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30th Sep 2022

Column

On Biden's China policy

President Joe Biden inherits a formidable challenge: an increasingly powerful and assertive China.

He also inherits a handful of key officials that bears at least part of the responsibility of the immense failure to check China's rise, a failure that was the consequence of failed engagement and ineffective balancing.

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  • Efforts to engage China and to make it adopt Western values have failed

Last but not least, he inherits from the golden age of globalisation an imprudent fixation with commerce, foreign investment and dialogue without properly assessing their impact in terms of national power. With many allies drifting closer towards China, it's crucial that Biden overcomes that legacy.

But we have few indications that this will happen. Recent writings of key China hands acknowledge that China is a formidable power.

It has a bigger potential as a regional hegemon and peer rival than any of America's past competitors. They also acknowledge that efforts to engage China and to make it adopt Western values has failed.

China's growing power will also permit it to challenge key American security interest. Yet, all these experts and officials rush to insist that it must not lead to a Cold War, that coexistence is key, and that business interests should not be harmed.

The suggested solution is a kind of smart balancing.

Internally, the American government is urged to focus on technology and innovation. This is a fair concern.

The issue, however, is not so much that America lags behind in technology, but that it has allowed entire production chains to relocate to China, so that technology providers are forced to sell to China.

A new 'Sputnik Moment', as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan suggested, will be exciting news for the San Francisco Bay crowd, but it would be more proper to talk about a new 'Ford Moment', or even a New Deal.

This will require some regulation, prodding, and arm-twisting that will be less exiting for the corporates.

Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi insist on financial instruments to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative.

That's certainly relevant and connectivity again sells well to the corporates. But the Belt and Road Initiative is essentially America and Europe's trade deficit, sterilised by the Chinese central bank, and turned into strategic credit lines.

Getting to grips with the Belt and Road Initiative means addressing the trade imbalance, or at least its political instrumentalisation by Beijing. This is much more difficult, as American consumers have become dependent on Chinese imports and the business model of giants like Amazon depends on it.

By suggesting that balancing China can happen without difficult adjustment and without some loyalty on the part of the corporations and consumers towards their country, the Biden team makes the same mistake as the previous administrations: suggesting change without sacrifice.

Enriching Chinese dictatorship

This does not mean that the US should follow Chinese state capitalism. But it must hold to consumers and companies a clear choice: supporting the ideal of an open market, or continuing to enrich Chinese dictatorship. In the new contest for power, the West must learn that it cannot always compromise.

Even more puzzling is the suggestion to rebuild legitimacy and confidence among allies, while everything in recent publications of Biden's China hands suggests reluctance.

Campbell, Sullivan, and Doshi hit at America moving away from its focus on primacy. It is hard to imagine how Eurasian countries will get to see the US as a strong, legitimate balancer, a reliable insurance against Chinese oppression, when it no longer aims at supremacy or at least a superior coalition.

The idea of China as an inevitable hegemon already explains their opportunism and reluctance to join American balancing efforts today.

Anyone sitting in Tokyo, Jakarta, Canberra, or Delhi, and reading that Washington now prioritises balancing China's military might with "inexpensive and asymmetric capabilities", and that it seeks to lead from behind, would have serious questions about America's resolve to stand up to Chinese aggression.

Yes, balancing must be more efficient and there should be alternatives to increasingly vulnerable platforms like aircraft carriers.

But the only serious security guarantee is the capacity to win future wars, not just to "complicate" them. America's legitimacy will ultimately rest in its capacity to get boots on the ground in heavily-contested environments, to undo Chinese surprise campaigns, and not to allow China to do what Russia did on the Crimea.

It is suggested in a recent Foreign Affairs article, that America must learn for its Asia policy from 19th century power politics.

This is right, but that lesson must start with the immense sacrifice that European countries had to make to rid themselves of Napoleon, with the memoirs of Friedrich Von Gentz, who ruthlessly exposes the tendency to appeasement the aversion to sacrifice as the main explanations of the upsetting of the European balance of power. America cannot afford an Aloha version of Metternich.

Balancing comes with a readiness to sacrifice. As long as the West does not value security more than profit, sovereignty and dignity not more than the next shopping or investment excitement, China will continue to win.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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