James Burnham, in Struggle for the World (1947), challenged Americans to face up to the uncompromising truth that compromise had ceased to be a viable option in the new post-war era:
What is wrong is not this or that tactic but the basic idea. This idea is that, by some means or combination of means, you must and will solve the problems of the world by “getting along with Russia”, and this is interpreted to mean getting along not with the Russian people—who could be friendly enough—but with the communist regime which now dominates Russia. But the truth … is that you can get along with communism in only one way: by capitulating to it.
We might exchange Russia for China and arrive at a fairly accurate description of our current predicament. Biden’s foreign policy is not going to be a matter of Obama 2.0 because circumstances—in this case the growing assertiveness and power of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian regime—mean that “getting along with China” now more than ever involves “capitulating to it”.
The undisguised ambition of Xi Jinping and his growing network of alliances mean that the submissive/conciliatory strategy towards Beijing pursued by the Obama administration for eight long years cannot be reprised. Though staffed by many of the same people who served Obama, the Biden administration will now find it difficult to “reset” relations with Beijing. Xi’s updating of the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) puts America—and the world—on notice. The captive population of China is bound ever tighter to the dictatorship of the party on four fronts, the final one being the most pertinent to this discussion: (a) a Maoist rectification campaign under the pretext of “common prosperity”; (b) sophisticated surveillance à la the online “social credit system” in tandem with the monitoring of public spaces via advanced facial-recognition technology; (c) the personality cult of Xi Jinping; and (d) a form of ultra-nationalist xenophobia that revealed itself to the world on July 1, when Chairman Xi, on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, warned the world that defying the might of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would result in “broken heads and bloodshed”. Aptly enough, Bill Hayton, author of The Invention of China, defines Xi Jinping Thought as “national-socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Xi’s hubris is not unrelated to the astounding modernisation of the PLA. As US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall noted in September 2021, America is “being more effectively challenged militarily today than at … any other time in our history”. Beijing’s military build-up, we can assume, is not intended to provoke the Third World War and the global destruction (and self-destruction) that would attend such a catastrophe. The objective of the PLA, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Scott Berrier, told the US Senate in April 2021, is “winning a number of high-end regional conflicts, including the forcible unification of Taiwan”.
The upper echelons of the CCP, as we are endlessly reminded, are all aficionados of Sun Tzu. The theme of Sun’s The Art of the Warrior might be summarised as defeating your adversary by helping your adversary defeat himself. The aim of the PRC, in the spirit of Sun Tzu, is to triumph in “high-end regional conflicts” by separating its quarry from any potential and powerful advocate, not least the United States. Berrier’s admonition that Beijing will attempt to have its way “while dissuading, deterring or defeating third-party military intervention” suggests, whether Berrier is aware of it or not, classic Sun Tzu subterfuge.
Biden’s foreign policy has so far encompassed a jumbled and contradictory permutation of Obama-style appeasement and Trumanesque containment. Washington’s commitment to the Quad alliance (US, India, Japan and Australia) and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and the US) is an obvious if belated response to the ambitions of China in the Indo-Pacific region. During the Obama years, 2009 to 2017, there was little discussion in the mainstream media about the threat of China, a head-in-the-sand response to the peril at hand. As recently as 2019, Andrew Hastie’s likening of Xi’s China to Nazi Germany in the lead-up to the Second World War could be airily dismissed by our China apologists as needless alarmism. How things change. Recently top US officials, according to a report in the Financial Times, were stunned by Beijing’s testing of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. Various commentators have questioned the remark by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Mark Milley, about it almost constituting a “Sputnik moment”. Their naysaying entirely misses the point. What matters is that the power elite in Washington now sees Beijing as an existential threat, a view not widely heard during the Obama era.
Not even the placatory Biden would today dare repeat the great lie of the past half-century that relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China are mutually advantageous. Biden’s December 2021 virtual Summit for Democracy, with its invitation to 110 world leaders “to speak honestly about the challenges facing democracy so as to collectively strengthen the foundation for democratic renewal”, is quite likely laying the ideological foundations for what one day may be referred to as the Second Cold War. The three proposed themes of the summit—“defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights”—are like a fault line running between the Free World and the despotic domain of Xi Jinping and his cronies, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ali Hosseini, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Myanmar’s Myint Swe, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Qatar’s Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and many others.
No wonder China’s and Russia’s respective ambassadors to the United States composed a joint editorial denouncing the impending Summit for Democracy as “an evident product of [America’s] Cold War mentality”. Anatoly Antonov and Qin Gang characterised the PRC’s one-party totalitarian state as a “whole-process democracy” that “works very well”. Russia’s thuggish kleptocracy, on the other hand, they called a “democratic law-governed state” with “century-old parliamentary traditions”. Who knew? The upshot, predictably enough, is that the ambassadors decry Washington and its democratic allies for judging “the world’s vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick”—that yardstick, presumably, being liberty. Reluctant as I am to agree with Antonov and Qin, they are not wrong to insist that the purpose—if not the realisation—of the Summit for Democracy is to “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines’”.
