China is not Yesterday’s Enemies
The Biden Administration and the U.S. military are sticking to old playbooks instead of understanding a new situation.
Joe Biden’s China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous. It plays out as if it is being run by WWII reenactors.
China was artificially reimagined as an enemy-in-a-box as the wars of terror sputtered out and America needed a new villain. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foil for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and, what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in a death match with China.
But there is unbelievable hypocrisy in America’s claimed role. Biden seems oblivious as the U.S. mowed down Muslims by drone even while self-righteously tsk tsk-ing China for abusing its Uighur minority. After our two-decade hissy fit of invasions and nation building brought kleptocracies to lead countries, we dare bark that China is not democratic. We seem not to notice our imperial lack of clothing when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with tyrants and dictators strewn around Africa and the Middle East. We see no issues demanding democracy in Hong Kong while not having had much to say about it when the place was a British colony stolen by war from Chinese sovereignty.
Apart from sheer hypocrisy, there are other reasons to wonder how China ended up America’s sworn enemy for Cold War 2.0. The relationship otherwise does not look much like that of our old nemesis, the Soviet Union. The Russkies had a nasty habit of rolling tanks across borders, as of course did the U.S. Sometimes it was even in the same country—how’d that Afghanistan thing work out?
In contrast is the utter lack of countries China has invaded since the Second World War. Unlike the wheezing old Soviet economy, China is the world’s second largest economy, and one deeply tied, integrated, and in a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt, just behind Japan, with massive investments across the board inside the United States.
Not counting Hunter Biden (we kid), the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. The Cold War belief that countries with a McDonald’s don’t make war on each other seems under revision by Biden. The Chinese meanwhile are literally betting the house on America succeeding. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. As we learned when Covid briefly shut down world logistics, the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa.
With all this co-dependent commerce it is also increasingly unclear what we have to fight about. The best the war influencers can come up with are lurid predictions that Chinese investments are a secret tool to control the U.S. (as opposed to any other investors [Jeff Bezos, cough cough] domestic or foreign, yeah right). They claim “someday” China will “weaponize” its investments and harm the U.S. Unexplained is how China would take a $1.1 trillion bath on its Treasury holdings alone, never mind slamming closed its largest export market and having to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source.
So why the lust for a new Cold War? The problem Biden faces on China, and everywhere else, really, is the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: Unlike ambassadors, whose budget and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Colonels grow up to be generals. Generals outlast administrations.
The military has written America’s adversarial China policy. Following the old Cold War playbook, the goal seems to crank up tensions and exaggerate threats. Here’s how that plan recently exposed itself with China.
Australia just ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. This is alongside a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraftcarriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force. An arms salesman just wrote Biden’s China policy.
For what? China fusses with its neighbors over ownership of a handful of islands in the neighborhood, hardly worth risking total nuclear war over. See, it’s the nukes that rule out another Falklands. Even so, the U.S. can’t help but contribute to the saber rattling. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to the disputed Senkaku islands, and the Philippines security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets in the South China Sea. Once upon a time, it was the Soviets who were supposed to invade disputed islands held by Japan. Never did.
China and Taiwan make sport out of lofting rhetoric at each other, all the while maintaining a robust economic relationship that defines modus vivendi. Between 1991 and March 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China might one day buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?
As they say, follow the money. The money leads toward rapprochement, right under America’s nose. Barack Obama sought the economic isolation of China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a 2016 proposed trade agreement among most everyone in Asia except China. Trump withdrew the U.S. from TPP in 2017. In 2018 the remaining countries negotiated a new consolation prize-like agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which meant little without the participation of economic superpowers U.S. and China. Yet while Biden has made no moves to bring the U.S. back into the play, and has kept Trump’s tariffs in place against China, Chinese diplomats have been busy beavers.
In an end run timed to mock the American submarine deal with Australia, China applied in September to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. Radio silence on both applications from Washington, who, as a non-participant in the group, doesn’t even have a vote on the matter. And Biden has made clear he has no plans to join in the future.
Ironically, the genesis of all this, the Obama TPP, was designed to force China at dollar-point to reform itself and be More Like Us. Who is it now that seems to be setting the rules of today’s international system in both trade and diplomacy? China is offering favorable access to its lucrative market to diplomatically influence the alliance on its own terms. All the U.S. has to offer its allies in Asia is a subordinate and expensive role in a new Cold War.
Where is the State Department? Nine months into his administration Biden still does not have an ambassador in Beijing, leaving China policy in caretaker hands. His nominee for ambassador, Nick Burns, is an old State Department hack, having made a career by bending over backwards in both directions as administrations changed. Coming out of a spokesmodel-type university job, Burns will be read by Beijing, if he ever gets there, as a placeholder, a political crony handed a sweet, mostly ceremonial, final job.
Elsewhere, Beijing seeks to make friends with its “belt and road” trade and investment initiative in Asia. If America’s Afghan War had any winners, it’s probably the Chinese, who found some common ground with the Taliban (look it up, it’s called diplomacy, often done even with your enemies) and thus potential access to their vast mineral resources. American businesses meanwhile demand of Biden’s deaf ears he clarify the economic relationship with China.
While Biden passively allows the military to prepare for war under the sea, China is winning in the competition over our heads in a game Biden does not seem to even know exists. American foreign policy credibility and its confrontational strategy have been shown to be a farce.
America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine economic competitors as enemies. Our policy toward China, like our president, is a failed artifact from another era.
Peter Van Burenis the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.