Matthew Pottinger is Institut Montaigne’s new Distinguished Visiting Fellow. He served in the White House for four years in senior positions on the National Security Council, including as Deputy National Security Advisor. He led work on the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the shift in China policy. Before his White House service, Pottinger spent some time in China as a reporter for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. He was then deployed as a US Marine to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2010.
In his first Institut Montaigne contribution, Pottinger focuses on the US approach to China, following the Biden administration’s China strategy. He examines this diplomatic engagement which aims to limit the Asian superpower’s increasingly aggressive actions. He calls on the US to act with urgency.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long-awaited speech on China last month confirmed a key American trend: the bipartisan focus on rivalry with Beijing is not a transient fixation but a new baseline that will guide US policy for years to come.
In his set-piece speech on 26 May, 2022, Secretary Blinken was unambiguous about Washington’s top national security challenge: "Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order - and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.... China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it".
Blinken underscored that Washington has given up trying to change China - effectively jettisoning a core objective of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama policies, which had been to liberalize China through trade and broad-based engagement. As Blinken said: "We do not seek to transform China’s political system. Our task is to prove once again that democracy can meet urgent challenges, create opportunity, advance human dignity; that the future belongs to those who believe in freedom and that all countries will be free to chart their own paths without coercion".
This dose of "realism", as Blinken called it, was in keeping with other authoritative statements by the Biden administration, including its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of March 2021 and Indo-Pacific Strategy of February 2022. Blinken’s language also echoed Trump-era documents such as the 2018 Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework, the 2020 White House Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.
That two consecutive US administrations, one Republican and one Democratic, have settled on similar China policies is a sign of a paradigm shift that will not easily change.
You may not be interested in the Cold War…
"We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War," Blinken asserted in his speech. "To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both".
The Biden team has understandable reasons, foreign and domestic, for insisting the West is not in a Cold War with China. Washington does not want to alienate partners by forcing them to choose sides. China’s economy today, unlike the Soviet Union’s during the 20th Century, is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world. More countries count China as their top trading partner than they do the United States. At home, the vocal left wing of the Democratic Party is consumed with a domestic social agenda and shows less interest in an ideological contest with Beijing than do centrist Democrats or most Republicans.
Listen closely to the themes of Biden and Blinken, however, and you’ll hear more in common with their forebears Harry Truman and Dean Acheson at the dawn of the first Cold War than with their more recent Democratic Party forerunners Barack Obama and John Kerry.
Biden has consistently framed the competition as one between authoritarianism and democracy. In the introduction to his initial strategic guidance document in March 2021, for example, he said the following:
"I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward.... We must prove that our model isn’t a relic of history; it’s the single best way to realizse the promise of our future".
Blinken echoed that theme in his speech and staked out additional differentiators between established democracies and Beijing, such as human rights - a term Blinken mentioned seven times in his speech. He cited Beijing’s "genocide and crimes against humanity" against ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities as something that delegitimizes Beijing’s frequent claim to be a responsible major power.
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