seaports, rail, and more, especially benefiting small countries in need of investment. The Chinese initiative exemplifies how influential economic statecraft can be, and contrasts the measly $150 million the US pledged at last week’s meetings of Southeast Asian countries.
It’s true that free trade agreements are no longer palatable in US domestic politics. But as China has submitted to join the CPTPP and is already a member of RCEP, many countries in Asia wish that the US, as a major economy, would take a leadership role in these forums. “What they really want is us to actively engage in multilateral trade, diplomacy, and negotiations — to get in the game, to put real things like market access on the table,” said Daniel Russel, who served as a top State Department official for Asia in the Obama administration.
The US will instead offer a framework that’s not a “traditional trade agreement,” as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has put it. “Most noticeably, it doesn’t have a major trade component to it and it doesn’t really engage with the 800-pound gorilla, which is the undeniable fact that the Indo-Pacific economy is becoming ever more heavily integrated with the Chinese economy,” Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me.
How Washington inflates the China threat
Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012 and presides over an autocratic government that cracks down on Muslims in Xinjiang and disregards human rights in Hong Kong. The nation has militarized the South China Sea and pursued adventurism in the Himalayas. The recent harsh Covid-19 lockdowns display China’s robust surveillance state.
With Xi’s more aggressive worldview, the Washington national-security establishment fears a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the democratic, independent island nation that China claims as its own — just as Russia has invaded Ukraine. Since the Nixon years, the US had maintained the so-called One-China policy, an approach of strategic ambiguity; not officially recognizing Taiwan but nevertheless maintaining close relations with it to placate China.
Still, the Biden administration has made defensive gestures that China has internalized as antagonistic: A nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS, asserted US military strength in the Pacific, and massive arms sales to US partners in the region, like Taiwan, cement unambiguous American support.
War between China and the US is far from inevitable, but a new militarism is shaping how Americans understand the situation.
War games are standard fare among scholars and military strategists, and can be an effective tool of study. But as the TV host narrated a fictitious Chinese air assault on US bases in Japan and Guam, it had the flavor of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds,” the infamous, hyperrealistic 1938 radio play of a Martian invasion that was so convincing that callers phoned in during the broadcast, distressed over the (obviously entirely imagined) interplanetary war.
While the NBC war game forecasted the war as taking place in 2027, some observers say that China’s nefarious behavior on trade, semiconductors, and IP theft constitutes an ongoing battle. “The reality is that we are at war,” Bilal Zuberi, an investor focused on military technologies, said at a defense tech conference in Washington this week. “We are fighting China every single day.”
As the US deploys all its powers short of war in Europe, China is now studying the US military, diplomatic, and economic response to Russia. One of the war game’s participants was Michèle Flournoy, a former top Obama defense official, who says preparing for conflict with China means investing even bigger in the military. She led the 2012 US defense strategy that called for a pivot toward Asia and away from the Middle East, where the US had been bogged down in the war on terrorism.
“We need to be hyper-focused on strengthening our ability to deter Chinese aggression in the region more broadly, but specifically with regard to Taiwan in the future,” she said recently.
For China experts, however, the tendency toward threat inflation obscures China’s actual capacity. “You’ve got all these hyperventilating statements being made left, right, and center about what a dire threat China is to our very existence,” Swaine told me. “They’re just so extreme that they crowd out any other assessment.”
And there are negative consequences to these analyses — for China and for the region as a whole.
“The whole relationship with China has been securitized,” said Feigenbaum, who served as a senior Asia diplomat in the State Department from 2007 to 2009. Biden’s team is “overly focused on America’s security role, while underweighting the requisites of American economic cooperation.” When everything is seen through a national security lens, cooperation is a lot more difficult.
The result is that the avenues of cooperation with China — the “collaborative when it can be” part of Blinken’s coinage — are shrinking, including traditionally less fraught arenas such as educational exchanges, public health, investment, and trade.
Biden has maintained a Trump-era rule that bans Chinese students and scholars from doing advanced science and technological research in the United States. Vaccinating the world is also a no-go, given US concerns about sharing with China the tech behind its mRNA vaccines. Investment from Chinese companies in the US was once celebrated in Silicon Valley, but now it’s seen as fraught and risky. As Trump’s tariffs endure, trade remains zero-sum.
The only glimmer of cooperation is that Biden has employed senior statesman John Kerry as a special envoy working to make progress on climate cooperation with China.
There are also opportunity costs to this China-centric approach. The administration is failing to use America’s economic might to help poorer southeast Asian countries emerge from tremendous debt. It’s only starting to cooperate more broadly in the region on issues like mitigating the climate crisis or distributing effective vaccines.
And it won’t be enough for the Biden administration to only focus on countering China’s actions from a strict national security or economic perspective, said Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America think tank and a former Obama diplomat.
“Global leadership in this century is not about beating China. It’s about addressing a whole set of global problems that far transcend the US-China relationship and often require cooperating with China,” she told me. “What is the point of beating China if the planet becomes unlivable for billions of people?”