America needs a sharper strategic narrative on China
The American public and the rest of the world want to hear a clearer story from America on where it’s headed with China
U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping earlier this week covered a wide range of issues in the bilateral relationship without producing major breakthroughs.
Another thing the meeting didn’t provide: a clear story about what the Biden administration is trying to achieve in the big picture in its complicated engagement with China.
For sure, the bilateral relationship is shaped by a long list of issues and an intricate set of policy moves by the Biden administration, as described by Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan in a Brookings appearance on Tuesday after the virtual summit. But a careful look at the Biden administration’s public statements on U.S.-China relations finds a lack of a coherent, unified argument that explains what it wants to achieve with China to ordinary Americans and the rest of the world.
Hearing Sullivan describe U.S. actions in the runup to the meeting and the summit itself, I was reminded of a criticism Les Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations issues to a small group of Democrats nearly 20 years ago: Democrats often have detailed, 100-point policy plans, but they usually lack an “Excalibur” – a political argument making the case for those elaborate plans, something that pierces through the details and build political support at home and abroad.
But listening to how President Biden and his team talk about China, it is apparent that many have not heeded Gelb’s advice. The Biden administration is definitely doing its policy homework in a series of detailed, thoughtful policy reviews. But they are falling short when it comes to telling a clear story about what they are doing on the China front to two key audiences: the American public and the rest of the world.
Why it matters at home
Americans don’t like or trust China, as John Halpin pointed out in his take on recent public opinion data from Pew. Americans across the spectrum are concerned about a range of issues, including China’s human rights abuses, authoritarianism, and economic power. But how the Biden administration talks about its approach on China to the American public matters a lot.
If you examine how the Biden team talks its approach to China, including Sullivan’s recent Brookings appearance, it is often expressed in language and using terms that don’t connect with most ordinary Americans, with phrases like “non-market economic practices,” “Indo-Pacific,” and “an affirmative vision for the international system that remains free, open, and fair.” These terms may be fine for a graduate school seminar or a Beltway policy roundtable but lack resonance with ordinary people. Curiously, even the episodically-deployed Biden foreign policy catchphrase, a “foreign policy for the middle class,” wasn’t used in this particular presentation.
The U.S. policy debate impacts the lives of many ordinary Americans – workers, farmers, small business owners. The Biden administration needs to mount a political and communications effort matching what appears to be a top-notch policy effort. It should more directly communicate how Americans will benefit from the investments passed by Congress this year and how this will give America a competitive edge.
Another thing that would help the political communications campaign on China is if President Biden and his team were more consistent about key aspects of U.S. policy, like Taiwan. It’s never a good thing to have to repeatedly issue corrections and clarifications to U.S. policy on matters as important as Taiwan.
As with most foreign policy questions these days, there’s a “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” dynamic going on in America’s political debate on China. Fringe left-wing fear mongering about a new Cold War with China from voices like independent Senator Bernie Sanders lack political support at home and don’t offer a sound strategic rationale for U.S. foreign policy, as Peter Juul noted. Joe Nye skillfully explained why what’s happening between the two countries is not a new Cold War, in large part because of the complicated interdependence.
At the same time, some Republicans have tried to mount a new “red scare” – but the broader package of conservative messaging on China is all over the map. Plus, Donald Trump still owns the GOP politically, and Trump’s record on China was a fiasco not a triumph, as Max Boot pointed out.
This dynamic provides ample room for a balanced, inclusive nationalist argument that taps into America’s competitive spirit in a positive way to rally support for the smart, nuanced game plan the Biden team has developed for China. There’s a way to talk about U.S. competition with China without sounding like an anti-Asian racist or war-monger – or that these are the only two options.
Why it matters abroad
As we all emerge from the pandemic and reconnect with the rest of the world, we are starting to hear things about U.S. foreign policy that offer opportunities for learning. This past week, I participated in two different conferences that gathered leaders and thinkers from Europe to the Middle East to Asia together to talk about the way forward, and one common theme I heard from a broad range of countries was that they don’t want to be forced to choose between America and China.
Strategic hedging is a new feature among many countries around the world – and it’s likely here to stay. No one really likes China and its alternative model, but the perception that America is strategically unreliable and unable to take care of its own problems effectively has left a mark among friend and foe alike in the world. My sense is that many countries in the world would much rather work with America, but the extreme political division and dysfunction in America has left a mark. Many leaders around the world worry that America is just one or two election cycles away from yet another major pendulum swing in its foreign policy or worse, a crumbling of America’s political system from within.
So, as the Biden team continues to execute its game plan on China, trying to build ties in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East with like-minded countries, it needs to be clear about what America seeks to achieve in its strategy on China and communicate its vision and expectations clearly. In this current geopolitical era, even some of America’s closest partners will likely continue to hedge strategically, until they see a clearer sign that America’s geopolitical path is more stable.
That's why an effort to build a more inclusive nationalism in America would pay dividends in the world. It would send a clearer message to the world about what we stand for and actually open the doors to a new type of international cooperation that we won't see from the "us versus them" identity politics of the Trumpist or the coalition-destroying moral crusading of left-wing identity politics.
America’s workers and businesses are the best in the world – and we’re taking more steps to keep it that way. By keeping the U.S. message on China simple and focused on how ordinary Americans will benefit directly, it will send a more confident and clearer message than the Biden administration is currently offering.