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Foreign Policy

Behind Blinken’s Speech

Mar 17, 2021
  • Yang Wenjing

    Chief of US Foreign Policy, Institute of Contemporary International Relations

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave his first address on U.S. foreign policy. On the same day, the White House released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which is regarded as laying the foundation of U.S. national strategy in the Biden era. Both of these have provided useful material for understanding the concepts driving Biden’s China policy thinking and how the U.S. perceives China in terms of national strategy.

First, in the U.S. eye, China is still the foremost competitor that may require decades to deal with. Blinken said in his speech that the U.S. relationship with China is “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” Further, he said, China is “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.”

The interim report, on the other hand, identifies the change in the distribution of power worldwide — due to “a more assertive” China — as the “biggest threat” facing the U.S. in its national security landscape.

This strategic identification of China is a structural, grave and comprehensive challenge that may undermine the U.S. as the predominant country in the world for years. And it’s no different from the position of Donald Trump.

Second, the strategic objective for this policy is to outcompete China in a long-term rivalry. In fact, Blinken said it’s the main purpose of U.S. foreign policy to revive American leadership, manage foreign policy to benefit the American people (especially workers and families) and renew democracy so it won’t “play into the hands of adversaries like Russia and China.” And U.S. China policy is certainly a part of it.

Blinken even referred to the democratic peace theory, which holds that “strong democracies are more stable and less prone to conflict and provide more dependable markets for U.S. goods and services.” This was the basis of his argument, which had been prevalent only during the years immediately following the end of the Cold War and which has receded gradually since the 2008 financial crisis.

This shows (albeit subtly) that democratization is still a U.S. strategic goal with regard to China. He also included the task of tackling global issues, such as the climate crisis and securing American leadership in technology as a strategic goal.

Third, as to the means to realize the above goals, Blinken said the United States “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” This means “to engage China from a position of strength” on issues such as climate change, pandemic solutions and arms control, while competing in other areas, especially in geopolitically key areas around the globe — the Indo-Pacific region in particular.

For this purpose, Blinken called for “allies and partners” to “engage in diplomacy and in international organizations and prevent China from filling in,” “standing up for such values as human rights” and making use of “every tool to stop countries from stealing our intellectual property or manipulating currencies to get an unfair advantage.”

On the other hand, however, the U.S. never hesitates to use force when American lives and vital interests are at stake. Although the Biden administration resorts mainly to diplomatic and economic tools to deal with its adversaries, the military still counts for purposes of deterrence and also as a source of strength for engagement.

The interim report also emphasizes how important it is to “defend access to the global commons,” “defend allies” and fulfill “the longstanding commitment to the security of Taiwan.” All these are not without strong military implications against China disguised as Biden’s reset of China policy.

Therefore, although Biden has made it clear that he wants to purge the Trump legacy thoroughly and reconfigure China policy, as a matter of fact his continuity suggests something much bigger than a few changes.

Both Blinken and Burt Campbell, the Asia Czar from the National Security Council, admitted that Trump had identified the right problems, listing China as America’s biggest opponent, focusing on the interests of U.S. domestic middle and lower classes and elevating the role of the economy in the national security agenda. The difference is only in style and degree. And the recent speech and report have firmly confirmed that although Biden condemns Trump’s selfish “America first” policy, his is actually an upgraded version of the same policy, only with a more cautious and polite cover. The substance is virtually the same. To put the interests of the American people as the sole guidance for foreign policy is not much different than “America first.”

Furthermore, Biden’s resolve to mend the U.S. relationship with allies and partners and to return strongly back to the international regime, as well as his emphasis on human rights — combined with the same policy list as Trump — will surely add more international pressure on China on a unified international front in terms of the shift in supply chains, the transformation of China’s domestic industrial policy, the technological competition and human rights condemnation. Biden’s strong will to carry out an Indo-Pacific strategy on the basis of the QUAD further signifies a more efficient coordinated effort to squeeze China’s room for maneuver internationally in an all-around way.   

However, under Biden, China can still be prepared for a possible opening in bilateral cooperation and normalization of ties, a departure from the drastic years of the Trump era. One worthwhile difference between Biden and Trump is that the former believes in the necessity of peaceful coexistence and engagement with China.

The forthcoming meeting between U.S. officials and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, may provide a litmus test on how far this reset of the bilateral relationship may go in the days to come. 

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