As the 2024 U.S. presidential election looms, the American political landscape may experience a new wave of adjustments, so a periodic evaluation of the Biden administration’s China policy becomes pertinent. Its approach to China can be delineated broadly into two pivotal phases: assessment and action.
In a speech in March 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken characterized China as “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” He then introduced a tripartite China policy for the United States: “Compete, collaborate and confront as needed.”
The speech did not mark the final layout of America’s China policy. Afterward, the administration embarked on a gradual assessment of the practical applicability and feasibility of its policy. In May 2022, Blinken delivered another speech, in which he characterized China as the sole nation with both the intention and the capability to reshape the international order across economic, diplomatic, military and technological domains. He then proposed a new tripartite China policy: “Invest, align and compete.”
Thus, there were two steps in the development of America’s policy: First, Blinken assessed China’s impact on the U.S.-led international system from a capability perspective; then he acknowledged China’s possession of both the intent and the capability to alter the existing international system.
The amalgamation of capability and intent logically results in substantive outcomes; therefore, calling China a “revisionist state,” — as the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy in October 2022 did — can be viewed as an affirmation of the strategic perception of China held by the Trump administration.
After more than a year of policy implementation, the Biden administration’s China policy displays seven key characteristics:
• Competitive and controlled: Strategic competition is the foundational aspect of America’s China strategy. Simultaneously, the administration emphasizes the need to strengthen risk management to prevent the escalation of competition into conflict. In essence, the U.S. policy toward China is characterized by strategic competition and tactical cooperation.
• Comprehensive: The United States is intensifying competition and pressure across the board, including economic, political, technological, military and ideological domains. This involves strengthening regional linkages across the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic regions, activating the full mobilization of the U.S. executive, legislative and even judicial branches, and adopting a comprehensive competitive stance toward China across all fields, regions and governmental entities.
• Targeted: The Biden administration is refining the precision of its competitive policies toward China, notably in the “high wall, small courtyard” style of technological competition.
• Intense: The United States is applying simultaneous pressure in matters involving China’s core interests — including Hong Kong, Xinjiang and, especially, Taiwan. This continuous probing of China’s bottom lines, or red lines, creates persistent tension in the China-U.S. relationship and in matters of regional security.
• Collective: The Biden administration is dedicated to constructing, expanding and consolidating the “broadest coalition” against China. The idea is to enhance the capacity and effectiveness of the U.S. in containing and suppressing China through a camp-based approach.
• Long-term: The Biden administration anticipates a shift in the balance of power between China and the United States and acknowledges the emergence of a peer competitor. Consequently, the next decade is seen as decisive for the China-U.S. competitive dynamic, leading to a focus on long-term competition.
Moreover, the enduring nature of the Biden administration’s competitive policy is intricately linked to its ideological and social dimensions. The ideological underpinnings are unmistakable, as articulated in the National Security Strategy, which explicitly posits today’s global competition as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism and emphasizes that democracies and autocracies “are engaged in a contest to show which system of governance can best deliver for their people and the world.” The firm ideological stance of the U.S. Congress, along with its growing involvement and influence in shaping policy, further intensifies the ideological undertones of America’s stance on China.
Socialization pertains to the U.S. government’s enhanced efforts in social mobilization, which encompasses the shaping and steering of public opinion. This has led to a historic low in American society’s favorability toward China, with China increasingly being perceived as America’s primary adversary. According to a Gallup poll from March last year, 50 percent of those surveyed identified China as America’s main enemy, compared with Russia (32 percent), the DPRK (7 percent) and Iran (2 percent).
• Decisive: The Biden administration perceives the China-U.S. competition as a zero-sum game, setting the goal to “outcompete China,” with no middle ground considered.
Evidently, the U.S. strategic stance and policies with regard to China introduce additional variables into an already unstable and uncertain global landscape. Given America’s superpower status, exercising caution and responsibility is imperative to avert significant global consequences. Fortunately, China has embraced “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation” as fundamental principles in handling Sino-American relations in the current era. This commitment underscores China’s diplomatic efforts to build a new type of international relations, including a distinct major country relationship with the United States. It offers a beacon of hope to a world immersed in anxiety and turmoil. The realization of this hope hinges not only on China’s endeavors but also on the collaborative efforts of nations globally, particularly major countries.