IAN BREMMER: US faces crossroads of cold war or co-operation over China
White House reviews policies towards Beijing and requests proposals on where to go from here
From climate change to pandemic response to Middle East relations, US President Joe Biden has fundamentally different policy priorities than his predecessor. But there is one policy point Biden and Donald Trump strongly agree on — China is the only true geopolitical rival that can threaten the US’s perch atop the global order.
This is a view shared throughout all levels of the Biden administration. To that end, the White House has commenced a “strategic review” of US-China relations, asking key administration officials to review US policies towards China and put forth proposals on where they need to go from here. Three distinct approaches have begun taking shape.
The first approach is containment, championed by more hawkish elements within the White House and the national security establishment. This group believes that a cold war with China is unavoidable given just how many zero-sum issue there are between the two countries, including but not limited to: the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Uighurs, and most crucially, technology.
In all these areas, China’s growing assertiveness comes at the expense of the West’s — and particularly the US’ — influence. This is a particular concern regarding 5G and semiconductors, the bedrocks of the next global economy. Under this view, it is critical for the US to meet China toe-to-toe in all aspects of great power competition.
While the Trump approach could also be described as “hawkish”, there are key differences between Biden’s version of containment and Trump’s. Team Biden wants to tackle the Chinese threat in co-ordination with allies instead of unilaterally. Second, Biden won’t just focus on hitting China with a stick, he will also do more to invest in US innovation.
Underpinning this approach is the belief that it won’t be aggressive actions from the US or its allies that brings Beijing to its knees, but rather China’s own policies of state-capitalism and authoritarianism, which they view as unsustainable over the long run given huge Chinese debt and continued risky investments into developing countries.
The second option is one of interdependence, primarily being pushed by the economic policymakers in the Biden administration. For them, no-one really wins if the fight between the US and China devolves to the point where it fundamentally threatens global economic and financial architecture. Rather than lumber into a cold war, they want to constructively engage with the Chinese using existing multilateral architecture, reforming it to accommodate China where possible and creating new institutions where necessary to get China to act more multilaterally.
They are fine letting China expand its footprint abroad through investment programmes such as Belt and Road — while the highways and other infrastructure projects being built are not as high-quality as they would like, they recognise that China is helping lift the living standards of people worldwide. This is more a positive-sum view of the world — where everybody can gain through competition — which is not surprising from people who studied economics.
Then there is the wild card option being spearheaded by Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry and those in the administration who view climate change as the greatest single threat to the US, China included. Rather than pursue a policy of either containment or interdependence, they want the US-China relationship to be in service to the fight against global warming, a battle which needs to include China, the world’s largest emitter.
It helps that Kerry has a good working relationship with Chinese officials, but of all these possible paths, this is the one least fully formed. That’s a feature, not a bug; for supporters of this approach, the US-China relationship will evolve with the way the climate change threat evolves.
Which approach will Biden choose? Knowing the consensus-building Biden, it will likely be some combination of all three as Biden tries to empower his administration officials while also making progress on as many objectives as possible over the next few years.
That makes sense over the short term; but without a comprehensive strategy, the US will still be left facing a China with a fundamentally different set of values and standards, and with increasing means to export its own worldview abroad.
A strategic review of US-China relations is the absolute right step for policymakers in Washington; the real concern is what Washington does with it after its completed.
• Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.
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