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The New China Baseline: Washington Warms Up to Beijing’s Cold War

The New China Baseline: Washington Warms Up to Beijing’s Cold War
 Matthew Pottinger
Distinguished Visiting Fellow

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.

The real common denominator between all nations that feel uneasy with China’s rise is something else Blinken riffed on in last month’s speech: the concept of "national sovereignty".

But the real common denominator between all nations that feel uneasy with China’s rise is something else Blinken riffed on in last month’s speech: the concept of "national sovereignty". US leaders have long recognised that certain governments that aren't paragons of democracy and human rights – the monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the Vietnamese Communist Party, for example - are nonetheless important partners. Countries that may not be free at home still want to be free from coercion from abroad. Hence the standing ovation President Donald Trump received in Danang, Vietnam, when he spoke in 2017 of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" as "a beautiful constellation of nations, each its own bright star, satellites to none".

Blinken put it this way: "The United States shares the vision that countries and people across the region hold: one of a free and open Indo-Pacific where rules are developed transparently and applied fairly; where countries are free to make their own sovereign decisions".

Blinken mentioned the words "sovereign" or "sovereignty" nine times in his address.

Nowhere in the speech, or elsewhere in the Biden Administration’s lexicon, do we hear the Cold War term "containment". But the perfume of that concept seems to hover invisibly around US policymaking.

As one senior American official explained in a briefing to preview Blinken’s speech, US policy is focused on "constraining Beijing’s ability to engage in coercive practices", and Washington seeks to work with allies to "leverage our collective strength" and "close off vulnerabilities that China is able to exploit". Blinken put it in these terms in his address: "[W]e cannot rely on Beijing to change its trajectory. So we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system".

If that’s not "containment", it must be a close cousin. Call it "constrainment".

… but the Cold War is interested in you

Beijing similarly decries, and often accuses Washington of a "Cold War mentality". Yet Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping effectively declared a Cold War against the West in his January 2013 speech to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The speech – Xi’s inaugural address, in effect – was kept secret for six years.

"Some people think that communism can be aspired to but never reached, or even think that it cannot be hoped for, cannot be envisioned, and is a complete illusion... Facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engels’ analysis of the basic contradiction of capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism will inevitably perish and socialism will inevitably triumph. This is the irreversible overall trend of social and historical development, but the road is winding. The ultimate demise of capitalism, and ultimate triumph of socialism, will inevitably be a long historical process".

Other internal-facing speeches by Xi since then, as well as official documentaries, textbooks, and study guides, are even more explicit.

Presiding over a 200th birthday celebration for Karl Marx in Beijing in 2018 - an event surrounded by weeks of propaganda positioning Xi as the rightful heir to Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao – Xi called the bushy-bearded German theorist "the greatest thinker in human history" and said of him: "Karl Marx dedicated his entire life to overthrowing the old world and establishing a new world.... Marxism is not bookish learning but was founded in order to change the people’s historical destiny".

Beijing similarly decries, and often accuses Washington of a "Cold War mentality".

The phrasing echoed a major foreign policy initiative of Beijing’s called "A Community of Common Destiny for All Mankind". Xi equated his initiative with a Marxist vision of a stateless, integrated world: "Just like Marx, we must struggle for communism our entire lives.... Marx's science revealed the inevitable trend of human society to ultimately move toward communism.... The integrated world is there, and whoever rejects this world will also be rejected by this world.... We must work together with the people of every country to establish the Community of Common Destiny for All Mankind".

Xi said the Chinese Communist Party will "lead this age". Ian Easton, a Washington-based scholar who scours official Chinese-language documents for insight, discovered recent People's Liberation Army (PLA) textbooks that expand on Xi's objective of global communism. The textbooks, published by the National Defense University for training senior military officers, are meant for internal consumption only and are self-described guides to Xi Jinping Thought, as Xi's ideology is now officially known. 

The more one studies Xi's own rhetoric, the clearer it becomes that while the West may struggle with the Cold War analogy.

Passages from the textbooks, quoted in Easton’s new book The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy, state explicitly that toppling the post-World War II American-led order is only part of Xi's plan. According to the PLA textbooks, Xi also seeks to end the concept of a balance of power between equal and sovereign states that emerged from Europe's Treaties of Westphalia four centuries ago - a cornerstone of diplomatic relations in the modern era.

The military textbook Strategic Support for Achieving the Great Chinese Rejuvenation explains it this way: "The Westphalian System was founded on the notion of a balance of power. But it has proven unable to achieve a stable world order. All mankind needs a new order that surpasses and supplants the balance of power. Today, the age in which a few strong Western powers could work together to decide world affairs is already gone and will not come back. A new world order is now under construction that will surpass and supplant the Westphalian System".

The book makes it understood that the Chinese Communist Party will sit at the pinnacle of this new world order. The culminating chapter of the book also quotes Xi saying "… our struggle and contest for power with the West is irreconcilable, and, therefore, will inevitably be long, complex, and at times extremely sharp". 

The more one studies Xi's own rhetoric, the clearer it becomes that while the West may struggle with the Cold War analogy, the protagonist of this story, Xi (as well as his Russian junior partner Vladimir Putin), is in no doubt. 

"Body" lags behind "soul"

While the "soul" of US policy now consistently emphasizes rivalry with Beijing, the "body" has yet to fully follow. The Biden administration has energetically pursued diplomatic initiatives focused on the competition, such as the creation of an U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, the convening of four summits by the “Quad” (Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Canberra), and last year’s establishment of "AUKUS" - a defense-related initiative between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

But concrete actions to impede the flow of American capital and technology to China's military-industrial complex are largely missing. There are a range of tools fashioned by the Trump Administration that the Biden Administration has endorsed on paper, such as a Treasury Department-led investment blacklist and Commerce Department export controls on semiconductor technology. Biden's team has also promised a much-needed regulatory regime for restricting cross-border data flows. But all these measures have yet to be meaningfully used or expanded.

While the "soul" of US policy now consistently emphasizes rivalry with Beijing, the "body" has yet to fully follow. 

The Treasury Department recently even watered down restrictions on U.S. ownership in Chinese companies that aid the PLA’s military modernisation. 

Policy contradictions show signs of metastasizing elsewhere. President Biden last year signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which goes into effect later this month and gives the administration powerful authorities to halt the import of goods produced by Chinese forced labor. Yet the administration also just issued waivers for the import of solar panels that probably contain components made by Uyghur slaves - so long as the finished goods are assembled in third countries. 

These inconsistencies speak to a weakness of will that episodically also dogged the Trump Administration's China policy, but largely evaporated in that administration's final year, which was marked by scores of hard-nosed measures that President Trump approved against Beijing. Waiting until the last year of Biden's term, rather than acting now, would squander the sense of urgency that Blinken spoke of in his speech last month:"President Biden believes this decade will be decisive. The actions that we take at home and with countries worldwide will determine whether our shared vision of the future will be realized".

One hopes that leaders in the United States - and Europe, too - find the courage to act on their newfound convictions. 



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