WASHINGTON (AP) — Under President Joe Biden, the US has spent nine months pursuing a diplomatic strategy that could be characterized as over China, without China.
On security, trade, climate and COVID-19, the Biden White House has sought to refocus the US and its allies on the strategic challenges of an emerging China — while there has been little direct engagement between the two rivals.
The president is now preparing for a few global summits where he will again not meet China’s Xi Jinping, but the tensions and aggravations between the world’s two largest economies will nevertheless be clearly visible.
Biden heads to the Group of 20 summit in Rome this weekend after months of still unresolved negotiations over his proposals to invest billions more in US workers and key industries. He promoted that policy by presenting it as the solution to a generational threat to China and urging the rest of the world to join his cause.
But Xi has chosen to skip the G-20 – and a forthcoming summit on climate in Scotland – because of COVID-19, an absence that is arguably the most sweeping aspect of the meetings, as the world waits to see what China’s commitments will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the Chinese leader will participate virtually in some events, missing the informal caveats and conversations that often lead to the most progress at international summits.
Since taking office in January, Biden has spoken with Xi only twice, although they have agreed to meet virtually by the end of the year. The US leader wanted to prioritize strengthening America’s domestic and international positioning before seeking an immediate one-on-one with Xi, but now there seems to be a hint of regret that a meeting won’t take place sooner.
“In an era of intense competition between the US and China, intense top-level diplomacy, leadership-level diplomacy is vital to effectively manage this relationship,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday as he spoke. gave a preview of the trip.
Yet China is never far from Biden’s thoughts. And the president wants it to be at the forefront of voters, too.
He alludes to the ascension force in almost every speech he gives. He invokes the need to counter and flatter China in key policy statements on everything from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to its continued pursuit of trillions of domestic infrastructure and social spending.
“In the 21st century race between democracies and autocracies, we need to prove that democracies can perform,” Biden said this summer when he promised US COVID-19 vaccines to the world. He ushered in the same “great debate” about the effectiveness of democracies earlier this month when he called for Congress to quickly raise the country’s debt limit.
“Our infrastructure used to be the best in the world,” Biden said this month, tossing his spending bills, arguing that relaying his priorities was more than just symbolism. “Twelve other countries have superior infrastructure for us, and China has trains that travel long distances at 230 miles per hour.”
But the painful months-long round of negotiations over his spending package, which includes hundreds of billions to help the US move away from fossil fuels, could hamper Biden’s ability to pressure China to meet its own environmental commitments. China has ramped up coal production amid recent power outages.
Biden has sought to reorient the apparatus of the federal government and global alliances like NATO to stand up to Beijing, even as European diplomats often express polite bewilderment at the US’s growing focus on its rivalry with China. Many European countries have made Chinese infrastructure investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, and successive US administrations have struggled to prevent Huawei from China controlling the backbone of emerging 5G infrastructure.
At the G-20, Biden will again try to sell the world on his “Build Back Better World” agenda, an effort by advanced democracies to provide developing countries with an alternative to China’s infrastructure initiative, which the US says often involves heavy and there are even means of coercion attached to it. He will also put pressure on US allies to more quickly deliver on their global vaccine donation pledges, as the US has watched warily as China implemented a COVID-19 “vaccine diplomacy” strategy.
The US has made it a priority to work with its “Quad” partners – India, Japan and Australia – as Biden tries to get allies to speak with a more united voice about China. And clearing a geopolitical row with France over a US-UK plan to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines to better respond to the Chinese threat will top Biden’s diplomatic agenda for the coming week.
At Biden’s direction, US intelligence has launched a series of investigations targeting Beijing. Officials have publicly accused China in recent months of complicity in cyber-attacks, attempting to interfere in US elections and withholding critical information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Those accusations have sparked angry denunciations from Beijing, which has sometimes responded by pointing to past US intelligence agency failures.
Speaking to students at Stanford University last week, CIA Director William Burns labeled China the “greatest geopolitical challenge” facing the US.
“Competition with China for the United States extends across just about every domain out there,” he said.
On the military front, the latest concern for the US is a recent hypersonic weapons test by China, which General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said was almost a “Sputnik moment”, referring to the 1957 Soviet Union launch of the world’s first satellite into space, which the world surprised and fueled fears that the United States had fallen behind technologically.
The Chinese government has disputed Western news reports about the test, saying it was working on a reusable spacecraft, not a rocket.
While some see the emergence of a new Cold War, it is in many ways more complicated than the decades-long Soviet confrontation.
The US and China have arrived at this point as both rivals and co-dependents. The US needs cooperation with China to fight climate change and curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the two economies are closely intertwined despite the Trump-era tariffs Biden has maintained.
Beijing, for its part, is not only striving to roll back protectionist measures, but also wants the US to accept China’s rise as a geopolitical equal to its own sphere of influence. They have found a striking continuity between Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, who tried intensely in various ways to push back Chinese targets.
The relationship between the US and China “may well be our generation’s question,” said Matthew Goodman, senior vice president of economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Biden must maintain a lasting relationship with China to address existential issues such as climate change, even as Taiwan’s status, cyber-attacks and efforts to reclaim factory jobs that have moved abroad suggest the two countries are also splitting.
The two countries will have to find a way forward for the global community after the coronavirus pandemic.
Members of the G-20 spent a total of $15 trillion to plod through the economic shutdowns caused by the disease, creating high levels of debt that could become problematic if the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy and interest rates rose from their relative lows.
Census figures show that Americans are on track to import $470 billion worth of Chinese goods this year, the highest total since 2018, when Trump began imposing the new tariffs. Trade has kept the two countries linked despite mutual tensions that rely on each other for growth.
Where Trump largely went it alone with China, Biden sees next week’s double summits as an opportunity to bolster what he hopes a Western coalition against China will be.
Sullivan says China needs to understand that “the United States has an affirmative economic agenda for macroeconomic stability in the world, that there are certain steps we are going to take to protect our employees and our companies.”
From there, he says, the government will wait to see “what the Chinese government is willing to step up and do”.
AP writers Nomaan Merchant, Bob Burns and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed.