As many media outlets noted ahead of the speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s outline of US strategy toward China contains few surprises. In short, the Biden administration’s China policy does not offer solutions to effectively manage U.S.-China relations. Instead of focusing on US interests, China’s strategy seems more concerned with ideological competition.
Defining US-China relations as a battle for global order will increase the risk of conflict and reduce the chances of successful diplomacy.
The United States has a vital interest in avoiding a war with China, which could easily go nuclear, especially given potentially perceived – but not real – threats. No one knows for sure whether Beijing seeks to become a global hegemon. Based on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” vision, the goal is to regain a leading role in Asia-Pacific. To say with certainty that China ultimately seeks to overthrow US global leadership and overthrow the entire world order is largely a matter of speculation and projection. More research is needed. This will require frank and honest diplomacy with senior Chinese party and state officials, more focused dialogues on Tracks 2 and 1.5, and a deeper understanding of Chinese worldviews. Assuming that China wants to rule the world will breed constant suspicion and make diplomacy less effective.
The implicit framing of US-China relations as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism also increases the risks of conflict and will reduce the effectiveness of diplomacy. China’s number one vital interest – or as Beijing calls it “heart” – is to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. He will fight to keep his grip on the state.
Washington doesn’t need to like the CCP, nor should it. The CCP has facilitated the deaths of millions of people, destroyed traditional Chinese culture, and encouraged human rights abuses. And the United States should openly defend its system of government, protect it from foreign intrusions, and promulgate its values at home. Defending the American constitutional republic is a vital and essential interest in American identity – it is essential to our existence. But the CCP rules China — with consistently high approval ratings according to several independent polls — and the United States must confront it to effectively manage U.S.-China relations and avoid war.
While the Biden administration says it is “not looking to change China,” Beijing more than likely believes Washington wants to overthrow the CCP. Americans know the costs of regime change wars with poor and weak countries. One with an even competitor would be even worse. Dropping this rhetoric with respect to Beijing — implying that democracy must win in China — costs Washington nothing.
Despite previous talk of putting in place safeguards to prevent a disastrous conflict, the administration’s China policy appears to largely avoid them. Climate change and health cooperation are not safeguards. China will pursue decarbonization and pandemic responses on its own, as they are in its national interest.
On a positive note, Mr. Blinken provided a clearer picture of US one-China policy – including opposition to Taiwan independence and opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo on both sides of the Strait. from Taiwan. While this hardly convinces Beijing that President Biden’s previous four blunders were just misrepresentations, it is a step in the right direction. Mr. Blinken is expected to order the State Department to issue a fuller statement clarifying America’s one-China policy — particularly opposition to Taiwan independence. Reversing recent changes to the state website would be a good start.
Washington should echo Mr. Blinken’s words when he called for looking at China realistically. The United States should indeed view China through a realistic lens, respect – without condoning or promoting – China’s vital interests, and exercise restraint. It starts with defining vital American interests in a realistic framework in relation to Beijing.
The United States should also understand that increasingly powerful countries want to feel respected and want to be recognized. Giving China more room to have a say in the existing world order will do more to convince Beijing of its worth than crushing every proposition.
Certainly, when Chinese interests collide with ours, the United States must back down. But Washington needs to better understand China’s interests, especially its core interests, and why these are considered vital. This would greatly contribute to the development of a successful China policy and the effective management of US-China relations. It would also support a more restrained US foreign policy in which Washington does not resort to securitizing every issue and pushing for a military posture. A realistic, restraint-oriented U.S.-China policy that secures and advances U.S. interests is possible.
• Quinn Marschik is a Defense Priorities associate and the Indo-Pacific senior analyst at a global consulting firm. He served as policy adviser to the deputy assistant secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor during the administration of former President Donald Trump.