US President Joe Biden has released a national security agenda outlining how the country would compete with an increasingly assertive China, including by moving to restore its global leadership and boosting alliances to both counter and leverage cooperation from Beijing.
The interim strategic guidance released on Wednesday described China as the only competitor that had the power to “mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”, placing a firm emphasis on US interests in the Indo-Pacific region compared to a focus on the Middle East during the Barack Obama era.
National security priorities included defending and bolstering the US and its democracy at home, promoting a “favourable distribution of power” to deter or prevent adversaries from threatening the US and its allies, and leadership in a rules-based international order underwritten by democratic alliances.
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“Taken together, this agenda will strengthen our enduring advantages and allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or with any other nation,” it said. “By restoring US credibility and reasserting forward-looking global leadership, we will ensure that America, not China, sets the international agenda, working alongside others to shape new global norms and agreements that advance our interests and reflect our values.”
The directive reflects the firmer line on China that Biden’s team has signalled it will continue from the previous administration, but embraces US leadership in the international and US alliance systems – in contrast to the era of Donald Trump, who eschewed multilateralism and tussled with allies.
While Beijing has been eager to call for a reset in relations after Trump’s tumultuous term, Biden has said he expects “extreme competition” with China, while leaving space for cooperation on issues such as climate change and the pandemic.
In the first phone call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in February, the two clashed over Beijing’s economic practices and human rights abuses, with Xi calling on the US to respect China’s sovereignty and interests with regards to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
The White House national security agenda also stressed that the US not only needed to strengthen its network of allies and partners, but to make smart defence investments, confront China’s unfair trade practices, defend freedom of navigation and to support China’s neighbours in “defending their rights to make independent political choices free of coercion or undue foreign influence”.
“We will promote locally led development to combat the manipulation of local priorities,” it said, in a reference to Beijing’s belt and road development initiative.
The agenda document added that the US would support Taiwan as a “leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner”, an inclusion that Taipei welcomed.
The island’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou on Wednesday said there had been continuous expressions of strong support for Taiwan under the Biden administration and reiterations that the US security guarantee for Taiwan was “rock-solid”.
“Taiwan and the US have the same philosophy and collective goals when it comes to safeguarding democratic values, and the foreign ministry will continue to work closely with Biden’s government to strengthen our close global partnership, based on the foundations of our long-term and deep relationship,” she said.
The White House’s agenda on Wednesday also said the US would stand up for human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he agrees with the Trump administration’s designation of Beijing’s repression of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang as amounting to genocide.
“We will ensure that US companies do not sacrifice American values in doing business in China,” it said, seemingly a reference to US efforts to ban forced labour from Xinjiang in its supply chains. “On all these issues, we will work to forge a common approach with like-minded countries.”
But the agenda left room for cooperation with China in areas such as climate change, global health security, arms control and non-proliferation, engagement that would be done “from a position of confidence and strength”.
“We will conduct practical, results-oriented diplomacy with Beijing and work to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation,” it said. “As we do, we will rally our allies and partners to join us, pooling our negotiating leverage and showing our collective power and resolve.”
Pang Zhongying, a specialist in international relations at Ocean University of China, said Beijing would be disappointed with the Biden administration’s approach to “continue and even elevate” the tough policies of the Trump era and to strengthen alliances to deal with China.
“There does not seem to be any change yet in the serious tensions in China-US relations,” he said. “I think there may be some frustration in Beijing that after more than 40 days [of the new administration] they have not seen any change but there is actually more pressure from the US.”
Additional reporting by Lawrence Chung
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