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America’s Three-Word Attack on China

Nov 10, 2022
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

The Biden administration in the United States recently released its National Security Strategy, which outlines adjustments toward China in recent years and proposes a road map for comprehensively “out-competing” it. The release of this report marks the completion of a long process of transformation.

After Donald Trump won the White House, he announced that the world had entered an era of strategic competition among great powers, and that China had changed from a partner to a competitor. He shifted U.S. policy toward China from engagement and cooperation to competition and confrontation.

U.S. President Joe Biden has continued the Trump administration’s positioning and basic policy toward China. However, the current report makes a distinction between two major adversaries — China and Russia —which are said to pose different challenges. According to the report, Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine poses a direct threat to the international system. China, by contrast, poses “serious long-term challenges” and “is the only competitor with both the intent and power to reshape the international order.”

In other words, in the eyes of the United States, Russia’s challenges are relatively minor, while China presents serious problems. The report says: “We will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia.”

To implement its position on China, the Biden administration continues to focus on the Indo-Pacific region as the top priority in its global strategy. In fact, as early as the beginning of President George W. Bush’s presidency, the U.S. planned to shift its strategic focus eastward, but it was diverted by the Sept. 11 attacks and focused its global strategy on international counter-terrorism. The subsequent color revolutions in the Middle East and the financial crisis that began in America and swept the world left the U.S. with no time to adjust its strategic priorities.

Times are different now. The outbreak of war in Ukraine has not stopped the U.S. from shifting its strategic focus eastward. While supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Russia, the U.S. has not wavered in its goal of shifting its strategic center and has strengthened its resource allocation in the Indo-Pacific region by reinforcing the Five Eyes alliance, peddling the Quad, piecing together AUKUS and tightening bilateral military alliances. It has created a position aimed at blocking and confronting China — and maintaining U.S. hegemony — at the cost of the overall and long-term interests of the region and other countries.

Explaining how to out-compete China, the report adopts a three-word approach — invest, align and compete.

By “invest,” it means strengthening domestic infrastructure development, promoting scientific and technological development and solidifying domestic democracy. In short, it proposes to handle domestic affairs well and strengthen the foundations of the country so that it is able to effectively compete with China. In a sense, this move is a step forward from the Trump administration’s China policy.

The word “align” reveals the biggest difference between the two administrations, Democratic and Republican. During Trump’s tenure, U.S. relations with its allies hit their lowest point since World War II. The allies generally came to believe that the U.S. was unreliable, and they distanced themselves from it. The Biden administration, has worked to repair relations with U.S. allies since taking office. Its moves include rejoining international institutions, shelving a 17-year-old lawsuit with European allies over subsidies for civilian airliners and resolving disputes over steel and aluminum tariffs.

After Biden’s campaigns of conciliatory maneuvering, the relationships with the United States now have improved dramatically beyond those under Trump — especially the U.S.-Europe and U.S.-Japan alliances. As a result of U.S. deceptions, its allies are moving closer to it on issues such as human rights, the Taiwan question and reducing dependence on China.

Pulling allies together to besiege China is the biggest card played so far by the Biden administration in its policy toward China. It is also the area with the largest policy adjustment.

Of course, this is not to say there is no conflict between the U.S. and its allies, that the latter are willing to play a subordinate role nor that China has no room to maneuver. This is best evidenced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China and the threat of retaliatory measures by France and Germany to counter the subsidies provided by the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act for electric vehicles.

As for the term “compete,” the National Security Strategy provides a full range of dimensions, including political, economic, military and technological domains. Politically, the U.S. upholds a Cold War mentality and zero-sum philosophy, and it has been making accusations while speculating on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, blatantly interfering in China’s internal affairs and seriously undermining its national sovereign interests.

Economically, under the pretext of combating “predatory international economic practices,” the U.S. has continued its trade war with China, imposing high tariffs on imported Chinese goods, lengthening the list of unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies, expanding the mandate of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), curtailing Chinese investment in the U.S. and tightening the transfer of U.S. civilian technology to China.

Militarily, U.S. ships and aircraft continue to conduct extensive and frequent close reconnaissance of Chinese territory, exerting provocative pressure. The U.S. has prioritized military assistance and increases in arms exports to allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, such as air and missile defense systems; anti-ship cruise missiles; ground-attack cruise missiles; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; and command and control systems.

In terms of science and technology, the U.S. has generalized the concept of “national security” to besiege China, especially in the areas of 5G technology and semiconductor technology. For example, the U.S. formed a four-way chip alliance to exclude China from the global chip supply chain. It barred chip manufacturing giants from exporting advanced supercomputing and intelligent computing chips to China, prohibited the sale of advanced semiconductor and chip manufacturing equipment to China and blocked Americans from helping China develop chip technology in a vain attempt to undercut China’s development of its own digital economy.

The three-word approach to China expressed in the NSS is in line with the “cooperation, competition, confrontation” policy laid down at the beginning of the Biden administration. The former is a just a summary, review and refinement of the latter.

This approach to China constitutes an organic whole, and the three words are simultaneously the cause and effect of each other. “Invest” is the strength and basis of “compete,” while “align” creates various blocs that exclude China in order to shape a strategic environment to encircle and suppress it. “Compete” is meant to create a viciously combative environment, rather than healthy competition, with the aim of racing to the bottom and blocking the momentum of China’s development. Out-competing China is aimed at perpetuating American hegemony.

In addition, the NSS report mentions “cooperation” in areas where the two countries share the same interests, such as climate change, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and combating illegal narcotics. However, cooperation is not a major element and is not included in the three-word U.S. approach to China. The U.S. tends to say one thing and do another when it comes to cooperation, which has no practical significance in the development of relations between the two countries but is merely an embellishment of the report.

The report also sets a timeline with regard to strategic competition. It says that the world is at a turning point and that the next decade will be “decisive.” The Biden administration stresses that the success of this “decisive decade” will depend on whether the three-word approach to China can move from concept to reality. The report concludes with the couplet “There is no time to waste,” which reinforces a sense of urgency and reveals the strategic ambition of the United States to seize the moment.

To sum up, the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy fully discloses the purposes, measures, paths and timetable behind U.S. policy toward China. China must remain calm and resolute and counterattack to completely thwart the U.S. attempt to block its development momentum as it moves toward the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

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