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17 September 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 8:33am

China whisperers: The US advisers shaping the world’s great rivalry

Despite calls for caution from some quarters, the consensus within the Biden administration is that China needs to be countered.

By Emily Tamkin

One of the most significant books to be published on China in the past few years is The Long Game: Chinas Grand Strategy to Displace American Order. What sets this book apart from similar titles is the prominent position of its author, Rush Doshi, who is the director for China on Joe Biden’s National Security Council. 

Doshi, the former director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative, argues that the US and China are locked in competition over both regional and global order, and that China wants to displace the US as the ruling power. 

Doshi is one of several notable officials whose writings offer critical insights into how the Biden administration views its great power rival. 

Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, was previously director of studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), another Washington-based think tank (before that, he served as vice president Biden’s deputy national security adviser). While at CNAS, Ratner worked on reports that argued that the US “will need not only to revise its forward-deployed presence and enhance its own military capabilities but also to help strengthen the ability of regional countries to more independently monitor, deter and repel Chinese coercion”. 

Kurt Campbell, who co-founded CNAS and was Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is now Biden’s National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator. Shortly before his appointment in January, he published an article in Foreign Affairs, co-written with Doshi, that argued for re-engaging partners in the Indo-Pacific region through coalitions, such as the D-10 (the G7 plus Australia, India and South Korea) or the Quad (Australia, Japan, India and the US), to counter an ascendent China. “The purpose of these different coalitions – and this broad strategy – is to create balance in some cases, bolster consensus on important facets of the regional order in others, and send a message that there are risks to China’s present course,” Doshi and Campbell wrote. 

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The Biden administration is now seeing the pitfalls of such a strategy, as France fumes at being omitted from the Aukus, a security coalition between Australia, the UK and the US (France’s primary grievance is over the loss of a submarine contract with Australia). But this vision – of having different coalitions for different purposes – is one the Biden administration’s Asia policymakers advocated even before coming into office.  

In 2020, as a senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mira Rapp-Hooper told me that there was consensus in Washington that the US and China were engaged in great power rivalry (though admittedly little consensus on exactly what that meant). But a Biden administration, she thought, could be expected to engage allies to work together in Asia. She is now a member of Biden’s National Security Council. 

As in other areas of foreign policy, the crew of advisers and policymakers on China have all worked at the same think tanks, have served in previous administrations and have all passed through the grand chambers of Ivy League schools or Oxbridge. They now serve an administration confronting the greatest challenge to US supremacy since 1940. In his address to Congress in April, Biden made repeated mention of China. In addition to US foreign policy, the administration’s huge investment in infrastructure and education is framed as a response to Chinese national development. 

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For decades, the way China was regarded in the US was different. The belief from the 1990s and early 2000s, especially after China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, was that, through interaction and economic engagement with China, the country would eventually become more liberal. China would change so as to fit into the US-led international order.

Contrary to these expectations, China became more assertive and more authoritarian. Donald Trump, with his penchant for strongmen, hailed his personal chemistry with Xi Jinping, and reportedly expressed approval for the Chinese Communist Party’s re-education camps built for the Uighur population. But he also took a more hardline position on trade and tried to blame Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic. Biden has mostly maintained this tough stance, though, unlike Trump, he is also trying to forge multilateral agreements and coalitions, which Trump eschewed. 

According to Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of CNAS, a prevailing idea among US policymakers is that China’s attitude towards the US “will depend much more on decisions made in Beijing than in Washington”. “There are not actually very many schools of thought on China in Washington. There are basically degrees of scepticism or hawkishness,” said Fontaine, who worked on Near Eastern Affairs and Southeast Asian issues and South Asia in George W. Bush’s National Security Council and State Department. 

Democrats and Republicans largely agree that China’s economic power and geopolitical influence needs to be countered. While Trump took a unilateral approach, “Nobody is saying that it’ s bad to work with our allies or to make China a priority,” Fontaine said. “The critique is that policymakers are not putting into place the things that would be necessary to carry that policy out.”

On the economic front, some policymakers and strategists say that the US is not investing sufficiently to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Others point to the need for military reform, especially the Pentagon, so China’s armed threat can be blunted. Another common criticism is that, following its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the US has undermined its self-image as a credible guarantor of security for countries such as Taiwan (“US commitment to Taiwan under scrutiny after Afghanistan’s fall,” a 19 August Politico headline read).

“The prevailing wisdom on China in DC is that we are in an era of competition. This can range from ‘literally every Chinese person here is a potential spy’ to ‘pinpoint CCP entities and see what the best policy options are to address security risks’,” Rui Zhong, program associate for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, told me. Zhong also noted that the various differences on what it means to be in competition with China are overlooked in China itself, adding, “The Chinese state has no problem in painting with a broad brush to respond to American efforts to ‘contain’” (the word “contain” being a Chinese state staple in describing US diplomatic relations).

“Most people did not expect the Biden administration to come in with an approach to China similar to Trump’s… That it did is a reflection on the overall Washington consensus on China, not the administration’s belief that Trump latched onto something brilliant,” Fontaine said. 

