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A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping, clapping and smiling, with images surrounding him including the Chinese flag, tall urban buildings, and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meeting Taiwanese diplomats. Amanda Northrop/Vox

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Biden’s promise to defend Taiwan says a lot about America’s view of China

How Washington came to see China as an existential threat, explained.

Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

The US-China relationship has been deteriorating for years, only for tensions this month to reach new levels of hostility. Things may only get worse from here.

President Joe Biden told 60 Minutes in an interview that aired Sunday that the US would defend Taiwan should it be attacked by China. It was at least the fourth time he has broken with the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding its commitments to the democratic island that Beijing claims as its own — and, in the process, made explicit a new hawkish reality of how Washington sees China.

That follows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August. China responded by holding military exercises around the island that were among its most brazen expressions of militarism in recent memory. Lawmakers from both parties largely supported her trip even though experts say the timing was escalatory. This enthusiasm to openly support Taiwan reflects Washington’s new hawkish consensus on China — one so deep that many observers note that Biden’s approach to China looks a lot like his predecessor’s, former President Donald Trump.

Even as Washington appears divided along partisan lines over almost every area of policy, there is a consensus on China that Tufts international politics professor Daniel Drezner likened in 2019 to a new Red Scare: that, in essence, China poses an existential threat, not just economically, politically, and militarily, but also ideologically.

Massive investments in the US military — $7.1 billion in last year’s military budget alone, for a new Pacific deterrence bucket that was $2 billion above the roughly $5 billion Biden had requested — have become policymakers’ answer to growing Chinese aggression. The Biden administration has also revived US industrial policy to counter China’s tech production dominance. The loudest voices are the hawks, even as some scholars have pushed back against this, trying to avert a new Cold War.

“There is no real difference in the parties in how they see the threat from China right now,” former Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said in June.

Consensus around how China’s policies damage the US economically and threaten the US’s security dominance in Asia aren’t new, and several US presidents have recognized that Asia is the most important arena for US foreign policy.

But in the past decade, US policy toward China has transformed, going from President Barack Obama’s short-lived pivot to Asia — a policy that allowed room to engage China while prioritizing the Asia-Pacific region — to nationalistic and outright aggressive policy under Trump. Now, Biden has put forward a series of policies that are all about countering China. Washington’s all-in on great power competition.

The changes reflect each country’s new dynamics. China has militarized the South China Sea, invested big in the developing world, and pursued unfair state-driven trade and economic policies, all while cracking down internally on dissent. America has experienced its own shifts, with an increasingly nationalist, zero-sum Republican Party, the economy’s move away from manufacturing, and the declining of US primacy in global affairs as the country turned inward under Trump. Those factors have turned the most optimistic US policymakers of the Obama era into pessimists, resigned to intensive and lasting competition with China.

In response, a wave of scholars and former government officials are arguing that competition with China for competition’s sake is not much of a policy at all. They worry that what’s emerging is such a fatalistic view of competition with China that it will actually undermine not just America’s primacy in the world but also American values.

Biden, upon taking the presidency, had wanted to complete the pivot to Asia, perhaps with a different name. And while Russia’s war in Ukraine has thrown off foreign policy priorities, it has simultaneously reinforced the notion that great powers pose the biggest risk to the US. All of this is because the US is no longer — if it ever was — a superpower that can impose its will unilaterally in the world.

Whatever happened to Obama’s pivot to Asia

American foreign policy elites have recognized since the Cold War with Russia ended that the future was Asia.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, influential Republican political scientist Condoleezza Rice described China as a “strategic competitor,” and President George W. Bush may well have oriented his foreign policy toward competition with great powers. But the September 11, 2001, attacks altered US priorities. Bush’s war on terrorism led to the US pursuing large-scale military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that shaped more than a decade of foreign policy and took attention away from China, where an intensive state-driven economy was growing fast.

