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Foreign Policy

Strategic Shift: Biden Embraces “Great Power Competition” with China

Nov 11, 2022

“[W]e’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges,” U.S. President Joseph Biden declared at the U.S. Department of State Headquarters in 2021. He also added that “by leading with diplomacy, we must also mean engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically, where it’s in our interest, and advance the security of the American people,” reassuring American diplomats and the wider world that a new foreign policy chapter had now begun. 

As the then newly inaugurated president, Biden emphasized his commitment to a diplomatic doctrine, which simultaneously strengthens America’s relations with fellow allies as well as explores détente with rival superpowers. Thus, he spoke of how he began “reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances,” which, thanks to the Trump administration’s strategic unilateralism, “atrophied over…years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.” 

In a crucial move, Biden extended an olive branch to China, emphasizing that he was “ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” The ultimate goal of his multilateralist diplomacy, Biden argued, was to allow the U.S. to “compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.” 

Months later, the U.S. president reiterated his foreign policy doctrine during his first address before the U.N. General Assembly, where he declared,“We’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy, of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world.” Amid rising concerns in the UN and across the world over rising Sino-American tensions, Biden made it clear that he doesn’t seek “a new Cold War” with China. After all, addressing global challenges such as climate change, Biden argued, “will hinge on our ability to recognize our common humanity,” thus working with strategic adversaries is indispensable to global peace and security.

As Biden enters his third year in office, however, there are growing indications that Washington has embraced a new era of ‘great power competition’ with China. In many ways, there are more echoes of Trump than Obama in the newly-released National Security Strategy (NSS) document as well as the newly-unclassified National Defense Strategy (NDS), both of which have identified China as the preeminent challenge to American primacy in the 21st century. 

Dangerous Storms

During the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress, paramount leader Xi Jinping warned of “high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms” confronting his nation. Back in 2020, he similarly warned of a “period of turbulent change” amid an increasingly hostile international environment. These views are anchored in Beijing’s reading of the secular trends in America’s foreign policy. For a while the Biden administration had promised to revisit its predecessor’s unilateralist tendencies in favor of inclusive multilateralism, but it’s increasingly clear that what’s at stake is more of a tactical change rather than strategic recalibration.

In its first months in office, the Biden administration made its China-focused strategy crystal clear by, inter alia, concentrating on strengthening cooperation not only with Transatlantic Allies, especially in Western Europe, but also with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the “Quad” partners of India, Australia and Japan. Accordingly, Biden oversaw the first-ever Quad summit with counterparts from the three major Indo-Pacific powers, while also holding in-person bilateral summits with Northeast Asian treaty allies of South Korea and Japan. 

Meanwhile, Biden dispatched both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to the major capitals of Northeast Asia, South Asia, and Western Europe in order to build a united front with the impending rise of China. That year, the Biden administration also released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which largely focused on China, and to a lesser degree Russia, while completely overlooking treaty allies of Thailand and the Philippines, which were hardly mentioned at all.

Biden didn’t hold a single bilateral meeting with any Southeast Asian countries in his first year in office. And yet, that same period saw Washington cementing the foundations of a new military alliance in the Indo-Pacific, namely the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US), with the surprise signing of a major nuclear submarine deal among the fellow “maritime democracies.” The move heavily embittered relations with France, which warned of a “crisis of trust” with the U.S. after losing its own big-ticket submarine deal with Australia.

In its bid to forge a new military alliance against Beijing, Washington seemed less concerned with European allies’ sense of strategic betrayal over the AUKUS deal. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, overhauled the strategic landscape in Europe, especially as America became pivotal to North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) response to the crisis. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized how China continues to its primary strategic focus. 

All Eyes on China 

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has led the West to dub Russia a security threat,, but it has also raised concerns in Washington over any potential kinetic move made by China towards reunification with Taiwan. Moreover, the Biden administration is adamant that it’s China, rather than Russia, which poses the greatest challenge to American global supremacy. This line of thinking is crystal clear in both the newly-released National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) documents. 

In the NSS, Washington describes Beijing as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” The document, which represents the strategic doctrine of the Biden administration, characterizes China as a direct challenge to U.S. global leadership since the Asian powerhouse has  “ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific” as well as “becom[ing] the world’s leading power.” 

It's quite telling that the release of the NSS coincided with unprecedented semiconductor sanctions against Beijing amid an escalating technological war between the two superpowers. In response to the China challenge, the Biden administration has expressed its commitment to work in tandem with “our network of allies and partners.” 

The unclassified NDS recently released by the Pentagon echoes almost identical points. While Russia is characterized as an “acute threat” in the short-to-medium-run, the Pentagon considers China as a “pacing challenge,” since, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it, “the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order, and increasingly, the power to do so.” 

In the NDS, China is described as the “most consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades,” noting the Asian powerhouse’s growing conventional and asymmetric capabilities, including “the potential not just to change kinetic conflict, but also to disrupt day-to-day U.S. supply chain and logistics operations.” 

In response to the China challenge, the NDS has similarly emphasized the importance of not only enhancing America’s military capabilities but also working with like-minded powers and optimizing the pre-existing network of allies and strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific under an “integrated deterrence” strategy. In absence of a major diplomatic breakthrough between the U.S. and China, current trend lines suggest that the superpowers are ‘sleep walking’ toward a New Cold War, which is threatening decades of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

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