Former Australian prime minister and noted ‘China watcher’ Kevin Rudd says, in his recent article in Foreign Affairs, that Underlying all of Xi Jinping’s strategic choices lies his belief, “reflected in official Chinese pronouncements and CCP literature, that the United States is experiencing a steady, irreversible structural decline. This belief is now grounded in a considerable body of evidence. A divided U.S. government failed to craft a national strategy for long-term investment in infrastructure, education, and basic scientific and technological research. The Trump administration damaged U.S. alliances, abandoned trade liberalization, withdrew the United States from its leadership of the postwar international order, and crippled U.S. diplomatic capacity. The Republican Party has been hijacked by the far right, and the American political class and electorate are so deeply polarized that it will prove difficult for any president to win support for a long-term bipartisan strategy on China. Washington, Xi believes, is highly unlikely to recover its credibility and confidence as a regional and global leader. And he is betting that as the next decade progresses, other world leaders will come to share this view and begin to adjust their strategic postures accordingly, gradually shifting from balancing with Washington against Beijing, to hedging between the two powers, to bandwagoning with China.“
That view, that America is a declining power, is widely shared, including by some American scholars. In my opinion, America is weaker, now, strategically, than at any time in the past 150 years. But, the difference between my opinion and Xi’s is that he believes the weakened sate is permanent and will get worse and worse while I think that America can regain both its purpose and its power. I suspect that the apex of American power began in the 1950s and grew and grew until the early 2000s and has, now, plateaued. But, I think, the plateau has been rough, marked by small ups and downs (Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, etc) and I am not sure that America is at or even near the end of it. You may recall that Britain’s “power plateau” lasted, arguably, for a century, from 1805 (Trafalgar) until 1916 (the Somme). America’s power plateau has some time to go.
“But,” Mr Rudd says, “China worries about the possibility of Washington lashing out at Beijing in the years before U.S. power finally dissipates. Xi’s concern is not just a potential military conflict but also any rapid and radical economic decoupling. Moreover, the CCP’s diplomatic establishment fears that the Biden administration, realizing that the United States will soon be unable to match Chinese power on its own, might form an effective coalition of countries across the democratic capitalist world with the express aim of counterbalancing China collectively. In particular, CCP leaders fear that President Joe Biden’s proposal to hold a summit of the world’s major democracies represents a first step on that path, which is why China acted rapidly to secure new trade and investment agreements in Asia and Europe before the new administration came into office.“
What we need to recognize is that China, under Xi Jinping, is not getting weaker, but American, Australian, British, Canadian, Danish and all other Western policy-makers must realize that “an effective coalition of countries across the democratic capitalist world with the express aim of counterbalancing China collectively” is not only a useful thing, it can be a major force for international good. America’s relative weakness may be a source for Western (which, now, includes e.g. Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan and which should include India, too) renewal. The fact that America might be relatively weaker, thanks, mainly, to Barack Obama and Donald Trump (the weakening of America, globally, was a bipartisan effort) means that other voices can be stronger within a broad, Western alliance, something that has not happened enough in the past.
Kevin Rudd says that “Xi’s general diplomatic strategy toward the Biden administration will be to de-escalate immediate tensions, stabilize the bilateral relationship as early as possible, and do everything possible to prevent security crises … [thus not forcing America to seek the strong Western alliance that he fears, and] … To this end, Beijing will look to fully reopen the lines of high-level military communication with Washington that were largely cut off during the Trump administration. Xi might seek to convene a regular, high-level political dialogue, as well, although Washington will not be interested in reestablishing the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which served as the main channel between the two countries until its collapse amid the trade war of 2018–19. Finally, Beijing may moderate its military activity in the immediate period ahead in areas where the People’s Liberation Army rubs up directly against U.S. forces, particularly in the South China Sea and around Taiwan – assuming that the Biden administration discontinues the high-level political visits to Taipei that became a defining feature of the final year of the Trump administration. For Beijing, however, these are changes in tactics, not in strategy.” There has been no recent indication that China is relaxing its military provocations in e.g. the South China Seas.
“As Xi tries to ratchet down tensions in the near term,” Mr Rudd says, “he will have to decide whether to continue pursuing his hard-line strategy against Australia, Canada, and India, which are friends or allies of the United States. This has involved a combination of a deep diplomatic freeze and economic coercion – and, in the case of India, direct military confrontation. Xi will wait for any clear signal from Washington that part of the price for stabilizing the U.S.-Chinese relationship would be an end to such coercive measures against U.S. partners. If no such signal is forthcoming – there was none under President Donald Trump – then Beijing will resume business as usual.“
I suspect that the new Biden Administration is conflicted. One one hand they want to reverse pretty much everything that former President Trump did, on the other hand, even if it was for all the wrong reasons, Donald Trump was right about China. It poses an existential threat to America’s position as leader of the free world. In fact, China, with the “basic dictatorship” that Prime Minister Trudeau admires so much, poses an existential threat to the whole idea of a free world.
