China and the U.S. Are Talking Tough. Don’t Believe (Most of) It.

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Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty

Last week the Chinese Communist Party threw a party for itself. It celebrated 100 years since its founding. It characterized itself as the “savior” of China, the authors of the country’s current greatness. And yet, for all the over-the-top nationalism, you might well conclude much of the hoopla was for the benefit of a foreign audience, an American audience in particular.

For all the fluttering red flags and carefully orchestrated salutes to the country from Chinese astronauts in outer space, the centerpiece of the celebrations was a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi enumerated the party’s accomplishments and laid out key goals, like ultimately reclaiming Taiwan, but the international headlines were made when Xi said, “We will not accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us. We have never bullied, oppressed or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.” (Give him credit here. The people who have been bullied, oppressed, and subjugated by the Chinese communists have been their own citizens.)

“By the same token,” he went on, “we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate [China]. Anyone who tries will find them on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people.” (Autocrats and their walls, am I right?)

Xi’s words were clearly meant for the United States, a country that despite a dysfunctional, divided political system currently is home to deep, bipartisan unease about the rise of China. During Joe Biden’s recent European trip, he made aligning other Western nations to stand up to Chinese threats to the international system one of his top priorities. During his first speech to a joint session of Congress, Biden made it clear he saw the competition with China as the central international challenge of our time. This was a view explicitly echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his first major policy address.

Biden’s Speech to America Was All About Our Contest With China

If you listened to the rhetoric of the leaders of both countries you would think we were on the verge of a new bipolar divide in the world. Us vs. them. A Manichean contest between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. But while both Xi and Biden no doubt believed their strong words about the threat posed by the other, the reality of the relationship is much more nuanced than the rhetoric that makes its way into your Twitter feed.

For example, although the Biden administration, to its disadvantage, does not have an ambassador in Beijing at the moment, it does have an Asia Czar in the White House in the person of Kurt Campbell. Sometimes characterized as a China hawk, he is more accurately described as a realist who has argued that engagement with China did not succeed in coaxing that country toward embracing international norms. Since taking office, Campbell has reiterated a point he made earlier in a Foreign Affairs article co-authored in 2019 with current National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, that the U.S. must prepare for a period of protracted competition with China. They warned against falling into the trap of seeking to replay the Cold War with our new rival. Instead, Campbell and Sullivan argued that the goal of U.S. policy should be to “establish favorable terms of co-existence with Beijing in four key competitive domains—military, economic, political, and global governance.”

Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ Architect Will Be Biden’s China Troubleshooter

This tough, clear-eyed, and balanced approach, defined by Secretary of State Blinken in a speech on March 3 of this year, “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.”

Early Biden administration policy moves have sought to establish parameters within the relationship. This has led to Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, and Campbell not only reiterating the core principles of their new policies but demonstrating that they will be tough when they need to be.

That has produced not only sharp rhetoric and even testy exchanges between leaders at the first encounters but also a focus on competition and containment at every level. Working with the Quad group of countries—an informal alliance consisting of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia that has as its primary strategic focus counterbalancing China—has been prioritized. The threat posed by China has been cited in testimony before Congress by all of America’s top national security leaders as being a paramount focus. The U.S. has sought to engage more, notably on the trade front, with Taiwan, an independent nation since the PRC’s founding over which Beijing has nonetheless continued to assert its sovereignty. Economic policies are justified by saying they make the U.S. more competitive with China. Security investments from cyber to new weapons systems are all justified as necessary to maintain pace with the Chinese.

That said, Biden and his team and Xi and his know that the last thing either country needs is direct conflict with the other. It would be economically disastrous for the two deeply interlinked economies, and a costly distraction from their greater priorities. Nonetheless, Biden and his team and Xi and his also know that the appearance of a competitive threat is helpful to them and motivation for their respective countries to continue to invest in growth, defense and the future.

In fact, unlike the zero-sum game of Cold War rivalry, these two competitors need each other every bit as much as they may also threaten each other—both as partners and, paradoxically, as rivals.

That is in part why the experienced team in charge of Biden foreign policy very deliberately uses the language of competition rather than conflict. They understand that at no time in its history has China had the global domination ambitions of the former Soviet Union. They know China has from time to time had conflicts around its periphery, it has no history of aggressively projecting its military power in far away lands. Even today as China builds up its so-called “blue water” navy, it is primarily to protect trade flows with the rest of the world on which it depends. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is not a plan to conquer the world, it is an effort to make up for real resource shortages within China and to grow its economy fast enough to maintain stability at home.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party at 100 has one goal and that is to maintain its power within China. Under Xi, it has done so using both brutality—with the Uighurs and in violation of the rights promised to the citizens of Hong Kong—and economic diplomacy worldwide. In that respect, its goals echo those of the Biden administration. The primary purpose of its foreign policy is to be just tough enough to reduce the likelihood of international problems that might distract it from its central domestic agenda. And in the case of China, it is to invoke that country’s growth and the competitive threat it poses whenever it can help support that domestic agenda—whether that means investment in infrastructure, research and development, green technologies in which China is now a leader or the military.

The bellicosity and braggadocio of the Chinese Communist Party celebrations masks the leadership’s real insecurities about its economy and its ability to maintain control over 1.4 billion citizens of the internet age. The tough-guy stance of the U.S. masks its mutual recognition of their interdependence. Indeed, contrary to what hawks in either country may say, the two countries may be more essential to each other’s future growth than they are threats to each other’s survival.

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