The Biden administration’s policy toward China calls for diplomatic and economic competition but will not seek to replace an increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party system, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.
“We are not looking for conflict or a new cold war,” Mr. Blinken said in a long-anticipated speech in Washington detailing the administration’s strategy for dealing with Beijing’s growing influence and increasingly aggressive posture on the world stage.
President Biden has kept in place some elements of the Trump administration’s China policy, which recognized for the first time in decades that Beijing is working to undermine the U.S.-led democratic and free market systems.
However, the approach Mr. Blinken outlined Thursday was notably less confrontational than that pursued by President Trump, and some critics said the secretary of state’s overall prescription for countering China’s efforts to achieve global supremacy was impractical.
In his remarks at George Washington University, Mr. Blinken said the United States will not work to impede China from expanding its economy, but rather will promote international law and cooperate closely with allies pursuing American-style democracy and human rights.
“We don’t seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China — or any other country, for that matter — from growing their economy or advancing the interests of their people,” the secretary of state said.
“But we will defend and strengthen the international law, agreements, principles and institutions that maintain peace and security, protect the rights of individuals and sovereign nations, and make it possible for all countries — including the United States and China — to coexist and cooperate.”
Despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Blinken said, China remains the most serious long-term challenge to the United States and a pacing military threat.
Fifty years ago, China was a weak and isolated power, but it has emerged as a global power with a rapidly modernized military that is seeking to create a sphere of influence and ultimately replace the United States as the leading world power, he said.
“We will work to shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system,” Mr. Blinken said.
He described a three-pronged policy calling for investment in U.S. infrastructure and democracy, aligning more closely with allies and partners, and competing with Beijing directly by promoting democracy and strengthening the U.S. military to deter a conflict.
Growing China threat
The secretary of state listed a range of Chinese threats, including the export of its communist system along with a high-technology mass surveillance structure, violating trade rules and stealing U.S. technology, engaging in genocide in western China, and undermining democracy in Hong Kong.
“Under [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping], the ruling Chinese Communist Party is more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Xi’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine also “should raise alarm bells for all of us,” he said.
Despite China’s efforts to promote its communist system as a replacement to the democratic and free market systems, Mr. Blinken said, the United States will not seek to replace China’s communist rule.
“We do not seek to transform China’s political system,” he said.
The comment reflected one of several key demands China made to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman during a meeting in China in August. The Chinese insisted that any improvement in relations must include a U.S. promise not to undermine the communist system.
During the Trump administration, the State Department targeted the Chinese Communist Party with sanctions and policies that sought to identify the differences between the ruling CCP and the Chinese people.
Militarily, the Biden administration will seek to keep the peace in Asia by shifting U.S. strategy away from building weapons unsuited to deterring a conflict with China.
Instead, the Pentagon will develop asymmetric weapons “that are longer-range, harder to find, easier to move,” Mr. Blinken said.
He said the military is adopting force concepts for waging war and diversifying forces and global deployments with new systems, such as space weapons.
U.S. forces will continue to resist Chinese military efforts to control the South and East China seas.
Focus on Taiwan
Mr. Blinken said U.S. policy has not changed and is based on providing Taiwan with defensive weapons to prevent a Chinese military assault.
“We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo” on the Taiwan Strait and expect all issues to be resolved through peaceful means, the secretary of state said.
Mr. Biden appeared to alter long-standing U.S. policy toward Taiwan during his recent visit to Asia. Asked by a reporter during the trip whether the United States would defend Taiwan militarily, Mr. Biden said, “Yes. That is the commitment we’ve made.” The White House sought to walk back the remark, saying it did not represent a new policy.
Mr. Blinken said Thursday that the United States will maintain the power to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would undermine Taiwan’s security or system.
Cooperation with Taiwan, which the secretary of state described as a vibrant democracy and leading regional economy, will continue to expand.
China has stepped up provocative coercion against Taiwan by conducting regular warplane incursions into the island’s air defense zone and working to undermine Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with countries around the world, he said.
“These words and actions are deeply destabilizing and risk miscalculation. They risk miscalculation and threaten the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Blinken said.
He criticized China for its lack of reciprocity, which has allowed Chinese companies and media organizations to operate freely in the United States while U.S. counterparts are restricted in China.
Mr. Blinken said China is integral to the global economy and can help solve problems such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beijing, however, has repeatedly dismissed U.S. efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and instead promised to reduce levels in several decades. China also continues to block cooperation with international efforts to identify the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19, which began in Wuhan, China.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Blinken’s speech.
Critics slap ‘Chamberlain-esque’ speech
Critics said the speech contained some positive elements but was deficient in addressing Chinese threats.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former intelligence director for the Pacific Fleet, said Mr. Blinken understated the danger of the Chinese Communist Party’s stated goal of dominating the world and replacing the United States.
“While Secretary Blinken spoke eloquently about the importance of American diplomacy, engagement with the PRC and even a new policy of investment, alignment and competition, there was very little discussion of hard power,” Mr. Fanell said.
The secretary of state said a new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness would track illegal fishing, but he made no mention of tracking expanding Chinese navy operations, Mr. Fanell said.
“Most alarming was the secretary’s failure to mention anything at all about the PRC’s ‘nuclear breakout’ this past year with the building of over 350 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile silos in central and western China,” he said.
In a reference to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who infamously underestimated the threat posed by Nazi Germany, Mr. Fanell described Mr. Blinken’s speech as “Chamberlain-esque in tone and tenor, lacking a Churchillian determination to prepare and defeat an adversary that seeks America’s destruction.”
A State Department official under the Trump administration said the speech appeared to bolster some of the former administration’s efforts to readjust U.S. policies toward China but fell short of offering solutions.
One positive feature, the former official said, was Mr. Blinken’s effort to identify a clear distinction between the Chinese government and Chinese people. Mr. Trump also made that effort.
“Mr. Blinken correctly identified China as a long-term threat in both intent and capabilities,” said the former State Department official, who spoke on background because of continued government work.
“While this vision was strong on identifying China as a long-term problem, the speech was very weak and even erroneous in providing solutions,” the former official said.
“Ultimately, Mr. Blinken wants to play ball with China, but will China compete fairly with the United States as he wishes? This is very weak,” the former official said.