Blinken’s assertion of an existential U.S.-China competition over the future of the international system resonated on Capitol Hill.
“We have to compete effectively with China because it’s become increasingly clear we have different visions — for whether the world should be safer for democracy or authoritarianism … and for whether the strong can bully the weak,’’ Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told POLITICO. “We have no choice but to compete because the world of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s vision would be unacceptable.”
Blinken — who was scheduled to deliver his remarks on May 5, but was forced to postpone after testing positive for Covid-19 the previous day — went on to insist that the United States is not “looking for conflict or a new Cold War. To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.”
“We don’t seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China — or any country, for that matter — from growing their economy or advancing the interests of their people,” Blinken 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 their divergent outlooks, the United States and China will “have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future,” Blinken continued. “That’s why this is one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any we have in the world today.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.’s response to Blinken’s speech didn’t address its specific content, but echoed his assessment of challenges vexing the bilateral relationship.
“The China-US relationship is now at a critical crossroads,” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told POLITICO in a statement. “We hope the US side will work with China to earnestly implement the common understanding reached by [Xi and Biden] to enhance communication, manage differences and focus on cooperation, so as to bring the bilateral relations back to the track of sound and steady development at an early date.”
Blinken highlighted the potential security risks to the U.S. and its allies posed by China’s alliance with Russia. “While Russia was clearly mobilizing to invade Ukraine, President Xi and President [Vladimir] Putin declared that the friendship between their countries was, and I quote, ‘without limits’ and this week as President Biden was in Japan, China and Russia conducted strategic bomber patrols together in the region,” Blinken said.
That mixture of rhetorical carrots and sticks confused some observers.
“I found the speech to contain many contradictions — on the one hand [Blinken] says there is no adversarial relationship or Cold War with China, but on the other hand he outlines steps for the U.S. to shape the environment around Beijing with an eye to advance U.S. strategic interests,” said Lina Benabdallah, assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University.
Blinken’s speech sets the table for a call between Biden and Xi that national security adviser Jake Sullivan said may occur within weeks. The White House hasn’t issued an agenda for that call, but a senior administration official said Wednesday that they had been working to “push Beijing to work with us on crisis communications, on risk reduction and on strategic stability.” That echoes a list of bilateral cooperation priorities Sullivan outlined after Biden’s virtual meeting with Xi in November. Bilateral rancor since has stymied any measurable progress.
“[The administration] has got to signify some goodwill — right now the Chinese side believes that it doesn’t matter what they do, that if they moderate their policies … we won’t adjust our own stance from a more hostile competition to a more friendly competition,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.
The speech by Blinken on Thursday came days after Biden concluded his first trip to Asia as president, during which he reached an agreement with a dozen Indo-Pacific nations to participate in negotiations on his signature economic initiative in the region, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
Blinken made clear that a key foundation of the administration’s China strategy is to create and reinforce allies and partnerships in Asia and beyond to offset China’s growing influence. But observers question whether China’s international partnership development is outgunning that of the U.S. They point to the fact that the Quad is an informal geostrategic grouping and that the IPEF lacks trade access incentives.
“Look at [Chinese Foreign Minister] Wang Yi’s travels throughout the Pacific to create a regional security pact — there’s a big difference in the partnerships that Beijing is developing which are formal, strategic signed agreements that endure,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Summitry that doesn’t lead to a signed deal is not a strategy and this administration seems to not really understand that.”
Biden also generated significant media attention when he declared in Tokyo that the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if the island was invaded by China. Those comments by Biden marked the third such assertion since he assumed office, remarks that seemingly undermined the long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan.
Blinken spent more than two minutes of his speech reiterating U.S. support for Taiwan and decrying what he called China’s “provocative” military intimidation of the self-governing island.
“While our [Taiwan] policy has not changed, what has changed is Beijing’s growing coercion, like trying to cut off Taiwan’s relations with countries around the world and blocking it from participating in international organizations,” said Blinken. “These words and actions are deeply destabilizing; they risk miscalculation and threaten the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.”
Beijing saw Blinken’s expression of support for Taiwan coming and fired a pre-speech rhetorical shot across the bow. A saber-rattling op-ed by Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, appeared in the South China Morning Post just hours prior to Blinken’s speech, warning of the perils of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
“U.S. actions will embolden [Taiwanese] separatists and turn the Taiwan Strait into a dangerous powder key … we will never compromise or back down,” he wrote.
“It’s important to lower the temperature if we can in our dealings with China relative to Taiwan,” said Ret. Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, professor of practice at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “I think Secretary Blinken’s speech struck the right tone for that in terms of firmness at the same time trying to engage in a constructive relationship with China.”
Biden also welcomed the leaders of the Association of Southeast Nations to the White House earlier this month for a special summit, the first such meeting held in Washington, D.C.
The intense bout of Asia diplomacy, capped by Blinken’s speech on Thursday, underscored the administration’s ongoing efforts to refocus its foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific. Biden sought to prioritize the region upon taking office, but U.S. officials have been largely consumed since February by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Blinken referenced that conflict in his remarks, pledging that “even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order — and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”