As president, Barack Obama and his team sought a “pivot to Asia,” an idea that his advisers popularized (and later called rebalancing). Much of this had to do with fixing global distribution of US power, which was overextended in the Middle East and South Asia. “We needed to rebalance that at a global level,” said Van Jackson, a scholar at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “The pivot was about reaffirming US presence in the region, in recognition that we played a basically stabilizing role for regional security in Asia — and we played a basically destabilizing role in regional security in the Middle East.”

Obama and Xi walk along a smooth grass lawn with trees and landscaped rocks in the background. Obama wears khaki pants and a blue collared shirt with the sleeves partly rolled up, while Xi wears navy slacks and a white collared shirt. Both are jacketless and tieless.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 8, 2013.
Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

During the Obama administration, this involved deepening partnerships with Australia, Japan, India, and South Korea, among other countries in the region, and investing diplomatic weight into multilateral organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Developing the trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership was also central to Obama’s policy. (Trump withdrew from it in 2017.) And even as Obama built those multinational organizations to counterbalance China’s power, his policy left room for engaging China on issues like climate change.

As the US sought to reaffirm its leadership in the Asian continent, it faced a rising China that had grown skeptical of American power. The 2008 financial crisis had blighted America’s prestige as the world’s economic gatekeeper and enforcer, with the US-run system of banking and investments seeming less and less stable. It also led to a rise of economic nationalism throughout the globe. In the United States, many Americans developed an anti-China sentiment rooted in grievances related to the country taking US manufacturing jobs. And in some ways, the global economy never really recovered.

From this, “the Chinese leadership already makes the judgment and assessment that the US, and the Western world, was in terminal decline,” Ho-Fung Hung, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me.

Obama’s engagement met with recalcitrance from Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader was growing increasingly authoritarian and autocratic, and he started to probe the limits of US power. Some of China’s actions tested the US commitment toward “strategic ambiguity,” as to whether the US would protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack; others were more gradual shifts, like the Chinese military’s adoption of a more assertive, triumphalist narrative as it pursued anti-satellite missile tests. Xi started the global Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar plan to connect Europe, Asia, and Africa through Chinese investments in infrastructure, an assertion of China’s economic dominance in the developing world.

Most anger-inducing for Obama’s team, though, was China’s militarization of artificial islands it built in the South China Sea, an internationally contested area, after Xi had pledged not to.

All these forms of Chinese aggression began to shape how US elites saw China. And Chinese leadership was already very skeptical of US power.

From Xi’s perspective, says Jackson, “America is pursuing this thing called the pivot to Asia that looks like an encirclement strategy against China.”

It’s worth noting, too, that the CIA had infiltrated the Chinese government, and though more than 20 US agents in China had been killed by 2012, it also created a sense of paranoia among Beijing’s decision-makers.

“In Chinese policymaking, there’s no doubt that the United States is the enemy. The US is perceived as the single largest national security threat for China,” says Yun Sun, a researcher at the Stimson Center.

Over just a couple of years, both Beijing and Washington grew increasingly suspicious of each other. Some US officials, like Kurt Campbell, who was close to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when he served as assistant secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific from 2009 to 2013, still thought engagement was the best option to avert a cold war with China, as he wrote in his 2016 memoir The Pivot. But relations steadily worsened between the two countries.

Assistant Secretary Of State Kurt Campbell speaks at a wooden podium in front of a massive mural of the US presidential seal.
Then-Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell speaking at the US Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, in 2009.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

The worst-case scenario Campbell predicted then feels a lot like what analysts describe as the situation today: “An unsuccessful approach might well lead to a new arms race with China, regional conflict, strategic competition, a breakdown of global governance, and even war.”

How we got to great power competition

In foreign policy, slogans can be important. In the final years of Obama’s second term, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his deputy Robert Work popularized the idea of great power competition — that China had become a rival to the US. The next global conflict would not be against non-state actors, like the terrorist group al-Qaeda of the past era, but rather a massive country that has an economy perhaps bigger than the US’s and has kept pace with, or even exceeded in some arenas, the US’s advanced military technologies.