This is not to endorse specifics of the Summit for Democracy. Amanda Hodge, South-East Asia correspondent for the Australian, branded the invitation-only summit as something of a “self-defeating grenade lobbed in the midst of the White House’s own Indo-Pacific step-up”. For instance, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan “made the cut” but not Singapore, Thailand, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, “South Asia’s oldest democracy”. Hodge notes the “democratic slide under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s military backed administration”. She also wryly observes that Singapore’s excluded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong previously stated he would not be drawn into Biden’s “cold war-style proposed coalition of democracies”. Hodge, to be fair, admits that the democratic “optics” of Singapore’s de facto one-party state are not optimal and that, in any case, the city-state enjoys extremely close relations with Washington irrespective of its attendance or otherwise at Biden’s Summit for Democracy.
The greater point, which Hodge implicitly acknowledges, is that Helmsman Xi’s crash-through-or-crash stratagem to achieve hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and then, more ambitiously, global supremacy, has forced the Biden administration—whatever the status of its corrupt and cognitively challenged figurehead and supporting cast of former Obama operatives—to respond. The reactive rather than proactive nature of America’s response to Xi’s aspirant Pax Sinica is being driven by an emerging geopolitical reality that operates in tension with, sometimes in opposition to and at other times with the fullest support of, the worldview of the person in the Oval Office. The outcome of what Biden himself calls the “strategic competition” between the PRC and the United States is unknown but the contest or confrontation itself can no longer be denied even by a man who, according to Peter Schweitzer’s exposé Secret Empires (2018), supplemented his family’s fortune through the dealings of his son Hunter in Ukraine and China while serving as President Obama’s deputy from 2009 to 2017.
This is the same politician who, as a candidate for the White House in early 2019, mocked President Trump’s warnings about China: “Is China going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!” Biden changed his tune soon after taking up residency in the White House in January 2021 and struggling through a tetchy two-hour phone conversation with Xi Jinping: “China will eat our lunch if we don’t step up on infrastructure spending,” he announced, slyly advancing his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure initiative (finally signed into law on November 15, 2021) by portraying China as America’s aspiring nemesis. Likewise, President Biden had no compunction in authorising a ninety-day investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV and provoking the opprobrium of Beijing. What accounts for Biden’s volte-face?
The answer, in the first instance, is that powerful forces in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Japan et al have—belatedly—revised and corrected their long-standing misconception that the interests of Beijing and the West were essentially compatible: now “strategic competition” rather than “strategic co-operation” is the mantra. Evidence for this is not hard to garner. Richard Moore, the new head of Britain’s MI6, recently outlined the current thinking of his organisation and, we could add, the Five Eyes intelligence alliance: “The Chinese Communist Party leadership increasingly favours bold and decisive action on national security grounds. The days of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ are over.” Moore added: “Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real.”
Beijing’s underestimation of Washington’s resolve is understandable. Every incumbent in the White House has gone out of his way to help the Chinese Communist Party, starting with Richard Nixon who in 1972 brought Mao Zedong in from the cold for reasons of Realpolitik. Jimmy Carter severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and formally recognised the PRC on January 1, 1979. Less than a month after the Tiananmen Massacre, in July 1989, George H.W. Bush sent Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to assure paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that all was forgiven. Bill Clinton, in 2000, announced his full support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation because this would not only be in America’s “economic interest” but also its “national interest”. George W. Bush, for his part, might have been too busy “liberating” Afghanistan and Iraq to hold “China Inc” to account for breaking every WTO protocol in the book, not to mention decimating manufacturing—and blue-collar jobs—in the United States.
President Obama, as we know, declared war on his domestic opponents and peace on the world, not least the PRC. Though he sometimes talked tough on China’s creeping militarisation and land reclamation in the South China Sea, in April 2016—three months before an international ruling against Beijing’s fantasy about it being a private lake—Obama cancelled a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the disputed waterway. Perhaps this was his idea of getting Beijing to “unclench its fist” (as per his conciliatory overtures to Russia, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and so on). It did not, in any case, do the trick. When Air Force One touched down in Hangzhou, for the September 2016 G20 Conference, the local authorities refused to provide a staircase for the President of the United States to leave the plane. Obama eventually disembarked through an escape exit in Air Force One, the one normally reserved for high-risk locations such as Afghanistan. After he and his party finally found their way onto the red carpet being used by other foreign dignitaries, a Chinese official was captured on film bellowing at his American counterparts: “This is our country! This is our airport!”
One of the mysteries of the rise and rise of Candidate Trump through the 2015-16 election season was the mainstream media’s bewilderment about his populist warnings on China, be it Beijing’s currency manipulation or the impossibility of supplying his hotels with American-made televisions or the treachery of Wall Street types and the political class who flourished at the expense of ordinary Americans. The consensus amongst most economists is that while the tariffs imposed on PRC imports from 2019 might have helped some American local manufacturers, the steel industry and the producers of washing-machines for instance, they nevertheless hurt domestic manufactures reliant on imported components. The economists would be right to insist it was the American consumer who had to pay the cost for Trump’s trade war on China. But this, however, is to ignore the small matter of corporate spying, theft of intellectual property, exploitation of American technology for the purposes of the PLA and domestic surveillance, Hollywood’s self-censorship, state-sponsored cybercrime, labour camps in Xinjiang, and so ad infinitum.
