I’m fully on record that New Zealand should resist China’s authoritarian ways, and U.S. President Biden should too. But it’s all in how he does it.
President Biden is clear there’s a new attitude from his CBS interview on February 7th saying that the two countries “need not have a conflict. But there’s going to be extreme competition. … I’m not going to do it the way Trump did,” he added. “We’re going to focus on international rules of the road.”
The two leaders have actually usefully engaged since, and you can get the tenor of the interaction between the two leaders in this BBC commentary.
China has emerged from the early stages of the pandemic emboldened, with its factories and businesses outpacing those in the United States and Europe where the virus continues to hamper their economies – and their societies’ cohesiveness. While Chinese leaders are seeking to reset relationships with Washington after a tumultuous period under President Trump, they have continued to make hard-edged statements.
As long as China’s leaders remain convinced that all of their problems stem from Washington’s ill will, reform is unlikely. Today, they seem to completely buy into their own narrative that the United States is a petulant former superpower too proud to gracefully stand aside while China takes its rightful place in the world.
But as China finds itself at odds with nearly every country it surrounds and many others in the world – even those with very little U.S. influence – maybe its leaders will get the message. That depends if they are seeking more than cold instrumental rationality in foreign affairs.
I’m certainly not proposing Biden generate some pose of masterly inactivity indistinguishable from any other 78 year old guy having an afternoon nap. But there’s plenty of evidence that China is making all the moves to isolate itself with its aggressive and surly foreign policy without much help from the United States.
Besides listing the degree of offence China’s recent actions have caused with nearly every country it borders, China’s aggression to U.S. allies hasn’t needed much U.S. encouragement either. Australia’s fight with China over the former’s efforts to restrict foreign influence , Japan’s standoff with China over the Senkaku Islands, India’s actual battle with China over Ladkh – none of these were prompted by U.S. arrogance. Nor was the South China Sea dispute, which pits China against no fewer than five of its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Beyond its own immediate sphere, China is now also arguing with European countries about human rights, with Latin American countries about illegal fishing, and with African countries over development debts. Whether or not the Chinese central leadership ever wakes up to the fact that these problems are not the doing of the United States but are in fact because China’s government is just shit to deal with, well, that’s kinda immaterial. Indeed the grim anti-United States forebodings of John Pilger’s 2016 The Coming War On China never worked out even under Trump. Instead it looks like the real China story is being told – by multiple countries on multiple continents.
President Biden doesn’t have to go too hard at them when China can’t rise when it’s Chinese belligerence that destroys the chance of allies to form. Nearly all of the countries that surround China – and particularly those mentioned above – have good reason to engage with China solely on a mercantilist basis. There’s not much need for the United States to step in and try and solve other countries’ China problems. It is quite likely that a few years of tough love requiring aggrieved countries to stand up for themselves will form new communities of international interest all by themselves. Covid responses will also push different cross-national alliances over the next few years too.
Biden has already differentiated himself from Trump’s ineffective bellicosity. He’s got more on his plate than he needs domestically without generating grief with Xi Jinping. Also, Xi himself has only two years to work with Biden once the U.S. electioneering kicks in.
The more interesting question between China and the United States is: what is Vice President Kamala Harris’s position on Xi Jinping? We’ve less than two years to figure that one.