Secretary of State Antony Blinken will reveal within days a summary of President Joe Biden’s long-delayed strategy “to win the 21st Century” against a rising China.
But don’t expect anything bold.
Multiple sources say that Blinken will underscore the administration’s existing policy toward China modeled on that inherited from the Trump administration. The speech will render a topline overview of the strategy rather than details on its mechanics, which along with the complete text of the document itself won’t be made public.
But the speech will provide needed clarity to government agencies, foreign governments and the ruling Chinese Communist Party that the administration’s China-focused policy and regulatory moves align with a cohesive blueprint — with specific foreign policy objectives.
The upcoming speech will kick off a month of intense administration engagement with Asia, including next week’s U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan and the first in-person meeting May 24 of leaders of the Quad, including Japan, India and Australia.
The administration’s challenge is to ensure buy-in for the strategy — which hinges on building and reinforcing alliances and partnerships in Asia and beyond — to counter U.S. perceptions of China’s growing diplomatic, economic and military influence undermining Biden’s conception of a “rules-based international order.”
“I don’t think that you’re going to hear anything in the Tony Blinken speech that hasn’t been said before and I don’t think that the goal is to come out and say something different because we have observed what the administration has done over the last 15 months,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “I think the main emphasis is how we’re going to do this alongside our partners … and how we’re going to integrate our economic statecraft and technological capabilities with our diplomatic and military-slash-defense toolboxes to advance a set of objectives vis-à-vis China.”
The China strategy is the lynchpin of a growing portfolio of administration policy documents that frame the terms of U.S. relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ruling Chinese Communist Party. One of the key premises of those documents, articulated in the Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February is that the U.S. seeks “not to change the PRC but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.”
A pending third document, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which Biden announced in October, will form the regional economic plank of the administration’s efforts to counter China through trade, “supply chain resiliency” and other measures. The administration will likely release a more detailed blueprint of the framework prior to the May 12-13 U.S.-ASEAN Summit to boost regional buy-in for the plan.
“The China Strategy is basically ‘Trump-plus with sophistication’ but with partners and allies,” said a China expert familiar with the strategy’s contents who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely. The expert expressed concern that the strategy “has been sitting on Biden’s desk since November” although Blinken described the bilateral relationship in January 2020 as “arguably the most important … that we have in the world.”
Blinken’s distillation of Biden’s approach to China will notably exclude the concept of “engagement” pursued by multiple administrations since President Richard Nixon’s pioneering diplomatic outreach to Beijing in 1972. “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” Blinken said in March 2021.
Biden outlined his overarching vision in his first speech to Congress a year ago. “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century,” he said to a standing ovation.
The China strategy’s delayed release has fueled perceptions that the Biden administration’s China policy is rudderless without a clearly enunciated policy document.
“I can give you 100 reasons why it should have been out a year ago,” Glaser said. ”I understand why people believe that there isn’t a China strategy and so I think it’s just important to get it out there and I wish that they could release some part of it publicly and not just have a speech, but my understanding is that they’ve opted not to do that.”
GOP lawmakers are also impatient for the strategy’s details.
“I’m eager to know if the Biden administration’s new China strategy will codify ‘cooperation’ with the CCP on issues such as climate and health, which the president recommended in his interim National Security Strategy,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “There’s no evidence that the CCP is willing or capable of cooperation, and this self-delusion undermines our national security and hinders progress towards a truly competitive strategy that treats the CCP like the adversary it is.”
A national security expert briefed on the strategy’s contents on the basis of confidentiality confirmed that Blinken’s upcoming speech contains no bombshells.
“The strategy document contains no surprises or serious deviations from Blinken’s previous comments on U.S.-China relations … [and] has, from the White House’s perspective, already been road-tested and ‘blessed’ by the inter-Agency,” the expert told POLITICO. “No one will refer to it as ‘bold,’ that is for sure [and] it leans heavy on emphasizing values [of] democracy vs. autocracy and much less on promoting American interests, such as establishing a robust trade regime to undercut China’s geo-economic power.”
The U.S. business community also wants a China strategy that will address the key underlying problems in the worsening bilateral trade relationship. “The [Biden] trade agenda is ‘competing where we should’ and we are not doing that — we are not talking with the Chinese about fair competition in their own market,” said Craig Allen, U.S.-China Business Council president. “We really do need a strategy that suggests positive alternatives to perpetual confrontation and antagonism. … We have just a real poverty in the dialogue between the two sides and somebody needs to breathe some life into that.”
Beijing is pessimistic about improving bilateral ties if the China strategy maintains current policy. “The US is going to great lengths to engage in intense, zero-sum competition with China, it keeps provoking China on issues concerning our core interests, and it is taking a string of actions to piece together small blocs to suppress China,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington. “We must replace the ‘competitive-collaborative-adversarial’ trichotomy with the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation … to put China-US relations back on the right path of healthy and stable development.”
Observers agree that’s unlikely.
“I think [China has] concluded that the United States is implacably hostile toward China and seeks to contain its rise. … If the United States said something that was positive about wanting to engage China and cooperate with China, they would simply conclude that they didn’t believe it,” Glaser said. “There’s very little hope that this speech is going to change anything in the U.S.-China relationship, but that’s not the purpose of the speech.”
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