The reality is that Trump’s administration was the first to push back, in its own uneven way, against the assumed inevitability of the twenty-first century being China’s. No wonder Beijing’s state news service Xinhua celebrated Trump’s exit from the White House by tweeting, “Good riddance, Donald Trump!” The outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, a China hawk, was called a “doomsday clown” by the Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, not least for issuing on his last day in office a formal condemnation of the Chinese government’s acts of “genocide” and “acts against humanity”.
But if Beijing expected the Biden administration to return to the appeasement of the Obama era, it was in for a surprise. For a start, Pompeo’s successor as Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, is himself something of a China hawk. “There is no doubt that [China] poses the most significant challenge of a nation-state in the world to the United States,” Blinken announced at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The Biden administration, noted Clay Chandler writing for Fortune magazine, cancelled many of Trump’s foreign policies initiatives apart from those dealing with China:
Orders to rescind Trump tariffs on $350 billion worth of Chinese imports are conspicuously absent from Biden’s ten-day policy blitz. Nor has Biden suggested any immediate interest in overturning Trump administration actions to delist Chinese telecommunications companies on the New York Stock Exchange, or ban Chinese apps, or blacklist Chinese technology companies.
Moreover, Biden honoured the $5.8 billion US arms sale to Taipei arranged by the Trump administration during its last three months in office. Items included Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems, a Field Information Communication System, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and state-of-the-art MQ-9B drones, all intended to fend off (or, at least, delay and deter) an amphibious invasion of Taiwan staged by the PLA.
Beijing’s underestimation of Washington’s resolve in the Indo-Pacific region is understandable. While Taiwan remained securely under the de facto protection of the United States, and the geopolitical status quo went unchallenged, America could afford to adopt a relaxed or even indulgent attitude towards China. That will no longer be the case because a successful invasion of Taiwan is not beyond the realms of possibility. The PRC was not a signatory to the 1987 US-Soviet INF Treaty and, consequently, developed its PLA Rocket Force into an integral feature of any effective invasion of Taiwan. Additionally, for the last three decades, according to Ian Easton, author of The Chinese Invasion Threat (2017), the PLA has focused “like a laser beam” on finding a way to conquer Taiwan. A new chapter in the Indo-China region commenced as soon Xi Jinping began threatening the pre-existing geopolitical situation.
Napoleon Bonaparte, rather famously, once said this about China: “There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes, he will shake the world.” True enough as it turns out. The same, pointedly, might be said about the United States. George Friedman’s take on geopolitics, as outlined in The Next Hundred Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009), asserts that the history of American military intervention in the twentieth century was largely predicated by a shift in the geopolitical status quo: the prospect of German hegemony in Europe in 1916; Nazi victory in 1941; or the challenge to America’s authority in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor. When the Soviets confronted the Americans in the heart of Europe in the post-war period, Roosevelt and Truman offered every kind of concession in Eastern Europe but then a red line was crossed in occupied Germany. Only then did the strategic co-operation of the Grand Alliance descend into the strategic competition of the Cold War and Churchill made his 1946 Iron Curtain speech.
The same geopolitical shift now appears to be in play and Biden is the unlikely face of that historical development. He and his administration are responding to a challenge to the status quo instigated by Xi Jinping’s regime. Joe Biden himself remains the same hapless politician hoping in vain to resurrect President Obama’s Iran Deal, notwithstanding the fact that Tehran will say anything and sign anything so long as it does not hinder its quest to achieve nuclear-weapons capability. Meanwhile, Beijing continues to expand its security and investment pact with Tehran, providing China with a permanent foothold in the region. Something similar might be said about Biden’s recent debacle in Afghanistan, which returned the Taliban to power. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying offered his congratulations to the Taliban on behalf of the Chinese government, telling reporters that “we respect the wishes and choices of the Afghan people”. Someday, down the track, we might hope that whoever oversees the White House will start joining the dots.
In February 2021, soon after he came to office, President Biden ordered the Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, to initiate a Global Posture Review. The details of that review remain mostly classified but the broad picture, as disclosed by a senior defence official, is clear enough: the Indo-Pacific, specifically the PRC, is now the major focus of America’s foreign policy. China, as Lloyd Austin neatly put it, is America’s “pacing challenge”. If we can talk of a Biden Doctrine, or at least the first draft of one, then there it is. The senior official referred to the need to augment “infrastructure in Guam and Australia” and initiate “military construction across the Pacific Islands” while “seeking greater regional access for military partnership activities”. The scenario being contemplated has the seeming characteristics of a 1946–91 Cold War-style containment strategy played out over the terrain of the 1941–45 Pacific War.
The problem with the Global Posture Review, and the Biden administration as a whole and Joe Biden in particular, is that ultimately the review—in the words of the senior defence spokesman—does not recommend major changes to America’s military posture apart from “operational level adjustments … already announced” and “a couple of other changes that are still being developed”. Where’s a latter-day James Burnham when you need one?
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, wrote on Beijing and the Covid outbreak in the November issue. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com