At the time, Jackson was doing policy work at the Defense Department. “Starting in 2015, great power competition was the bumper-sticker framework that we were operating within in the Pentagon,” he told me. “But the White House didn’t like that, for very obvious reasons. It went against the spirit of detente. It went against the policy of engage and hedge — it was kind of like the opposite of engage.” At one point, the White House told the Navy to stop talking about great power competition, in part because it presupposed conflict with China.

But the bumper sticker had already taken off, and soon the think tank community in Washington started to rally around it as the emerging central organizing idea of US foreign policy.

As Trump came to office in 2017, he doubled down on hawkishness toward China. He started a trade war by placing major tariffs on Chinese companies, and the Trump administration became more aggressive militarily and politically. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon pushed for economic nationalism that broke with previous administrations, and Trump often spoke about China as an existential threat. His bigoted rhetoric on the Covid-19 pandemic further accelerated animosity between the two countries, as China came to view the US under Trump as dangerous and unstable.

But for all that Democrats criticized Trump’s trade war as reckless and ineffective early on, many of the party’s foreign policy elites came to embrace the underlying premise that the US needed to be tougher on China.

Trump’s top China adviser, Matt Pottinger, was a former Marine intelligence officer who had worked as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing. He wrote key parts of the National Security Strategy, the guiding document for the White House’s foreign policy. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, it was overtly centered on countering great powers. Pottinger was one of the longest-serving Trump administration officials and arguably one of the most influential; his policies have already outlasted Trump. He was welcomed back into the establishment fold in Washington in large part because so many in Washington and world capitals agreed wholeheartedly with his hostility to China.

“I’m also very proud of President Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments. We were able to finally compete with China,” Pottinger said during his testimony in July to the House January 6 committee. (Never mind that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had seemed to threaten regime change against the Chinese Communist Party, and that due to Trump’s trade war with China conflict seems ever more likely.)

That idea of competition with China is central to the Biden administration’s worldview now, too.

Perhaps it’s because aspects of that competitive approach were first fielded by the Obama team, who in 2021 would become the Biden team. Biden’s leading China advisers advanced some of these hawkish ideas in the off-season. Campbell, with fellow Obama alumnus Ely Ratner, wrote a 2018 article in Foreign Affairs in which they sought to rethink some of their core assumptions about US policy toward China — especially questioning the idea that globalized capital would liberalize China. “Getting this challenge right will require doing away with the hopeful thinking that has long characterized the United States’ approach to China,” they wrote.

A year later, Campbell and Jake Sullivan, another senior Obama official, argued that “competition without catastrophe” was possible by taking some of the less bellicose aspects of Trump’s policy, deepening cooperation with allies in countering China, and avoiding Cold War logic.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, right, speaks as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on at the opening session of US-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Now Sullivan is the national security adviser and perhaps the most influential China strategist in Biden’s orbit, Campbell is the White House’s top Asia official, and Ratner is the Pentagon’s.

Both Democrats and Republicans, Campbell and Pottinger, want to get tough on China. “I don’t think that they see it differently, necessarily. They’re both versions of liberal internationalist hawks,” Jackson, author of the forthcoming Pacific Power Paradox, told me. “They both believe in American primacy as a public good, and they both downplay the risks of American primacy.”

The Democrats’ Asia policy in 2022 looks like the Republicans’ policy, just with less inflammatory rhetoric and leaving open some avenues for cooperation. In other words, the difference between each party’s approach is not whether to get tough with China, but how.

“We came into office intent on putting guardrails on the relationship, trying to find ways so we don’t let the disputes between us spiral into something more worrisome, but then at the same time, keeping it open for us to be able to cooperate with China on areas of mutual interest,” Derek Chollet, a senior State Department official, told me.

