At the start of U.S. President Joe Biden’s term of office, which began a year ago, the White House immediately began reviewing America’s China policies in various areas and played with the China-is-eating-our-lunch idea in a push for domestic infrastructure construction spending. The laser-like focus on China is not only a pet phrase of some politicians but also a real centerpiece of the administration’s strategy.
The prevailing view in both Chinese and American strategic circles is that Biden has largely continued his predecessor’s China policy and tacked on a few more repressive additional measures. Indeed, the U.S. administration continues to define relations with China as “competitive.” It systematically keeps the pressure on China and increasingly attempts to mobilize allies and partners against it.
This reflects general agreement with the previous administration’s definition of China as a strategic rival. However, as a group of ruling liberal elites, the Biden administration is quite different from its predecessor in its policy approach, and some deep logic in its China strategy needs to be reexamined.
Biden’s domestic and foreign policy orientation is probably best understood through his “Build Back Better” concept. How can the future, which has not come yet, be built “back” and “better”? Indeed, the better future envisioned by the administration is rooted in nostalgia for America’s lost power and is reflected in attempts to bring back an America with a strong middle class, preeminent political and economic power and an extensive presence with unparalleled dominance in international affairs.
In other words, based on a reassessment of the internal and external strategic environment, the Biden administration wants to repair and restore the foundation of American national strength and external influence so that its liberal hegemony will once again thrive. Further, as believers in American-style liberal democracy, Biden and his team do not see the American system in decline, even though they have admitted grudgingly to its defects, which they largely attribute to external non-democratic forces.
Thus, one of the important purposes of the administration’s China strategy must be to prove that the U.S. system and hegemony remain attractive and useful globally, as well as capable of sustaining national fervor at home.
This line of thinking would make Biden’s “not seeking a new cold war” rhetoric and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s statements about “not seeking to change China” worth pondering. The administration seems to have realized that a new cold war with China will not work to restore American dominance, despite what would be high costs in lost economic and trade advantages, not to mention unexpected conflicts.
Meanwhile, the United States will not completely set aside the experience it gained in its past games with the Soviet Union. In fact, according to U.S. media, the Biden administration has made up its mind to define the U.S.-China relationship as one of “strategic competition,” a term last used in reference to the Soviet Union. Moves to make the Quad more anti-China and to shake up regional strategic stability with the AUKUS alignment — which involves cooperation on nuclear submarines — provide vivid manifestations of the Cold War mentality featuring confrontation between blocs.
The not-seeking-to-change-China statement is more a realization, upon resolute Chinese opposition to American suppression, that such a change is impossible. It may also be a pretext for the U.S. to rein in the costs of hegemony and mitigate its competitive rhetoric. After all, as the Biden administration has gone to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of the American system. Groundless accusations and interference with regard to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang have grown rampantly, and it’s hard to imagine that the White House has changed its views on the Chinese system and way of life.
Through reflection and debate, the Biden administration and the opposition now roughly agree on China’s intentions. Both liberal and conservative strategic elites believe that China wants to take the place of America as an international leader and build a favorable world order. This imagined adversary is used to justify the administration’s grand project to repair American hegemony.
As the repair cannot be completed overnight, the U.S. will naturally play a long game with China. Of course, this long game will not always look the same. For example, if the conservatives return to power in the future, their pressure on China may become more intense. After all, many of them already see China as an existential threat against which vigilance must not be relaxed. To be sure, neither Biden nor any future U.S. president will stand idly by as American hegemony fades, and it will be an important strategy for them to continue the repair by focusing on competition.
At the same time, it is certain that China will also be determined and vigorous in its struggle against any attempt to endanger its sovereignty, security or development interests on any ground or for any purpose.