Recently, both U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke during the general debate at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, offering their insights on the key challenges and issues facing the world. For sure, both leaders’ speeches were well thought-out, providing their own visions of the international order.
President Biden made clear that “we are not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocks.” However, many observers believe the U.S. government is launching a de facto cold war by constantly stoking ideological rivalries so it can leverage hostilities to reshape U.S.-led military alliances and bring about soft decoupling in the areas of trade, economy and technology. According to Fareed Zakaria, a leading American commentator, U.S.-China relations have fallen into a "cold peace,” which may just be a euphemism for "new cold war.”
In his UN speech, President Xi said that “the world has entered a period of new turbulence and transformation,” which represents an important judgment by Chinese leadership on the international landscape, and suggests that China’s domestic and foreign policies will be adjusted accordingly. On one hand, China is accelerating the construction of a new development paradigm of “dual circulation,” placing more emphasis on achieving the goal of self-reliance in science and technology and emphasizing “safety in development.” The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced China to reckon with the vulnerability of its own economy. And the country is conscious of the somber prospect of the U.S. decoupling drive against China.
On the other hand, China has emphasized the need for genuine multilateralism as a way to counter the pressure from the U.S., which seeks to build an international front against China in a wide array of areas, including trade, technology, security and ideology. On many occasions this year, Xi has talked about the idea of genuine multilateralism, since any form of new cold war and ideological confrontation runs counter to the spirit of multilateralism and will not solve domestic problems for any country, let alone addressing the serious challenges facing all of humanity.
In response to the Biden administration’s call for a rules-based international order, Xi was clear:
“There is only one system in the world, and that is the international system with the United Nations at its core. There is only one order, and that is the international order based on international law. There is only one set of rules, and that is the basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”
Certainly, the Chinese side does not subscribe to the so-called rules-based international order promoted by the United States and sees the plain hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. government. In Beijing’s view, the U.S. will only abide by rules set by itself and its allies based on its intention to safeguard the U.S. position of strength. For example, the U.S. has not yet signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but it has projected itself as a champion of the convention.
What outrages many Chinese political elites is that the U.S. has been abusing the country’s democratic institutions so that it can get away with any wrongdoing that harms other countries and the international community. No U.S. president has been held accountable for it. Several cases make this point: The George W. Bush administration started the Iraq war based on false and fabricated intelligence and imposed a detrimental “democratic” transformation by force in Afghanistan. The Trump administration waged trade wars against other countries, arbitrarily withdrew from the Paris agreement — which is crucial to addressing the global climate crisis — and enforced inhumane immigration policies domestically.
Today, the Biden administration’s record of enforcing a rules-based international order is lackluster. While Biden surely recognizes that the Trump administration’s trade war was a mistake, it has been procrastinating its correction under the pretext of ongoing policy deliberations.
Free Trade for Americans, a coalition of U.S. businesses, recently urged the Biden administration to eliminate the tariff hikes on China because they raise costs for U.S. consumers, slow the growth of U.S. manufacturing and erode U.S. companies competitive edge overseas.
In addition to economic and trade policies, the Biden administration’s immigration policy has also been criticized. Recently, the U.S. envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned in protest of the Biden administration’s practice of repatriating Haitian immigrants to their country family origin, which he called inhumane. Haiti is in a shambles and dangerous, and many of the immigrants had been living elsewhere.
Another example of the Biden administration’s failure to abide by international rules is the formation of AUKUS, an alliance of Australia, the United Kingdom and United States, and the nuclear submarine deal with Australia. The alliance, primarily intended to increase military deterrence against China, is seen as another attempt by the U.S. to push for a new cold war. It is essentially an Anglo-Saxon alliance, replete with ethnic overtones.
The Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has already unsettled French President Emmanuel Macron. And AUKUS further infuriates France and drove French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to lambast the U.S. for stabbing France in the back. Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries also voiced opposition to Australia’s plan to build nuclear submarines, fearing that it will intensify the regional arms race and undermine the international nuclear nonproliferation system. However, these criticisms cut no ice, given the arrogance of power of the United States.
In addition, the Biden administration’s ideological snobbery in dealing with U.S.-China relations — an approach that emphasizes a “position of strength,” the “rivalry between democracy and authoritarianism” and the “arrogance of ideology” — is a source of great discontent for China. It is ironic that while there are tremendous flaws in the U.S. democratic system, the Biden administration has gone to great lengths to cobble together a “democratic coalition.” Yet the U.S. is fraught with economic inequality, political polarization and social divisions. A recent poll by the Fox News found that 54 percent of respondents believed the country is less united than ever under Biden’s leadership.
Still, the U.S. political elite indulge in what might be called democratic fundamentalism and regard China as an enemy of the so-called democracies. This is anachronistic and self-righteous. Biden vowed to address the issue of police violence under pressure by the Black Lives Matter movement, but negotiations have broken down along party lines for police reform. The U.S. democratic system seems to have lost its ability to drive necessary social change. Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker suggested that the system has been reduced to winner-take-all politics and plutocracy, or rule by the rich.
The stability of the international order is underpinned by the domestic stability of each country, and democratic fundamentalism will not solve the development challenges in the world. It will only lead to aggravated misunderstanding and confrontation and hinder efforts to address global issues such as climate change and food security.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the rhetoric of the Biden administration sounds like preparation for a new cold war, based on a long-standing tendency in U.S. foreign policy to use democratic ideals as a pretext to conceal the pursuit of U.S. interests.
President Xi Jinping put it this way:
“A world of peace and development should embrace civilizations of various forms and must accommodate diverse paths to modernization. Democracy is not a special right reserved to an individual country but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy. Recent developments in the global situation show once again that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entail nothing but harm.”
The Biden administration should listen and refrain from waging a relentless war against China as the U.S. exits its war in Afghanistan.