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Bad moon rising: US foreign policy and the China challenge

Joe Biden, Xi Jinping
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit, on Nov. 14, 2022, in Bali, Indonesia. China has sanctioned two U.S. individuals in retaliation for action taken by Washington over human rights abuses in Tibet, the government said Dec. 23.

In their zeal to put China in a box, President Biden and Congress could “Balkanize” the global order, forcing Washington to contend with multiple powers and blocs, friendly and not, willing to say no to the United States. They undervalue this risk, if they perceive it at all.

The president’s National Security Strategy is premised on Europe and Asia letting go of China and “the rest” following suit. Washington’s objective is to harden the defenses of the liberal order against the forces of illiberalism. But the strategy is being met with resistance from the very partners essential to its execution. Europe and Asia do not see their choices as binary: They want China for economic growth, and the United States is indispensable to any regional balance.

France is calling for a single global order, Germany rejects decoupling, and the European Union says it will not mimic U.S. policy. But the sharpest blows came from the Asia Group of the Trilateral Commission, past and future leaders from across the region, who accused Washington of leading the world into a dangerous confrontation with China. The Indian delegation was the lone holdout, but India itself generates fears of hegemony among some members.

If Republicans make good on their promise to out-hawk the president on China, differences with Europe and Asia will become more visible and harder to manage. This is already happening. The Biden team tried for a year to persuade partners in both regions to control the export to China of artificial intelligence and advanced semiconductor technologies and finally ended up announcing the measures unilaterally in October. Talks continue, but even if Washington succeeds in pressuring decoupling, the writing is on the wall. 

Europe and Asia share Biden’s assessment of the China challenge, but his methods and level of ambition to address it leave them cold. Unless the president and congressional Republicans drop their dream scenario of a China-free global order, European and Asian support for U.S. policy will be grudging and unsustainable over the long term, impairing a critical foundation of American power and influence.

U.S. strategy shoots America in the foot in another way: by pivoting wholesale to India and gambling that it will be a dependable counterweight to China. But New Delhi, like Beijing, has big dreams, memories it cannot shake of its bitter colonial past with “the West,” an anti-democratic cult of personality around its prime minister, and an embrace of non-alignment dating back to the Cold War. The same wishful thinking about China’s eventual convergence with the United States following its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 is evident in the unqualified U.S. embrace of India. That did not work out as planned — and this might not, either.

Not only does the rise of China and India give “the rest” other options, Beijing and New Delhi are dissatisfied with the prevailing order like much of the Global South. Both are leading figures in institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa group that could form the basis of a new pole in the global order. Today these groupings lack political heft — no one shows up to their meetings with a mandate to change national policy. Tomorrow might be different. Collectively, they have economic and political potential. Pragmatism is breaking out all over. If India becomes the world’s third largest economy in 2030, who’s to say it will not seek a modus vivendi with China?

Washington needs a strategy its allies and partners support and one that resolves its deepest anxieties about interdependence without blowing up the prevailing order and inviting worse problems. China is not ten feet tall. Its domestic challenges are significant: the slowest economic growth in four decades, high youth unemployment, and real estate and banking insolvencies — not to mention the dramatic nationwide protests against its zero-COVID policy.

Biden should pivot. Offer a vision for unifying the global order and identify a very narrow area where severing economic ties with China is unavoidable because America cannot afford to lose, and a very broad area for competition. Republicans have established a House Select Committee on China whose chairman, Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), talks of a new cold war but also says his main mission is preventing World War III. There is an opening for the sobriety Europe and Asia seek and America needs.

Washington’s attempt at a controlled demolition of the global order to edge China out risks fragmenting the international system and diminishing American power and influence. The last time the global order was Balkanized brought two murderous wars. The world had to exhaust itself with massive bloodshed and destruction to reach a new equilibrium. America is far from perfect, but a world order where the United States is not at the head of the table will be a dangerous and unhappy place. There is time to fix this, but not much.

Ferial Ara Saeed is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, the CEO of Telegraph Strategies LLC, and a former senior American diplomat. Follow her on Twitter @TelStratLLC.

Tags China aggression China economy Joe Biden Mike Gallagher National Security Strategy us-china policy

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