“On balance,“Kevin Rudd says, and I agree, “the Chinese leadership would have preferred to have seen the reelection of Trump in last year’s U.S. presidential election. That is not to say that Xi saw strategic value in every element of Trump’s foreign policy; he didn’t. The CCP found the Trump administration’s trade war humiliating, its moves toward decoupling worrying, its criticism of China’s human rights record insulting, and its formal declaration of China as a “strategic competitor” sobering. But most in the CCP’s foreign policy establishment view the recent shift in U.S. sentiment toward China as structural – an inevitable byproduct of the changing balance of power between the two countries. In fact, a number have been quietly relieved that open strategic competition has replaced the pretense of bilateral cooperation. With Washington having removed the mask, this thinking goes, China could now move more rapidly – and, in some cases, openly – toward realizing its strategic goals, while also claiming to be the aggrieved party in the face of U.S. belligerence … [but] … by far the greatest gift that Trump delivered to Beijing was the sheer havoc his presidency unleashed within the United States and between Washington and its allies. China was able to exploit the many cracks that developed between liberal democracies as they tried to navigate Trump’s protectionism, climate change denialism, nationalism, and contempt for all forms of multilateralism. During the Trump years, Beijing benefited not because of what it offered the world but because of what Washington ceased to offer. The result was that China achieved victories such as the massive Asia-Pacific free-trade deal known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which will enmesh the Chinese and European economies to a far greater degree than Washington would like.“
He adds that “China is wary of the Biden administration’s ability to help the United States recover from those self-inflicted wounds. Beijing has seen Washington bounce back from political, economic, and security disasters before. Nonetheless, the CCP remains confident that the inherently divisive nature of U.S. politics will make it impossible for the new administration to solidify support for any coherent China strategy it might devise.” I think that China’s faith in “the inherently divisive nature of U.S. politics” is misplaced. I was only a small boy when Senator Arthur H Vandenberg gave his famous “politics stops a the water’s edge” speech and introduced the Vandenberg Resolution which made NATO possible. I do not believe that America is as divided now as it was then. I think Xi is backing the wrong horse.
Kevin Rudd assesses America and suggests that:
- President “Biden intends to prove Beijing wrong in its assessment that the United States is now in irreversible decline. He will seek to use his extensive experience on Capitol Hill to forge a domestic economic strategy to rebuild the foundations of U.S. power in the post-pandemic world. He is also likely to continue to strengthen the capabilities of the U.S. military and to do what it takes to sustain American global technological leadership. He has assembled a team of economic, foreign policy, and national security advisers who are experienced professionals and well versed in China—in stark contrast to their predecessors, who, with a couple of midranking exceptions, had little grasp of China and even less grasp of how to make Washington work. Biden’s advisers also understand that in order to restore U.S. power abroad, they must rebuild the U.S. economy at home in ways that will reduce the country’s staggering inequality and increase economic opportunities for all Americans. Doing so will help Biden maintain the political leverage he’ll need to craft a durable China strategy with bipartisan support—no mean feat when opportunistic opponents such as Pompeo will have ample incentive to disparage any plan he puts forward as little more than appeasement;”
- “To lend his strategy credibility, Biden will have to make sure the U.S. military stays several steps ahead of China’s increasingly sophisticated array of military capabilities. This task will be made more difficult by intense budgetary constraints, as well as pressure from some factions within the Democratic Party to reduce military spending in order to boost social welfare programs. For Biden’s strategy to be seen as credible in Beijing, his administration will need to hold the line on the aggregate defense budget and cover increased expenses in the Indo-Pacific region by redirecting military resources away from less pressing theaters, such as Europe;”
- “As China becomes richer and stronger, the United States’ largest and closest allies will become ever more crucial to Washington. For the first time in many decades, the United States will soon require the combined heft of its allies to maintain an overall balance of power against an adversary. China will keep trying to peel countries away from the United States—such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom—using a combination of economic carrots and sticks. To prevent China from succeeding, the Biden administration needs to commit itself to fully opening the U.S. economy to its major strategic partners. The United States prides itself on having one of the most open economies in the world. But even before Trump’s pivot to protectionism, that was not the case. Washington has long burdened even its closest allies with formidable tariff and nontariff barriers to trade, investment, capital, technology, and talent. If the United States wishes to remain the center of what until recently was called “the free world,” then it must create a seamless economy across the national boundaries of its major Asian, European, and North American partners and allies. To do so, Biden must overcome the protectionist impulses that Trump exploited and build support for new trade agreements anchored in open markets. To allay the fears of a skeptical electorate, he will need to show Americans that such agreements will ultimately lead to lower prices, better wages, more opportunities for U.S. industry, and stronger environmental protections and assure them that the gains won from trade liberalization can help pay for major domestic improvements in education, childcare, and health care;” and
- “The Biden administration will also strive to restore the United States’ leadership in multilateral institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Most of the world will welcome this after four years of watching the Trump administration sabotage much of the machinery of the postwar international order. But the damage will not be repaired overnight. The most pressing priorities are fixing the World Trade Organization’s broken dispute-resolution process, rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change, increasing the capitalization of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (to provide credible alternatives to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its Belt and Road Initiative), and restoring U.S. funding for critical UN agencies … [because] … Such institutions have not only been instruments of U.S. soft power since Washington helped create them after the last world war; their operations also materially affect American hard power in areas such as nuclear proliferation and arms control. Unless Washington steps up to the plate, the institutions of the international system will increasingly become Chinese satrapies, driven by Chinese finance, influence, and personnel.“
That is essentially, the strategy of building “an effective coalition of countries across the democratic capitalist world with the express aim of counterbalancing China collectively” that I described above and that I suspect Zi Jinping fears most.
Tomorrow: Managed Strategic Competition.