On May 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, hosted by the Asia Society, delivered a speech at George Washington University outlining the Biden administration’s China policy. In 40 minutes, he largely restated the administration’s approach since taking office and proposed an “invest, align, compete” strategy for success over China. The speech reveals some basic tendencies and potential features of a future U.S. policy.
Blinken speech demonstrates a new duality of the Biden administration’s China policy.
On one hand, Blinken repeated the same old line about China being “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order” and “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it” in a harangue about increased competition and the need to succeed. On the other hand, Blinken also claimed that the United States is “not looking for conflict or a new Cold War. To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.” And he continued, “We don't seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China — or any other country, for that matter — from growing their economy or advancing the interests of their people.”
These policy declarations contain a desire to intensify competition with China and at the same time to strategically manage the competitive dynamics to avoid an escalatory Chinese response. While seeing China’s development as its greatest challenge, the U.S. claims that it will not stand in the way of China becoming a great power and maintaining its own interests. There seems to be much wishful thinking and hypocrisy in those declarations.
The new duality reflects a greater recognition of complexity in China-U.S. relations.
It originates from the Biden administration’s long-standing concern that the U.S. will not be able to dominate the course of bilateral relations with China and reflects the growing recognition within the American government and the opposition of the complexity of those relations. Since the start of Donald Trump’s term, a trade war, a technological blockade, geopolitical encirclement, ideological pressure and other measures have been used against China and have been found inadequate to America’s stated strategic goals. Instead, the complex links between the two countries, and with the rest of the world, have become more apparent.
For example, the economic and trade war did not result in the severing of economic and trade ties, while the ever-increasing trade volume and escalating inflationary pressure in the U.S. have made the removal of tariffs on China a realistic American interest and a significant political need for many groups. Or another example: The U.S. will not be able to deal with global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic or tackle geopolitical problems such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict without collaboration with China, nor can the U.S. expect strategic support from China while it competes against and suppresses it.
Given all these complexities, Blinken called the relationship between China and the U.S. “one of the most complex and consequential relationships” in the world today and admitted that “the United States and China have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future.”
The U.S. will shift the focus of its China strategy to “system pressure.”
Due to the complexity of China-U.S. relations, the many actions taken by the U.S. against China in the past few years have not led to the calculated results. Senior officials in the Biden administration have repeatedly declared that they do not seek to change China or the Chinese system, which reflects their recognition of the ineffectiveness of the earlier strategy.
In his speech, Blinken acknowledged America’s limited ability to change China’s behavior and announced a shift in focus to “shape the strategic environment around Beijing.” The next phase is thus expected to focus on seeking success in the competition through system pressure. On one hand, system pressure rests on America’s traditional alliance system, which the U.S. will tap through what Blinken describes as an “align” strategy. By improving relations with traditional allies, such as Europe, transforming the functional areas in which allies play a role (such as the expansion of NATO’s functions) and increasing cross-connections between allies through the Quad and AUKUS, the Biden administration seeks to use the strengths of its allies for comprehensive pressure on China.
On the other hand, the system pressure will also come from increased U.S. attention to restraining Chinese behavior through the existing international system — meaning, in Blinken’s words, laws, agreements, principles and institutions. It is at the center of the Biden administration’s strategic design to push back China’s influence, squeeze China’s presence and contain China’s development space by fully returning to international institutions and creating (or trying to create) more small circles.
The long-term prospects of the game between China and the U.S. will fundamentally depend on which one of them can maintain good development momentum.
Blinken put “invest” first in the China strategy and declared that the U.S. “will invest in the foundations of our strength here at home — our competitiveness, our innovation, our democracy.” The statement, combined with the policy practices of the past year, reveals clearly the American strategic intent toward China and the competitive means and tools it is preparing to use. The U.S. is also coordinating with a clearer picture in mind the practical measures and long-term plans to put pressure on China. In an increasingly turbulent and changing world situation, whether we can maintain our strategic focus on development, avoid strategic misjudgments and mistakes and effectively anticipate and guard against various risks will be fundamental to the result of the long game between China and the U.S.