BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill
President Biden is yet to make his long-anticipated China strategy speech to define his approach to a country that has emerged as the greatest rival that the United States has ever faced. Instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the administration’s approach in a speech that acknowledged that China poses “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.”
In Blinken’s words, “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.”
The president, however, has been fixated since taking office on the weaker of America’s two main foes, Russia, while letting China escape scot-free for covering up the COVID-19 virus’s origins and for detaining more than a million Muslims in internment camps. Indeed, the Biden administration labels only Russia as an adversary, while calling China merely a competitor.
A careful examination of Blinken’s speech, the White House’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” released in February and Biden’s own actions since last year confirms that a conciliatory approach toward China is taking root, despite occasional tough-sounding rhetoric.
Under President Trump’s administration, a fundamental shift in China policy occurred with the aim of reining in a country that, with U.S. help, became America’s main rival. The paradigm shift formally ended America’s “China fantasy,” which lasted over 45 years — a period in which successive presidents, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, aided China’s rise in the naive hope that, as China became increasingly prosperous, it would naturally pursue economic and even political liberalization.
Backed by a broadly bipartisan consensus in favor of ending China’s free ride, this policy change promised to reshape global geopolitics and trade.
Biden, however, has unobtrusively undertaken a course correction, with Blinken’s speech offering more evidence of the administration’s efforts to “coexist and cooperate” with the world’s largest autocracy.
Blinken’s soothing message for Beijing was that the U.S. does not seek to block China’s “role as a major power,” or hinder its economic growth or “transform” its totalitarian system. “We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War. To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both,” he declared.
In contrast to the Trump administration’s launch of an ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Team Biden has repeatedly forsworn any intention to transform that country’s political system in any way.
Biden himself assured Chinese President Xi Jinping in a virtual summit meeting last November that the U.S. will not seek to change China’s political system or direct its alliances against it. And when he telephoned Xi last September, Biden, according to a U.S. background briefer, sought to explain American actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways.”
Similar reassurances are embedded in the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy document, which declares that, “Our objective is not to change the PRC [People’s Republic of China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates…” Contrast that with the administration’s publicly declared goal to “see Russia weakened,” including triggering its economic collapse and degrading its military capabilities.
With Biden willing to give China a pass on its expansionist policies, the risk is growing that Xi will make Taiwan his next target after his regime’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayas.
Not once, not twice, but three times in recent months Biden has said that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials on each occasion walk back his comments. While creating international confusion afresh on that issue during his Tokyo visit, Biden played down the possibility of China invading Taiwan, saying, “My expectation is that it will not happen.”
But by appeasing China, Biden may invite such aggression. Indeed, Biden’s deepening of U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict offers Xi an opening to move on Taiwan at an opportune time when a distracted America is taken by complete surprise. Through rising bullying, Xi is already normalizing China’s hostile pressure on Taiwan.
Nothing better illustrates Biden’s efforts to appease China than Taiwan’s exclusion from his newly unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. The White House has offered no credible explanation for omitting this economic powerhouse, which is a hub of global semiconductor production.
Taiwan’s exclusion shows how Biden, by bending over backwards not to antagonize Beijing, is sending mixed messages about U.S. commitment to that island democracy. Prioritizing Ukraine’s defense over Taiwan’s, Washington has informed Taipei that the 2022 scheduled delivery of an important U.S. artillery system would be delayed until 2026 at the earliest. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, meanwhile, referred to Taiwan by the demeaning name of “Chinese Taipei” while listing it as one of the founding members of the newly established Cross-Border Privacy Rules Forum.
Make no mistake: Xi is unlikely to be deterred by the harsh U.S.-led sanctions against Russia. The Chinese economy is 10 times larger than the Russian economy, and enforcing sanctions against China would cause serious economic disruptions in the West and upend global supply chains.
In this light, the mixed messages from Washington could lead Xi to believe that Biden lacks the strategic vision and political will to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
More fundamentally, Biden is quietly dismantling, brick by brick, the Trump administration’s China policy without drawing attention to it. U.S. pressure on Xi’s regime is gradually being eased. Examples include letting it off the hook over its great COVID-19 stonewall and dropping fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of China’s military-linked Huawei Technologies.
Despite the FBI director publicly warning that Chinese spying in the U.S. has reached unparalleled levels, Biden has effectively disbanded the “China Initiative,” which was intended to empower the Justice Department to combat Beijing’s vast espionage campaign.
Biden may now target the Trump-era trade tariffs on $370 billion worth of Chinese goods, telling reporters in Tokyo that he was considering rolling them back. As a first step in that direction, his administration has initiated a legally required review of the tariffs, which were slapped on as part of a strategy to use economic levers to weaken China — a kind of death from a thousand cuts.
Rolling the tariffs back would break Biden’s promise not to unilaterally lift them unless China improved its behavior on issues of U.S. concern — from its unfair trade practices to its theft of intellectual property. Team Biden has already condoned Beijing’s failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with Washington. It also has reinstated exemptions from Trump-era tariffs on 352 products imported from China.
America’s trade deficit with China, meanwhile, continues to swell, jumping over 25 percent in 2021 to $396.6 billion. It now makes up nearly 60 percent of China’s total global trade surplus, which has become the main engine of its economy, besides financing its warfare machine.
Continuing to underwrite China’s economic and geopolitical power not only means that the U.S. has yet to learn from how it aided the rise of a hostile giant; it also is likely to accelerate America’s relative decline.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.