No matter what Russia does in Ukraine, the threat from China is still Joe Biden’s priority – he has made it clear. What he hesitates to broadcast, however, is that America is approaching the China duel with one arm tied behind its back. The United States is happy to increase its military budget, send more ships to the South China Sea and launch nuclear submarine agreements with Australia. But the idea of taking serious economic initiatives with the world’s most dynamic region disappears.
The sharp imbalance in Biden’s China policy will be evident this week when he visits South Korea and Japan. It follows Biden’s summit last week with ASEAN leaders, the Southeast Asian group, where the United States announced a modest fund of $ 150 million for maritime security, clean energy and anti-corruption initiatives. This nougat wish list equates to a few days of Chinese investment in their Belt and Road Initiative – or about two hours of Pentagon spending.
The asymmetry in Biden’s China policy increases the danger of what everyone fears – a conflict with China. A superpower that is happy to discuss military aid and weapons, but reluctant to talk about trade and investment, tells both partners and enemies that it only speaks one language. This makes it more likely that a focus on military alliances will drive out other forms of diplomacy with some chance of reducing tensions between the United States and China. The most obvious of these would be a summit between Biden and Xi Jinping, which is not on the horizon.
The war in Ukraine has sharpened the rhetorical imbalance in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Prior to Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Japan would still have been keen to explore a way to revive US membership of CPTPP – the renamed Trans-Pacific Partnership that the United States left under Donald Trump. Instead, given Putin’s saber-rattling, Japan seriously discusses whether it should become a nuclear power. North Korea is threatening to carry out a nuclear test while Biden is in the region, which means that the same conversation is also taking place in South Korea. Biden will have to reassure both allies that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is still enough. China’s wolf warrior diplomacy makes his job harder.
Biden’s China containment strategy carries two risks. The first is that it is unlikely to work. In the last three months have The United States has shown it can quickly decouple a large economy – Russia’s – from the global system. This is an amazing demonstration of power that has made even friends, such as India, think of ways to secure themselves against the extraterritorial anger of the United States. America’s willingness to use the dollar to punish criminals is matched only by its shyness to give its Asian partners what they most want – access to the American market. The bite has recently been launched Indo-Pacific economic framework is certainly better than nothing, but it excludes market access. The US Treasury Department is now talking about “friend-shoring” – limiting global supply chains to friendly networks. But it is unclear how the United States defines “friends.” It is disturbing to most of America’s Asian partners, few of whom are democracies.
The world is also in doubt about what America means by “decoupling” from China. Decoupling has been included in the Washington encyclopedia, but the Biden administration has not come close to defining its scope. In the maximum version, it would mean a split in the global economy, which would force US partners to choose between the US and China. Not even Taiwan, whose prosperity is built on integration with China, wants to have to make that choice. An effective U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy would let partners handle both, but balance China by increasing U.S. trade and investment. IPEF’s commitment to common digital standards and clean energy assistance is no substitute.
The second risk is that Biden’s military-dominated China strategy may become self-fulfilling. All of this can be explained in the context of American politics. America bet on it China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 would lead to China’s compliance with global economic rules and even its eventual democratization. The movement was an act of faith rather than calculation. Biden is now riding on the backlash, which says trade with China will strengthen Xi’s autocracy: the opposite of the view it replaced. Both theories are simplistic. But the latest is geopolitically dangerous.
The world is neither a zero-sum game, as today’s fashion does, nor is it a positive sum, as the consensus in Washington once thought. The world is what its leading actors choose to be by their actions. It would be strange if Biden, of all people, were to place most of America’s chips on the Pentagon.