The Biden team must beware of losing a US-China cold war

The Biden team must beware of losing a US-China cold war
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The incoming Biden national security team is sorting out what to salvage from the Trump administration policies and what to resuscitate from prior Democrats’ approaches.

The new national security adviser, Jake SullivanJake SullivanBiden meets with UK's Johnson ahead of G-7 Biden, UK's Johnson to unveil renewed Atlantic Charter Biden must get tough on China's forced-labor industries, including solar MORE, and Kurt Campbell, his Indo-Pacific coordinator, previewed their strategic thinking in October’s Foreign Affairs. They expressed predictable skepticism about the Trump team’s National Security Strategy (NSS), but also about the policies of administrations they served:

“[F]oreign policy frameworks beginning with the word ‘strategic’ often raise more questions than they answer. ‘Strategic patience’ [Obama] reflects uncertainty about what to do and when. ‘Strategic ambiguity’ [Clinton] reflects uncertainty about what to signal. And in this case, ‘strategic competition’ [Trump] reflects uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.” 


The formulation understates the straight-line thinking between the Clinton and Obama administrations. On China’s growing aggression toward Taiwan, neither team knew “what to do.”  When Assistant Secretary Joseph Nye was asked by Chinese interlocutors in 1995 how Washington would respond if China attacked Taiwan, he gave what has been judged the perfect expression of strategic ambiguity: “We don’t know and you don’t know, it would depend on the circumstances.”

President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE, when asked the same question, suggested emphatically that he knew exactly what he would do and, further, that “China knows what I’m gonna do. China knows.” His unstated message: America will defend Taiwan. 

The Campbell-Sullivan article also minimizes the Trump administration’s clear thinking on  “What, exactly … the United States [is] competing for.” In the three years since the NSS was published, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOn The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Pence buys .9M home in Indiana Pence to visit Iowa to headline event for congressman MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows preview: Biden foreign policy in focus as Dem tensions boil up back home Sunday shows preview: Infrastructure expected to dominate as talks continue to drag The triumph and tragedy of 1989: Why Tiananmen still matters MORE, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, his deputy Matt Pottinger, and other Trump administration officials have laid out the range of economic, security and human rights areas of U.S.-China contention. 

The strategic competition started with Trump’s trade talks. Phase 1 was succeeding in extracting economic concessions that portended parallel political changes — until COVID-19. That virus ex machina preempted China reform, reversed the booming U.S. economy, and derailed Trump’s reelection.

The authors’ puzzlement over the nature of the U.S.-China “competition” is itself puzzling: “What might a plausible desired outcome of this competition look like?” 


The answer is what it has been for the entire post-World War II period: the liberal, rules-based international order, where most nations peacefully coexist without threatening the fundamental rights of their own people. In other words, the world that exists beyond Communist China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and other tyrannies. 

Campbell and Sullivan acknowledge that the decades-long engagement policy they and most foreign policy elites advocated made “the basic mistake [of] assum[ing] that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy and foreign policy.”  

But now they warn that “policymakers may be substituting a new variety of wishful thinking for the old … by assuming that competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed — this time forcing capitulation or even collapse.” 

However, rather than offering fresh thinking on how to achieve the aim of changing China — Richard Nixon’s going-in objective for his historic opening — the authors say the goal is simply unattainable; the world must live with China as it is — i.e., the realpolitik philosophy advanced by Henry Kissinger and others. 

Instead, the authors advocate what might be called competitive coexistence: “Each will need to be prepared to live with the other as a major power.”   

But this advice is entirely self-directed, intended for U.S. policymakers only, since a) Xi Jinping and his colleagues are not in the habit of taking advice from U.S. experts on what China “needs to do,” and b) China’s communist leaders decided as early as 1949 that the United States is its existential enemy No. 1.

The practical effect of the Sullivan-Campbell policy would be a permanent U.S.-China Cold War II, even as they reject the U.S.-Soviet competition as a model: “The analogy has intuitive appeal … but [it] is ill-fitting. China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more sophisticated diplomatically, and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was. And unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the world and intertwined with the U.S. economy. The Cold War truly was an existential struggle.” 

But if a weaker, poorer, cruder, more rigid and isolated Soviet Union was an existential challenge for the United States, it is unclear why Campbell and Sullivan are less concerned about the more powerful China, which Obama’s Director of National Intelligence called “America’s greatest mortal threat.”  

They argue the danger is “exaggerated. … The risk of conflict … is by no means as high, nor is the threat of nuclear escalation as great, as it was in Cold War Europe. The kind of nuclear brinkmanship that took place over Berlin and Cuba has no corollary in U.S.-Chinese ties.” 

Yet, a former Clinton administration official described the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait standoff as “our own Cuban missile crisis; we had stared into the abyss.” And that confrontation occurred long before China had built the anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarines it wields today.  

It was those events and the accompanying strategic ambiguity doctrine that precipitated China’s massive buildup, as Beijing mobilized to exploit the very U.S. “uncertainty” Sullivan and Campbell disparage earlier in their piece. The authors state: “The U.S. strategy of containment was built on the prediction that the Soviet Union would one day crumble under its own weight — that it contained ‘the seeds of its own decay,’ as George Kennan, the diplomat who first laid out the strategy, declared with conviction.”  

But such conviction does not apply to China, they argue: “[A]n expectation of collapse cannot form the basis of a prudent strategy. Even if the state does collapse, it is likely to be the result of internal dynamics rather than U.S. pressure.” 

The Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the British Broadcasting Corporation can play the same liberating role in affecting China’s internal dynamics as their predecessors did during the Cold War. As with the populations once trapped behind the Iron Curtain, the truth can set the Chinese people free.

Pompeo said in his Nixon Library speech in July, “[C]hanging the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom.” Mobilizing the international community toward that goal is a natural and necessary undertaking for a Biden administration that promises to focus on human rights and multilateralism. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.