Biden’s fateful strategic choice

US-China tensions

 

President Joe Biden’s administration faces a fateful strategic choice concerning its future relations with China in coming years. Is US policy to be directed towards containing or reversing China’s emergence as the second world power, so that it will not supplant the US to become its premier one in the coming generation? That would require a plan to isolate China in a new cold war. Or should China be critically engaged, pressured and encouraged to become a reliable partner, sharing responsibilities for sustainable development?

Biden’s team shows much continuity in facing this stark choice with the preceding Trump and Obama administrations. The US pivot to Asia has been a long time coming. It is driven by fundamental shifts of interest and security towards the Pacific region. China was a relative latecomer to the Asian model of economic development after Japan, South Korea and southeast Asian tigers availed of mobile US and international investment two generations ago. But its sheer scale and determination ensured that when it locked in to the model from the 1980s and 1990s it became a world beater in economic, technological and productivity terms by the 2020s.

Conventional wisdom in the US and elsewhere assumed political liberalisation would follow such state capitalist success under China’s communist party regime. It was a major miscalculation, as has been shown under Xi Jinping’s leadership since 2013. He has recentralised party control against critics, reasserted its regional interests, reemphasised nationalist pride in China’s achievements and is determined to oversee a greater world role for the country in the next decade. This authoritarian and illiberal model is designed to appeal internationally and compete with the democratic capitalist West. China’s leaders believe the world is going its way and that the US is now in decline.

Containment and renewed cold war threatening a hot one are neither realistic nor desirable means to handle the Chinese threat to US primacy. China is a far more powerful state, economy and society than was the Soviet Union in the last cold war. It is much more interconnected with the rest of the world, as continuing huge western and US investment flows and trading relations testify. Critical engagement and a much more alert and competitive defence of US and wider interests and values are a better path.

Talks between US and Chinese representatives in Tianjin last week put the contending interests and values on display. State-backed hacking, Hong Kong and Uigher repression, trade tensions and the WHO Covid enquiry featured strongly on the US list, while the Chinese complained about being demonised as an imagined enemy by the US. These are really difficult, but manageable, problems.

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