Biden claims U.S. leverage over China is lacking. But he thinks the U.S. has leverage to cause economic collapse and regime change in Russia, an approach clearly based on hope. His focus on the wrong foe while seeking to appease China threatens to accelerate America’s relative decline.
The new export curbs U.S. President Joe Biden recently imposed on the Chinese chip industry to help slow Beijing’s technological and military advances have obscured his administration’s relatively conciliatory stance since taking office.
Even the export curbs have been undercut by exemptions granted to major Taiwanese and South Korean companies for their chipmaking facilities in China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, wants Biden to live up to “Five Nos” which Beijing claims the U.S. president has committed to: No to changing China’s authoritarian system; no to containing China; no to seeking U.S. economic decoupling from China; no to a policy of “one China, one Taiwan;” and no to conflict or a new Cold War with China.
According to the official Chinese readout of the two leaders’ recent meeting in Bali, “President Xi said he takes very seriously President Biden’s ‘Five Nos’ statement.”
The White House may not have directly corroborated such commitments, but similar formulations can be found in Biden’s comments and his administration’s public declarations and documents.
For example, in sharp contrast to predecessor Donald Trump’s ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Biden and his national security team have repeatedly disclaimed any intention to transform the country’s political system.
Biden himself assured Xi in a virtual summit a year ago that the U.S. would not seek to change China’s political system or direct alliances against it. On a call with Xi in September 2021, Biden 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,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Similar reassurances have been embedded in Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which declares that, “Our objective is not to change the [People’s Republic of China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” In Bali, Biden went a step further by telling Xi that the U.S. “respects China’s system,” according to Beijing’s account of the meeting.
China is not just the world’s largest autocracy. It is a technology-driven Orwellian surveillance state that is seeking to stamp out the cultural and linguistic identities of ethnic minorities whose sprawling homelands the Communist Party seized after coming to power in 1949. In the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since the Nazi period, more than 1 million Muslims have been detained in Xi’s Xinjiang gulag.
Contrast Biden’s reassurances to China despite the country’s totalitarianism with his narrative that the Western conflict with Russia symbolizes a “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
While publicly seeking economic collapse and regime change in Russia, the Biden administration declared in May that it is seeking neither to block China’s “role as a major power” nor to “sever China’s economy from ours or from the global economy.” It added that it remains committed to its “One China” policy.
More recently, Biden assured Xi in Bali that the U.S. is “not looking for conflict” with China. “I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War,” the American president said.
Indeed, the Biden administration is seeking to “coexist and cooperate” with China, resisting labeling it as an outright enemy, despite Beijing covering up the origins of COVID-19, its oppression in Hong Kong and other territories, its redrawing of the geopolitical map of the South China Sea, and its forcibly changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayas.
The Biden-Xi agreement in Bali to empower senior officials to engage in a sustained effort to manage bilateral differences is scarcely going to stabilize U.S.-China relations, given that Beijing is a revisionist power. Indeed, Biden’s conciliatory approach may only embolden Xi.
Sensing weakness on the U.S. side, Xi has upped the ante on several fronts, from his frenzied buildup of nuclear weapons to hypersonic missile testing. Biden, who just turned 80, claims U.S. leverage on China is lacking, so he wants to work with U.S. allies to shape Beijing’s behavior.
Deterrence of further Chinese expansionism must start with Taiwan, whose Chinese takeover would upend the world order. Yet in Bali, Xi warned Biden that Taiwan is Beijing’s “first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.”
More broadly, Biden’s emphasis on “outcompeting China and restraining Russia” runs counter to the statement in his 48-page national security strategy last month that China is “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”
While Russia is trying to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood, China is seeking to supplant the U.S. as the preeminent global power.
China’s population and economy are each about 10 times the size of Russia’s, and its military expenditures are more than four times greater. Yet the U.S. proxy war with Russia, which has led Washington to commit a total of $91 billion for Ukraine and ask Congress for more than $37 billion in additional emergency aid, is deepening Biden’s conciliatory approach toward China while simultaneously pushing Moscow closer to Beijing.
The U.S. is in no position to meaningfully take on China and Russia simultaneously. The Biden administration’s goal to “see Russia weakened” and allow the U.S. to single-mindedly focus on the threat of China is based on hope, not reality.
The worst outcome for the U.S. from the present international crisis would be the creation of a pan-Eurasian, China-Russia axis which would compound America’s strategic overreach and accelerate its relative decline. In fact, with the blowback from the economic war on Russia exacting an increasing toll on the West, China is likely to emerge as the only winner from the conflict over Ukraine’s future.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”