U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently delivered a speech on America’s China policy at George Washington University. He expounded the Biden administration’s China strategy and policy proposals, from China’s position in U.S. foreign strategy, goals to the underlying principles and routes of implementation. He also outlined the midrange and long-term grand strategy of strategic competition as its axis takes shape.
Judging from the speech’s timing, it was a critical “connecting link” for the Biden government’s diplomatic deployments and grand strategic planning.
On one hand, the speech can be seen as an important part of Biden’s Asia trip. From the U.S.-ASEAN special summit in Washington, D.C., to Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan and his participation in the Quad summit, the U.S. dealt a combination blow in May on the deployment and implementation of its Indo-Pacific strategy, of which Blinken’s China policy speech was itself an important component. Although Biden’s Asia trip didn’t include China, Blinken’s speech to some extent compensated for that as the final missing piece in the puzzle of America’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy.
On the other hand, the speech may be considered the prelude to a new edition of an American national security strategy. The Biden administration has been in office nearly a year and a half, and while it has issued “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” it has yet to come up with a national security strategy report, which is critically important to each U.S. administration.
At the core of U.S. domestic discourse — and the focus of international attention — is a question: Will Donald Trump’s China policy be continued or adjusted? Will the China policy be one of confrontation, competition or collaboration? Will the U.S. focus more Russia or China after the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Blinken for the first time systematically expounded a series of key issues in America’s China policy that amounted not only to the most explicit policy statement on China to date but also set the tone for the upcoming edition of the America’s national security strategy.
Judging from the speech’s main content, the Biden administration has inherited the Trump-era strategy’s three main threads: First, as the only country in the world capable of challenging U.S. hegemony in an all-around manner, China is the country’s foremost strategic rival. Second, in Blinken’s telling, China is sabotaging and revising the U.S.-led international order; hence it is necessary to mobilize an all-of-government, all-of-society response and use all resources and strategic tools to suppress and contain China in a global context. Third, the outcome of the China-U.S. strategic game will determine the future of the international order, so the next 10 years will be decisive.
It is of far-reaching significance for the Biden administration to clarify such a strategic orientation, as it shows that adjustments to America’s China policy have been completed and have not been much affected by such domestic factors as a leadership change, political polarization or societal division; nor have they been influenced by such external factors as global crises (COVID-19) or by major unexpected incidents (Russia-Ukraine conflict). The outcome has been a grand strategic proposal not unlike the U.S. strategy of containing the Soviet Union, which had run through multiple U.S. administrations. The basic momentum of the China-U.S. strategic game can be expected to continue for the long term.
Although Blinken stated that the U.S. doesn’t seek conflict or a new Cold War with China, its identification of a specific country as its main strategic rival, carrying out group politics along ideological lines, engaging in camp confrontation, building parallel economic and trade systems, interfering with another country’s domestic affairs in the name of human rights and competing for influence around the world are all essential components of a new Cold War, and all were embedded to different degrees in the Blinken speech. That is why the speech was self-contradictory and failed to reduce suspicion or increase confidence.
While maintaining strategic consistency, as compared with the Trump administration, the Biden government has made many adjustments at a technical level that have mainly appeared in the following four aspects:
First, politically, the speech sounded less confrontational and seemed to seek space for cooperation. In sharp contrast with the rhetoric of such Trump-era officials as Mike Pompeo and documents such as as the “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” the Biden administration has adjusted its tone in confronting China, conveying positive messages — not seeking conflict or a new Cold War, not preventing China from playing its role as a major country and saying there is no reason the two great countries cannot co-exist in peace. The speech also replaced the previous tripartite framing of confrontation, competition, cooperation with investments, alliances and competition — emphasizing that the U.S. will concentrate on raising its own competitiveness, further reduce its confrontational posture and explore potential areas of collaboration. It suggested a positive approach to bilateral cooperation.
Second, economically, the U.S. has turned from “hard decoupling” to “precision containment.” Unlike Trump’s ideas about globalization and China-U.S. economic and trade ties, the Biden administration believes that China is an indispensable part of the global economy and that seeking all-around China-U.S. decoupling doesn’t serve U.S. interests.
Blinken played up unfairness in China-U.S. trade, as well as other countries’ reliance on the Chinese economy and subsequent risks. The Biden administration is resorting to the tactic of “a small courtyard with high walls” to deal with China — a bid to more precisely protect key knowledge and innovation in sci-tech, as well as core economic competitiveness, while suppressing the momentum of China’s rise in value chains through monopolizing key technologies and controlling core industry chains. In the future, the U.S. will continue to take economic competition as the key to China-U.S. strategic competition. It will try to add greater pressure on China for expanding market access, intellectual property protection, transferring supply chains, raising rule thresholds and forming high-standard small circles.
Third, militarily, the U.S. will concentrate on deterrence over hard power. Unlike Trump’s emphasis on seeking “peace through strength,” and securing America’s own conventional and nuclear military advantages, the Biden administration places more weight on “comprehensive deterrence” — utilizing America’s own capabilities, alliances and partnerships, as well as upgrading military capabilities in conventional and nuclear warfare, space and information warfare, and applying U.S. economic, scientific, technological and diplomatic advantages in a comprehensive manner. This kind of deterrence has been put into practice in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Judging from Blinken’s speech, the Biden government will spare no effort in hyping the China threat on such matters as Taiwan and the East and South China seas, on one hand taking advantage of such subjects to enhance joint endeavors with allies and partners and on the other turning such collaboration into an element of comprehensive deterrence, relying more on external forces to preserve its military hegemony in the region at lower cost.
Fourth, culturally, the U.S. has resumed its former open attitude toward people-to-people exchanges. Unlike the Trump administration’s approach of restricting such exchanges and limiting Chinese students’ access to U.S. colleges, Blinken stressed that an important aspect of China-U.S. competition is competition for talent. He expressed hope that more Chinese students would go to the U.S. and that the U.S. would preserve its national security in a state of openness.
Meanwhile, the administration has also highlighted the significance of China-U.S. dialogue and constructive engagement, which offers an interface for promoting cooperation at the bilateral and multilateral levels, as well as an opportunity for restarting and rebuilding a series of dialogue mechanisms.