Autocracy versus democracy: China’s new aspirations of dominance clash with Washington’s growing determination to delineate the boundaries of Xi Jinping’s ambitions.
In his first half year in office, Joe Biden has significantly revised the disruptive foreign policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, on many key points. He rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, renewed the alliance with the European Union, revived NATO’s significance, and declined to impose punitive sanctions on Germany because of Nord Stream 2.
His China policy, however, is basically the same as Trump’s. Thus he maintained and strengthened restrictions on collaboration with internet provider Huawei and other technology firms, imposed sanctions against other Chinese functionaries, and has reiterated accusations of genocide with respect to treatment of the Uighurs. And like Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Biden also wants to step away from a policy of engagement with the People’s Republic. China’s aspirations of dominance clash with Washington’s growing determination to delineate the boundaries of Xi Jinping’s ambitions.
There is one apparent difference, however. America’s China policy is no longer being maintained with Trump’s will-o’-the-wisp bombast; it has coalesced into a strict doctrine, one in which, according to The Economist, the systems rivalry between the old and rising superpowers can only have one winner: the U.S.
Xi, of course, views it differently. “Time and momentum are on our side,” he has been quoted as saying. The Global Times, China’s English-language propaganda organ, summarized the end of American preeminence in the slick formulation, “East rising, West declining.”
Relations at an Historic Low
In Anchorage in March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, and Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi engaged in the first mudslinging. Blinken threw the whole litany of U.S. accusations at the Chinese: human rights violations in Hong Kong, repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, threatening Taiwan, cyberattacks against the U.S., economic pressuring of U.S. allies. “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters.”
Yang fought back, accusing the Americans of hypocrisy in human rights and of racism. Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan are inalienable parts of Chinese territory; any intervention in its internal affairs will thus be sharply rebuffed. And moreover, who is coercing whom? It’s actually the U.S. that is using its military might and financial hegemony to repress other countries and force the rest of the world to accept its democracy.
A meeting between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Chinese colleague Xie Feng in Tianjin has now strengthened the impression that both powers are on a collision course. The diplomats once again read each other the riot act. The opponents very clearly drew their lines in the sand. According to Xie, the prerequisites for normalization are removal of all sanctions against the Chinese state and party functionaries, freedom of activity for the Confucius Institute in the U.S., the withdrawal of visa restrictions on party members and students in specific disciplines, and respect for China’s developmental trajectory.
In return, Sherman demanded different Chinese policies with respect to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South and East China Seas. Both sides declared that they did not want a conflict, but nothing pointed toward de-escalation, let alone compromise. Instead, relations between the U.S. and China have reached an historic low.
American publications are now producing more and more articles about a war between the U.S. and China; for instance, a recent piece in The National Interest (“Why the U.S. Military Might Not Win a War Against China Easily, if at All”). At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken accused China’s government of intentionally supporting cyber hackers carrying out state missions as well as cybercrime for personal gain. President Biden reacted to the insights from his intelligence services — especially regarding a massive attack on Microsoft’s email system — with a chilling prognostication of war: “I think it’s more likely we’re going to end up — well, if we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence.”
The president was thinking of Russia at the time, but his comments were probably aimed primarily at China. The prospect that the digital cold war could turn into an active cyber war is also raising concerns in the EU and NATO. How to avert it will be one of the big questions that the Western world needs to ask itself in the near future.
But beyond that, the West also needs to establish clarity about its stance on China. Is it enough to force the economic and trade partner into fair practices on the grounds of equality? How can the Europeans prevent the Chinese from pushing into the Balkans or intervening in EU politics? Does NATO really have a role to play in the Trans-Pacific region? And is the Biden doctrine, which is aimed at decoupling and confrontation, and its framework for negotiations — namely, an alliance of democracies against the autocracies of the world — really a realistic political option? After all, political interests concerning security and economy are always intertwined, and, moreover, irrepressible concerns about human rights and indispensable cooperation on climate change often contradict each other.
These are difficult questions. They will need to be answered when, after the parliamentary elections, Berlin resumes thinking about and conducting foreign policy.