Biden’s China strategy takes shape: A plan to tackle the emerging Cold War?
The Biden administration’s strategy to combat an increasingly assertive China has started to take shape and signals greater Sino-US competition. Biden’s strategy is built on the belief that China is the only geopolitical rival that truly threatens the international rules-based order. China, over recent years, has repeatedly violated international law and made clear its regional ambitions. It has illegally expanded its territory and maritime zone in the South China Sea, conducted cyberattacks on foreign countries (including the US), and continues to threaten an invasion of Taiwan.
Over the last ten years, the country has increased its defence spending by over 750 per cent, and engaged in industrial-scale theft of intellectual property across the world. Sino-US tensions have risen sharply since 2017 when the US declared China a “strategic competitor” and key areas of competition have crystallised - trade, technology, cyberspace and military capability.
The Trump administration, though clumsy and inflammatory, clearly articulated the threat of China, frequently citing ‘China’ as the malevolent architect of various global ills, which consequently hardened American attitudes towards the country. However, it lacked strategy and Trump failed to achieve any meaningful advantage over his competitor. Biden is attempting to formulate a more comprehensive and coherent strategy than his predecessor to compete with China on multiple fronts. This includes engaging in multilateralism that utilises US diplomatic strength, pursues aggressive economic competition and repositions US military strength against China. In this strategy, the groundwork for a new Cold War is evident, which will inevitably take place in the Indo-Pacific.
The Reassertion of a US Multilateral Approach
The Biden administration’s attempts to coordinate with traditional and emerging US partners clearly demonstrates its efforts to rally allies into a coherent bloc against Beijing. This ambition aims to politically and economically inhibit China. The goal can be exemplified in two early actions of the administration: the first ever head-of-government meeting of ‘the Quad’ and high-profile visits to strategic partners in Asia.
The Quad is not a military alliance. However, it is an important cornerstone of the US regional security architecture. During the meeting in March, the partners announced the Quad’s objective to manufacture and distribute one billion COVID vaccinations throughout the Indo-Pacific, which is undoubtedly aimed at countering China’s own vaccine rollout in the region. This is one part of the US strategy to “win hearts and minds” in its soft power competition with China. The announcement of an in-person meeting later this year suggests further action will likely be taken to counter China through this framework.
In his Asian diplomatic tour, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visited India, Japan and South Korea. In particular, his visits to Tokyo and Seoul, where he was joined by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken were self-admittingly aimed at boosting military cooperation with American allies and fostering “credible deterrence” against China. This marks a clear departure from the ‘America First’ approach and the renewal of traditional US multilateralism.
As explained in their Washington Post op-ed before they embarked to Asia, Blinken and Austin stated that “our alliances are what our military calls ‘force multipliers’. We’re able to achieve far more with them than we could without them”. The incredible size of the network of alliances and partnerships, as they point out, is something unique to the US in the Indo-Pacific. This has allowed them to coordinate with their partners to impose sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which the Biden administration recently declared as genocide.
“Our alliances are what our military calls ‘force multipliers’. We’re able to achieve far more with them than we could without them”.
The US multilateral approach is something that Beijing cannot match. China maintains few tentatively held alliances, and its partnerships are mostly with pariah states. This is something that China is attempting to change, as seen with its warming relations with Cambodia and Pakistan. However, these are the last picks for a team, and the quality and value of the alliance is an issue. Moscow remains China's most powerful partnership, but this relationship is poisoned by a long history of mutual suspicion. Similarly, while North Korea would be the closest to a military alliance for China, Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping hardly see eye-to-eye. A lack of reliable partnerships will remain a major challenge for Beijing if great power competition continues to ramp up.
Economic Competition and US Strategic Infrastructure
Efforts to economically out-compete China also appear to be central tenants of Biden’s emerging strategy. As economist William H. Olverholt theorises, modern weaponry has become so lethal that gaining power through conquest is no longer an option. Instead, the path to global hegemony runs through the economy, which depends on capable infrastructure.