There might be an overall consensus on China but there are nonetheless concerns in foreign policy circles about the effects of the rivalry with the country.

There is, for example, the risk posed to Asian Americans by intensifying the combative rhetoric around US-China relations. Between 2019 and 2020 – when Trump began railing against the “China virus” – hate crimes against Asian Americans and Asians in America increased by nearly 150 per cent. When reintroducing her legislation to combat anti-Asian hate crimes last March, Grace Meng, a Democratic New York Congress member, said, “Before this pandemic started, I urged everyone – including elected officials – to not blame Asian Americans for the virus. My words were not heeded.” Trump and his party, she said, had “created an atmosphere of intolerance and violence, which persists even today.” That is the domestic environment in which China policy is being formulated – policy which could aggravate the situation.

“The human element of statecraft and diplomacy often gets left out of these conversations,” wrote Zhong. “Seldom is the fact that immigration, Islamophobia, xenophobia and race in the United States plays into quality of life for Chinese emigrés, exiles and other diaspora members mentioned. Human rights is still framed as ‘a thing that happens overseas’, despite the fact that human rights abuses occur within and are engineered by globalised, connected economies, policing entities and even military organisations.” It is not a defence of human rights violations in China to note that the US has a spotty record with respect to human rights both at home and abroad.

This administration clearly does not endorse racism or nationalism – but some believe that they are bound to be on the rise as national policy aggressively pits China against the United States. “The way many progressives are thinking about this is more in a structural vein,” said Jake Werner, co-founder of Justice Is Global, part of an organising network dedicated to building a more sustainable global economy. Werner argued that those in favour of more confrontation with China tended to believe that individuals will plays a greater role, and that they can ensure that this time minorities don’t suffer as a result of a geopolitical project. 

Some warn that Americans have seen this before, specifically with the rise of Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11, and that even with an administration that is more measured in tone than its predecessor, the flame of xenophobia, once lit, is hard to extinguish.

“It’s all fine and good that George W Bush went to visit a mosque, but declaring a global war on terror that treats Muslim communities as a source of threats speaks more loudly,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders. “The same is true with regard to China – the impact will be felt by Asian Americans.” Sanders himself has also argued against the emerging Washington bipartisan position on China: in a June Foreign Affairs piece titled “Washington’s dangerous new consensus on China”, Sanders wrote: “The prevalence of this view will create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult to achieve.”

This is another fear some in Washington have raised: that there are challenges that the US faces – notably climate change — on which it needs to work with, not against, China.

“To me, that’s the number-one issue in the relationship, climate change,” said Stephen Wertheim, senior fellow at the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment. He agrees that China poses a challenge to US predominance but he sees the emerging Washington consensus as going further – as saying that China is extremely threatening to the US, which should be more confrontational and competitive, including militarily. 

“I fear the administration is attempting to thread the needle [between cooperation and competition]”, Wertheim said, “and that our domestic politics, and perhaps China’s as well, will close the space to be so nuanced in the relationship.”

China is a major human rights violator. The Uighurs are put in camps; a Chinese university has reportedly asked its colleges for a list of LGBTQ students for “investigation”; and the country has forbidden those under 18 to play video games for more than three hours a week. There is no free speech, no rule of law, no freedom to organise. The people do not participate in free and fair elections. Entrepreneur Ren Zhiqiang, who wrote that Xi was “a clown who desires power”, received a prison sentence of 18 years. How does a progressive foreign policy reflect that reality? 

Wertheim replied that the contest was not being driven by human rights. The decision, he said, wasn’t between human rights and climate cooperation, but between cooperation on the climate crisis and military containment. The world’s two most powerful countries – and top two greenhouse gas emitters — cannot stay locked in a security competition, he said. “We have an emergency that affects the entire planet. To me, that should be the number-one priority in the relationship.”

This seems to be a concern that is registered within China’s foreign policy establishment. In early September, a senior Chinese diplomat warned that political tensions undermined a chance at meaningful cooperation on climate change.

These, however, are not the loudest voices in the halls of power. Of those who favour cooperation instead of competition, Fontaine said, “It’s a school of thought that is highly disproportionately made up of academics, former officials. It’s not people who are getting government jobs.”

If the emerging consensus on China is clear, there is less clarity on what happens next. Will the Biden administration, as well as the majority of Democrats and Republicans, become so preoccupied with competition that there is little room for diplomacy? And what does that competition entail? “You affirm this is the bipartisan hawkish approach,” Duss said, and “you create political costs for diplomatic or non-confrontational resolutions.”

The recent announcement of the new Aukus coalition is just the latest affirmation of what many in Washington already knew: that the Biden administration sees the US as needing to counter China. China responded by criticising the building of “exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties” and urged against “Cold-war mentality and ideological prejudice”.

We can but wait, watch and wonder whether the exchange of words will turn into something else, who will be affected – and how far the Biden administration and China will go.

[See also: Why a China-centered future is still uncertain]