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Biden Needs a Foreign Policy Reset
Sino-American relations are too important to bungle
Do the hawks in DC understand the full implications of their own thesis? As I understand it, the idea is that manufacturing decline is responsible for the erosion of American power and broad-based prosperity. Principals in the Biden administration think that we must gut Chinese efforts in advanced computing to prevail in a security competition. Do they understand that they’re wrecking Sino-American relations all that is implies?
At 30%, China’s share of global manufacturing value added at market rates is already as large as that of America (15.6%) and Europe (15.8%) combined. If manufacturing is really as important as they say—if latent military potential is proportional to the size of the manufacturing sector—then the dwarfed second rank powers, the United States or Europe, would not stand a chance in a protracted security competition against China. I do not believe that latent military potential is proportional to manufacturing prowess. But in as much as it is, it is important to realize that it is already too late to prevent China’s emergence as an advanced manufacturing power.
Ed Luce is quite correct to note that China cannot be gotten rid off. It is here to stay, unless the United States can be sure of a first-strike capability and is prepared to commit genocide to eliminate the competition. But no American president would commit genocide as a preventive war strategy.
Even if US security principals insist on unleashing great power security competition, the United States needs a vision of what Sino-American relations should look like in the long term. What is the desired end-state here? And what is America’s formula for achieving it?
Washington seems to be completely blind to the response functions of the other powers. China is not going to respond to the chips escalation within the chips sector! Once a zero-sum game is afoot, China is going to respond to American escalations strategically—at a time and place of its own choosing. China could very well respond across the board, contesting US influence in all world regions and over all world questions.
China has achieved a diplomatic breakthrough in gulf relations. I do not have any specific intelligence on Chinese strategic calculation, but it does not appear outlandish to suggest that this is partly in response to the Biden chips escalation. By responding in the gulf, they are pointedly intruding in a region long considered vital to US security.
Put simply, China has suddenly emerged as a great power in the Middle East. The Saudi-Iranian accord signals the transformation of the gulf regional security complex (RSC) from one where Washington called the shots, to one where the regional powers play off the superpowers against each other.
One can imagine the crisis in Israel. But this is a considerably more important event than the transformation of the gulf or Middle East RSCs.
Global polarity itself has undergone a structural transformation. The world is no longer unipolar or even near-unipolar. No single power enjoys cross-domain supremacy, as the US did for a couple of decades after the Soviet capitulation. It is not multipolar; the distribution of power is not as depolarized—China and the US dwarf every other power. The world is not even bipolar. Regional and middle powers—Russia, India, Turkey, etc—too are clearly more capable of, and willing to pursue, an independent foreign policy. So, it’s a bi-multipolar world; and if any more asymmetric, then with China as the unipole—not the United States.
Arvind Subramanian may have folded on his wager that China will emerge as a unipole by 2030 too early. But the important point is not the pecking order—we can still hold the line even if we’re the second ranked power. The important issue here concerns the wisdom of wrecking relations with China and Russia without thinking through the consequences of that momentous strategic decision.
The United States does not enjoy a two-war capability. China has yet to supply arms to Russia at scale, yet the West is already stretched to supply just one proxy war. As the Biden administration has clarified its intention of strangulating China, their calculations and rhetoric have changed. They have made very clear that they will respond. The Chinese response will intersect everywhere, even in the western hemisphere, with third parties looking to balance against the United States—a propensity almost certainly exacerbated by US unilateralism.
Why do US foreign policy elites believe it to be in our interest to confront China? to initiate zero-sum security competition with the Chinese and the Russians? to break with the principles we established with the Open Door a century ago? It is not in the American interest that we have such hostile relations with China and Russia for a number of reasons.
In a tripolar nuclear balance of power, which should be here by 2030, the United States will be the odd one out. This would not neutralize our deterrent in the sense that we would continue to enjoy a second-strike capability, at least until they can track our nuclear submarines. But it would undermine the credibility of our extended deterrence commitments because we could never again threaten a counterforce exchange against either power. Indeed, on certain questions they may come to enjoy clear escalation dominance because of the non-credibility of our extended deterrence threats.
Even if we could keep the West united, China and Russia together would still have the wherewithal to see through a costly long term security competition against the West. But we shouldn’t expect a repeat of the East-West confrontation of the early Cold War. Germany has already ruled out decoupling from China, so Europe is not going to participate in containing China.
The weight of the rest of the world has increased as well. Regional and middle powers will find ways around Washington’s misguided crusade because they have little interest in jeopardizing their relations with their largest trade partner. Instead, they will seek to use ties with China as leverage against the United States.
The most likely result of the Biden revolution in US foreign policy is a failed American attempt at containing the Sino-Russian axis. Unless the Biden administration changes course, and does so fairly quickly, the US will end up diplomatically isolated because neither our allies in Europe, nor our allies in Asia will sign up to break relations with China, even as they continue to rely on our security provision. No one but Washington’s misguided hawks are interested in making an sworn enemy of such a powerful state without good reason.
That the Speaker of the House has agreed to not to visit Taiwan is a sign that all is not lost in the war for sanity in US China policy. What is clear is that the Biden administration needs a serious course correction. US foreign policy urgently needs to become less unilateral and more mindful of the response functions of the other powers on which our world position rests. We’re acting as if it 1993; but it isn’t.
US foreign policy needs to adapt to a more challenging and contested world situation. We no longer have the freedom to screw up willy nilly. Right now, we are really bungling it.
China’s not going anywhere. And its power cannot be wished away. If the US tries to follow Kennan’s playbook, it will probably lose the Cold War. In order to reset Sino-American relations, Biden needs to shake up his team of foreign policy hawks. There’s too much groupthink; they need fresh blood. Biden needs to fire Victoria Nuland and perhaps others on his foreign policy team. He also needs to send Secretary Blinken to Beijing—the sooner the better.
China is a reasonable power and a costly and dangerous cold war can still be avoided. Instead of shooting down recreational balloons, the US should be thinking much more seriously and realistically about what our relations with China should like in the future.
To kick off the reset, Biden should ask his foreign policy team: (1) why they think hostile and confrontational relations with the Chinese are in our interest; (2) what is their formula for prevailing in a protracted security competition with China; and if no satisfactory answers can be found for (1) and (2), as I assure you they cannot, then he must ask them for (3) what does a more reasonable approach to China look like? one that will not undermine our world position?
Sino-American relations will remain too important to mismanage for a very long time. Managing them with care will require a combination of deterrence, restraint, and reassurance. It is not in our interest to get tied down in Europe.
The US should use the reset to work with China to bring the Ukraine war to a close. Indeed, the US should use the reset as an opportunity to set the template for a new model of great power relations in the twenty-first century. It would be ideal to see the US work with China, India and Germany to underwrite a great power settlement in Ukraine. At any rate, the temperature of great power relations needs to brought down fast. Things are coming to a boil.