For Biden’s team, the priorities include investing in US education, science, and technology to strengthen US institutions in the competition, while Trump was more aggressive in trade wars and posturing. Allies and partners, too, are key to Biden’s approach. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked about the region’s relevance in August when visiting the Philippines, he used it as a chance to discuss a commitment to working with allies and partners: “If we’re not working together, there’s no way that we solve these challenges and that we actually seize the opportunities.” (Trump, for his part, was not big on working with allies.)

Yet the shades of gray may be significant. As Sun put it, “Matt Pottinger is more focused on confronting an evil regime, while Kurt Campbell is more focused on competing with that regime.”

Part of the hawkishness, many experts emphasized, comes from the reactiveness on the Chinese side. “Any reasonable, rational politician will recognize the level of threat that China poses to the United States, and it’s unprecedented. So if you ask me where the bipartisan consensus comes from, well, it comes from the fact that China is a threat,” said Sun.

And though there is agreement in Washington on China’s threat, there isn’t on how to win, or what winning would even mean.

Getting out of the “China trap”

The US-China relationship will be fraught for the foreseeable future. But, as Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, explains, “Ideology, putting that in the forefront, tends to create rigidity in the relationship as opposed to seeking creative solutions.” It’s in this context that several scholars and practitioners have been pushing for policymakers to more clearly define US goals.

Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, 2015
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping share a toast during a state luncheon held for China in 2015.
Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images
A screen capture from a video meeting is captioned in Chinese and English, reading “Virtual Meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden,” over side-by-side screens of Biden and Xi. Each is waving to the camera with a smile and each has one American and one Chinese flag flanking them as they sit at desks.
Xi meets with President Joe Biden via video in Beijing, China, on November 16, 2021.
Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via Getty Images

Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor at Cornell who just spent a year in the State Department, argues in a new Foreign Affairs essay that the US may fall into a “China trap” if it pursues competition without its own vision for the world. “When individuals feel the need to out-hawk one another to protect themselves and advance professionally, the result is groupthink,” she wrote.

That’s a similar thesis to the one Ali Wyne, an expert at the Eurasia Group consultancy, puts forward in his new book America’s Great-Power Opportunity: that competition can’t be an end in and of itself, and that the US needs affirmative policies. Those might include global economic initiatives that go beyond just reacting to the Belt and Road Initiative and perpetuate fair trade to the benefit of workers worldwide, US leadership on human rights, and ambitious new approaches to the climate crisis.

One even narrower goal might be simply avoiding a hot conflict with China, as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urges in his book The Avoidable War, writing that the US and China need to establish guardrails to avoid all-out war, as the US and Soviet Union did after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

These ideas — calling for new forms of engagement, a resetting of terms, and a re-assessment of how we got to the great power competition moment — seem to be in direct response to the most aggressive ideas circulating by former Trump officials, including Pottinger and former defense official Elbridge Colby. They both assume the inevitability of a war with China.

Blinken, for his part, delivered a speech in May that outlined an “invest, align, compete” approach with China. Former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell read the speech four times and was underwhelmed. “I don’t see a strategy,” he said recently. “A strategy has to start with what your objectives are — I can’t find that anywhere.”

From the Biden administration’s perspective, the blame for the tense relationship — and Washington’s bipartisan hawkishness — rests on China. “In China’s overreaction to Nancy Pelosi’s visit, they cut off all dialogue, including dialogues on climate change, which we think is not only self-defeating for them, but it’s also just not in the interest of the world,” Chollet said.

Still, former US policymakers want a reassessment from within. “We are still hooked on committing to the policies of the last administration, and have employed too little of the flexibility that we might be able to deploy in dealing with China,” Tom Pickering, a retired career ambassador, told me.

When Biden visited South Korea and Japan in May, he unveiled a new economic framework to bolster cooperation with Asian partners. The military and the National Security Council are still drafting their own documents that will chart their approaches. What’s still missing: a bigger strategy.

“Now we’ve slid more in the hawkish direction, but this is part of my concern,” Michael Mazarr, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation, told me. “We’re kind of reflexively more confrontational with China, without a clear underlying concept of how we expect to get what we want out of the relationship — and protect the interests that we think are most important.”

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