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Foreign Policy

Biden’s China Policy: Evolution and Characteristics

Jun 02, 2022
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

On May 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered a speech on U.S. policy toward China at the Asia Society, laying out the Biden administration’s policy in a comprehensive manner. This is the second time the U.S. has issued a China policy framework after a two-year hiatus. In May 2020, the Trump administration released the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, which was fully discussed in the White House and across the executive branch.

In his recent speech, Blinken emphasized three keywords for China policy: “invest, align, compete.” This is both linked to and distinct from his March 2021 proposal in which he said, “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be” — which boils down to competitive, collaborative and confrontational.

First, both policy statements take China as the most serious long-term challenge to the international order and make strategic competition the core and main axis of U.S. policy toward China, while continuing to make the handling of relations the highest priority on the U.S. diplomatic agenda, demonstrating U.S. resolve to a certain extent.

Second, from the perspective of competition strategy, Blinken’s new speech further clarifies and solidifies the Biden administration’s foreign policy practice toward China, namely investing in U.S. competitiveness and building international alliances and partnerships against China. Maintaining strong national power is the basis for U.S. strategic competition with China “from a position of strength.” This requires greater U.S. investment in key areas such as science and technology, infrastructure, supply chain security and education, as well as continued improvement of U.S. democratic institutions.

Alliance relations are seen as a force multiplier for the United States. In the face of the most serious geopolitical challenges of the 21st century, the United States will have to continue to modernize the existing alliance system and build new international alliances and partnerships against China. This is a multifaceted alliance structure that includes both formal treaty alliances and issue-specific, region-specific alliances or partnerships, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Australia-U.K.-U.S. trilateral security partnership (AUKUS), and the CHIP Alliance (CHIP 4). This alliance structure not only strengthens the U.S. base and advantage in strategic competition with China, but also creates pressure and obstacles for China’s development, such as the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council, established in 2021 to strengthen investment reviews and export controls on key technologies and enhance cooperation on supply chain security.

As can be seen, the U.S. is attempting to encircle China at the physical level, such as through the so-called Island Chain Strategy. This puts into practice Nicholas John Spykman’s rimland theory and a continuation of the U.S. Cold War strategy.

In addition, the U.S. has built a barrier against China at the level of technology export controls, economic and trade systems and rule-making. Blinken summarized this as a move to “shape the strategic environment around Beijing” to regulate, constrain and contain the country. Of course, the U.S. also recognizes that China is already deeply integrated into the global economy and global governance, so the United States and China “have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future.”

Third, in terms of the connotation of strategic competition, the U.S. believes that competition with China is between two different systems, different paths, different ways of life and different visions of a future world, and that this competition is largely zero-sum in nature. The United States is confident that it can win once again in this competitive game. This reflects the deep-rooted Cold War mentality of the U.S. government.

In terms of distinctions, in this speech Blinken more clearly set out the boundaries of China-U.S. strategic competition — that is, the U.S. is not looking for conflict or a new Cold War. Previously, the U.S. policy toward China had explicitly stated, “Our relationship with China will be ... adversarial when it must be” — which could give the impression that the United States is preparing for a conflict with China. Blinken’s recent speech clearly emphasizes that the United States seeks peaceful coexistence and long-term competition with China, but does not seek confrontation, and it sets up guardrails for strategic competition.

“Competition need not lead to conflict,” Blinken said. “We do not seek it. We will work to avoid it.”

According to him, the United States “will manage” the relationship responsibly to prevent unintended conflicts. To that end, the United States has “prioritized crisis communications and risk-reduction measures with Beijing,” he said.

 In addition, Blinken mentioned the need for China-U.S. cooperation on global issues of concern regarding human welfare, such as climate change, nonproliferation, arms control and global food security. He also clarified the nature and principles of China-U.S. cooperation on such issues, noting that “we’ll engage constructively with China wherever we can, not as a favor to us or anyone else, and never in exchange for walking away from our principles, but because working together to solve great challenges is what the world expects from great powers, and because it’s directly in our interest.”

As can be seen, the United States does not rule out cooperation with China on certain issues, but the place of cooperation in China-U.S. relations has dropped significantly, which also indicates, at another level, that areas of possible cooperation between China and the United States are increasingly narrowing and the difficulty is further increasing.

Second, Blinken’s speech distinguished the policy positions of the U.S. government toward the Communist Party of China, the Chinese government and the Chinese people, highlighting the differences between the CPC, the government and the Chinese people, and trying to create a confrontation between them. This is a major shift in the Biden administration’s policy toward China and a return to the policy in place toward the latter period of the Trump administration. This approach is bound to further exacerbate mutual distrust and even create hostility between China and the United States. Thus, in China's view, this policy indicates a clear regression.

Third, Blinken’s speech continued the Biden administration’s consistent policy statement on Taiwan. He said the United States “remains committed to our ‘one China’ policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side ... and we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.”

The speech also made clear that the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence. This has to some extent helped ease the recent tensions in China-U.S. relations caused by the State Department’s change of the Fact Sheet on U.S.-Taiwan relations and Biden’s recent statement on Taiwan defense. However, the U.S. has adopted a sausage slicing strategy on the question of Taiwan, constantly testing and probing China’s principled position on Taiwan, which is neither conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait nor consistent with the U.S. stated policy of “not seeking conflict with China.” This objectively leads to China’s deeper distrust of the U.S., even as mutual distrust is the root cause of the security dilemma.

In short, the tone of the Biden administration’s China policy points to systemic competition rather than strategic confrontation, with more emphasis on the characteristics of basics (consolidating U.S. national power), durability (long-term competition with China), systematicity (building an international joint front) and crisis control (setting the boundaries of strategic competition and strengthening crisis prevention and control) in its response strategy.

Compared with the Trump administration’s policy toward China, the Biden administration appears to be more rational and moderate, but the contradictions and gaps between its policy practices and pronouncements are also more prominent — or, to borrow a Chinese proverb, “Words do not match deeds.”

It is worth noting that the Trump administration’s China policy was issued in the form of an official White House document, while the Biden administration presented its policy in the form of a speech delivered by the secretary of state — which may indicate that the construction process inside the Biden administration on this subject is not yet complete and that further adjustments may be made in the future.

If so, China and the U.S. may take advantage of this window to continue to strengthen strategic communication — especially to give full play to the role of head-of-state diplomacy — and to refrain from extreme tendencies such as emotionalism, paranoia and demonization in an effort to bring bilateral relations back to a stable development track.

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