Biden appears to agree with this assessment, arguing that he expects the rivalry with China will take the form of “extreme competition” rather than conflict. Under this thinking, Biden recently unveiled a major US infrastructure plan, costing over $2 trillion, which he argued would create the “most resilient, innovative economy in the world.” In doing so, he contends that America “will win the future” and the “global competition with China.” This is not simply crafty messaging to drum up political will to overcome Washington’s long-standing struggles with major buildouts, it is a strategic issue that the plan attempts to overcome.
When it comes to infrastructure, the US is forced to play catch-up with China in key areas including high-speed rail network, renewable energy and 5G networks. If implemented, Biden’s plan could spur the US to compete more effectively with China. Biden has also floated the idea of US-aligned democratic countries creating an initiative to rival China’s Belt and Road. This will both fund infrastructure development and act as a source of influence in developing countries.
The administration is also working to boost government-directed investment in technology sectors crucial to US economic advancement. The policy has rising bipartisan support, due to a belief that China's civil-military fusion will overwhelm American efforts unless it is matched. At the same time, the US is ramping up targeted measures to limit exports of sensitive technologies that empower China’s own technology and the People’s Liberation Army. This will be one major responsibility of the Pentagon’s new China Task Force, as well as stamping out backdoor Chinese financing and hardware in the defense industry supply chain.
Sustaining Military Engagement
When it comes to the Biden administration’s military approach, they will continue the Obama administration’s attempts to reorient towards a military strategy purpose built for the Indo-Pacific and great power conflict. This involves shifting the US Marine Corps from a second land army, generated by the War on Terror, to smaller amphibious units ready to conduct an island-hopping campaign. The Biden administration is also ramping up joint-military exercises in the Indo-Pacific, displayed in a recent French-Quad naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal.
Furthermore, the administration is facing pressure from both sides of Congress to increase defence spending, as China’s own military capability rapidly advances and becomes more assertive in the region. In his recently unveiled first proposed budget, he has only committed to a marginal increase in defence spending that would see the Pentagon’s budget rise to $715 billion for the fiscal year 2022.
While some have argued that the proposed budget is too meager to “keep America and our allies safe”, Biden may be reluctant to increase spending as he faces several other economic priorities at home, including a growing national debt and ambitious policy agendas. However, he may not have much choice. Admiral Philip Davidson, Chief of US Indo-Pacific Command, stated that the military balance in the region has “become more unfavourable” to the US and warned that China may attempt to seize control of Taiwan within the next six years. China is already ramping up military activity in its neighbourhood and is boosting defence spending. These realities make, at the very least, any reduction in US defence spending politically non-viable for the Biden administration.
Biden has also sustained US military engagement with China, as exercised by previous administrations. Freedom of navigation operations have continued, both in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Under Biden, Americans have sent warships to transit the Taiwan Strait on three separate occasions. These are viewed as hostile by China and signal Biden’s support for Taiwan. Advancing Taiwan’s security has been labelled a ‘vital national security interest’ to the US and the proposed US Strategic Competition Act has called for the US to support building the capability in Taiwan’s defenses. Biden’s military approach to China will centre on deterring them from miscalculating, while preparing to win a ‘hot war’ in the event that it fails to succeed.
What Does the Future Hold?
Currently, Biden’s China strategy is more multifaceted than that of his predecessor. Trump was successful in rebuilding initiatives, such as the Quad, and jolting the US into a more combative posture, but his approach was lacking in substance and grand strategy.
Conversely, Biden continues on with some of his predecessors' policies, while also combining it with a multifaceted approach that will create a more united and sustained approach in defence of US interests in the region. At a time that future historians might call the Second Cold War, this is good news.
Still, the Biden administration remains untested by China and it is unclear what the US will do in the event of an attack on Taiwan. Would the US risk a global war and economic catastrophe for Taipei? These types of calculations are essential to US operational and contingency planning in the region. So far the waters are relatively calm, but is there a storm on the horizon?
Cameron Smith is a recent Bachelor of Arts History (Hons) and International Relations graduate from the University of Wollongong. His interests include American global affairs, international security and the Indo-Pacific.