Strategic competition with China does not mean presupposing war is inevitable, but it does mean doing everything possible to prevent it by acting responsibly and being prepared should it occur.
President Joe Biden’s approach toward the People’s Republic of China carefully balances on a knife’s edge. On the one hand, Beijing is the pacing threat for national defense and a long-term strategic competitor. On the other, it is an essential partner for tackling existential global challenges like climate change. The White House has paradoxically positioned itself to embrace Beijing in a narrow set of cooperative areas while simultaneously preparing for a protracted security contest because the future is clear as mud.
The United and China have never “solved” their differences, but they always found ways to manage them. This system no longer operates because China has lost interest in playing, exposing the relationship to increased turmoil and uncertainty. The White House is trying to make the best of a very bad situation and remain flexible to prepare for any scenario that strategic competition may yield, up to and including war.
Diplomacy is the bedrock of international relations. Washington is thus prioritizing strengthening communication channels with Beijing in a bid to help stabilize their turbulent relationship. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s initialMarch 2021 summit with China was more akin to a verbal fighting match than a diplomatic meeting, ominously setting very low expectations for how relations would unfold over the coming years. Biden’s lone meeting in office with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2022 similarly did little to alter this bleak outlook.
Washington confronts the harsh truth that conducting meaningful diplomacy is difficult when the other party does not return the favor. Quite the contrary, Beijing has persistently weaponized high-level talks to signal its displeasure. The Chinese “great wall of pettiness” serves as an imposing barrier to achieving diplomatic breakthroughs. Nevertheless, the White House has put forth an honest effort.
In May, Washington offered for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Beijing declined, opting instead for a brief handshake. In June, Blinken traveled to Beijing to meet with Xi. Both sides paid lip service to the urgent need for stability, but the trip failed to achieve its core objective—a resumption of military-to-military talks. In July, special climate envoy John Kerry visited Beijing to attempt and broker a climate agreement between the world’s two largest emitters. This too, resulted in failure.
Despite all this talking, China has yet to reciprocate by sending even a single envoy to Washington. White House Press Secretary Jake Sullivan succinctly captured this unfortunate mismatch of effort and results by stating, “[we]… do not view these trips as about deliverables or particular policy outcomes.”
While Beijing’s cold shoulder has frozen diplomatic progress, its malign actions abroad have heated up the U.S.-China security contest and pushed several key actors to Washington’s side. In August, Biden participated in the first-ever trilateral stand-alone summit with the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea. The three sides issued joint remarks critical of Beijing and vowed to expand and deepen security cooperation. Notably, they also reaffirmed their commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, widely viewed as the region’s most likely flash point.
The Biden White House has given special focus toward Taiwan as it faces the grim prospect of annexation by China, which claims the self-governing island democracy as a renegade province. On multiple occasions, Biden publicly declared the United States would defend Taiwan if attacked, in contravention of decades of established protocol to remain ambiguous on the matter. Though not a formal change in policy, these statements underscore that a future potential conflict over Taiwan weighs on the President’s thoughts. With this scenario in mind, Washington approved Taiwan for the Foreign Military Finance program, usually used by sovereign states to finance American arms purchases, to go along with a $345 million arms package.
Red Shift Theory posits the universe is expanding in all directions—just like China’s territorial claims, which have brought India, Vietnam, and the Philippinescloser to Washington. In June, the United States and India reaffirmed a burgeoning security relationship declaring themselves “among the closestpartners in the world.” Pivotally, Washington secured Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to uphold the international rules-based maritime order paving the way for India’s contribution to push back against growing Chinese coercion in the South China Sea.
This September, Vietnam and the United States are expected to upgrade their diplomatic ties to a “strategic partnership” in a classic case of “ the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This decision is undoubtedly motivated by Hanoi’s desire to retain its political and security autonomy from China. Vietnam is steadily building links with the U.S.-led regional security architecture as indicated by Hanoi’s upgraded ties with the Republic of Korea and announced plans to do so with Australia later this year.
U.S.-Philippine security ties have undergone a fundamental reset in the best way possible. Washinton gained access to nine new bases for joint training with the Philippine Armed Forces and hosted the largest-ever annual combined U.S.-Philippine military exercise this year. In a thinly veiled shot at China’s growing preference for using coercion to enforce its disputed maritime claims with Manila, Washington reaffirmed its commitment to Article V of the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.
However, Washington’s gains in the competition space are not limited to the Indo-Pacific. European attitudes toward China have soured amidst Beijing’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, creating opportunities for the United States. In July, all thirty-one NATO member states echoed Washington’s long-stated criticisms of Beijing in a sharp statement condemning Chinese political, economic, and military coercion targeting European allies. China’s failed attemptto portray itself as a neutral party in the Ukraine War also helped push the European Union’s pledge to join the United States in countering Chinese disinformation and anti-market trade practices.
The Biden administration’s approach toward China, while not universally successful, skillfully takes into account the fact that Beijing gets a vote. Leaving the door cracked open for diplomacy provides Beijing an off-ramp to deescalate tensions, but the decision to take it ultimately rests with Xi. The U.S. has led the horse to water but cannot force it to drink. Similarly in the security realm, Xi could easily choose to initiate a conflict over Taiwan or accidentally trigger one over a disputed South China Sea claim.
Strategic competition with China does not mean presupposing war is inevitable, but it does mean doing everything possible to prevent it by acting responsibly and being prepared should it occur. Steering the U.S.-China relations to greener pastures is beyond the control of the White House, Pentagon, or Congress. Until Beijing reciprocates Washington’s diplomatic gestures, strategic competition will lack clearly defined boundaries and the risk of instability will remain ever-present. Given a lack of clear alternatives, Washington’s best bet is to continue hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
Ryan Bercaw is a Marine Corps veteran with a decade of public service in the U.S. government focused primarily on Indo-Pacific regional security. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in International Studies at the American University in Washington D.C. His published works have also appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette and the International Policy Digest. He also speaks Mandarin Chinese.
The views/statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this piece are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) or U.S. government. This essay does not imply DoD or U.S. government endorsement or factual, accuracy or opinion.