Then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Joe Biden at a luncheon in a file photo. Image: AFP / Getty Images

US politicians and military leaders, along with a parade of scholars and pundits, are engaged in a frenzied effort to figure out what to do about China’s growing military strength and power to influence world affairs. 

Debates and commentary are cascading in advance of a new, soon-to-be-published National Defense Strategy, a periodic report on American global threat assessments and plans to deal with them. As regards China, clarity will certainly be in order as President Joe Biden’s policy has been a kind of moving target. 

In late 2020, when Biden was running for office, he downplayed China’s emergence as a global heavyweight. “Not competition” for the US, he said. Soon after taking office, he abandoned indifference and warned of a “growing rivalry with China.”

Soon, the head of the China desk in Biden’s National Security Council described the main foreign policy task as “blunting Chinese power.” 

Last week, at a security forum in Washington, General Mark Milley, the chairman of Biden’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, upgraded the worry. “We are witnessing one of the largest shifts in geopolitical power that the world has witnessed,” he warned.

“If we, the United States military, don’t do a fundamental change ourselves in the coming 10 to 20 years, we’re going to be on the wrong side of a conflict.”

Last week, US military leaders published an alarming evaluation of China’s growing military capabilities. The blandly-titled Pentagon report, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, detailed Beijing’s advancements on land, sea and air war preparations.

The headline prediction: China will increase its stockpile of nuclear warheads from about 350 today to 1,000 by 2030.

The report was followed by news that China had tested a nuclear-capable super-fast hypersonic missile designed to evade air defenses. General Milley characterized the accomplishment as something akin to a “Sputnik moment,” when the USSR launched the word’s first orbiting satellite and set off the 1960s Cold War space race.

DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles have become the mainstay of China’s anti-access/area-denial defenses. Credit: Xinhua.

Yet, in tandem with this alarmist view, Biden has cast the notion of security broadly to include seemingly unrelated domestic issues. Widening a definition to enhance a policy’s appeal is in line with Biden’s fondness for rhetorical sleight of hand.

On the domestic front, he redefined infrastructure to apply not just to bridges, roads, transportation, communication, the internet and the like, but to things that used to be called social welfare. Universal pre-school is now defined as infrastructure, for example. 

Hence, confusion reigns about security priorities. “When everyone gets something, no one gets everything, which is why the core principles of Mr Biden’s worldview have been hard to pin down,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of the New America think tank, wrote in last weekend’s New York Times.

On Monday, Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping will hold their first formal summit meeting, albeit by video link from home.

Both governments signaled that the talks aim to lower tensions over an array of topics, notably Xi’s desire to put self-governing Taiwan under Beijing’s control versus US support for the island’s continued separation from the mainland.

Other simmering disputes include maritime control of the South and East China Seas, trade, American accusations of Chinese cyber-attacks and American criticism of human rights in China as well as Beijing’s unwillingness to further investigate the origins of Covid-19. 

Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki said the leaders would discuss ways to “responsibly manage competition” and “to work together where our interests align.” Xi, in a message to the New York-based National Committee on US-China Relations, advised: “Both countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. Cooperation is the only right choice.” 

Toning down rhetoric favors Biden’s notion that the US and China can cooperate on certain issues – climate change is a favorite – while putting aside other disagreements.

Yet compartmentalization raises a key question: is there a dominant framework for US relations with China?

The answer may have to await the release of the National Security Strategy. In March, the Biden administration issued a 24-page Interim National Security Strategic Guidance report that labeled China “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” 

Yet the guide was short on what to do about it. Instead, Biden’s team blended defense concerns with the president’s domestic policy aspirations. “The most effective way for America to out-compete a more assertive and authoritarian China over the long-term is to invest in our people, our economy and our democracy,” the interim report intoned. 

Joe Biden speaks at a ‘Build Back Better’ Clean Energy event on July 14, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: AFP Olivier Douliery

The Congressional Research Service, which supplies policy analyses to the US Congress, noted the report “appears to invert traditional national security strategy formulations, focusing on perceived shortcomings in domestic, social and economic policy rather than external threats as its analytic starting point.” 

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, scornfully complained that “while many believe a strong navy will be important to contain China, there is curiously no mention of the service in the new guidance. Maybe some thoughts about the new Space Force and the significant challenges America faces in space? Nope.

“The role of the Air Force? Nada. What about climate change? Jackpot! Mentioned 14 times.”

Outside experts are campaigning for the impending strategy guidance to lay out a clear framework. One model is the 1946 recommendation by diplomat George Kennan that “containment” be the primary means to curb feared Soviet aggression

The Atlantic Council, a non-partisan US think tank, published what is called a “Longer Telegram” to lay out a proposed policy toward China. The name echoed the Long Telegram authored by Kennan that prioritized containment as a foreign policy tool.

The council essay noted that an “aggressive” China has for several years formulated a cohesive plan for dealing with the US as a global power, whereas “the United States has so far had no such strategy with regard to China.” 

“This is a dereliction of national responsibility,” the essay declared.

The Longer Telegram argues the US must rebuild its economic and military strength and reach domestic agreement on “red lines” that China should not cross. The US should also wage an “ideological battle” to promote democracy and bolster allies so that their combined economic, military and technological prowess “is deployed in common defense of the US-led liberal international order.”

The paper supported Biden’s notion of working with China on issues such as “climate disruption,” pandemics and nuclear security. The US must work to convince some unnamed dissidents within China’s Communist Party to cooperate with, rather than oppose, the US, it said. 

War on the Rocks, a military and foreign policy blog that bills itself as viewing security “through a realist lens,” also offered detailed critiques. In fashioning proposals for dealing with China (and its military wingman, Russia), “strategists should align the roles and missions of the US military with these pacing adversaries and resist the temptation to conflate national problems with national security threats.” (Italics theirs)

That is, contrary to Biden’s catch-all security approach, dump climate change and focus on defense.

Air Force F-22 Raptors and a C-130J Hercules taxi on the runway before taking off at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on July 22, 2021. Photo: Air Force Senior Airman Justin Wynn

For example, War on the Rocks argues the need to dedicate resources to “forward” defensive positions in the Western Pacific, and especially Guam. Guam is the biggest US Pacific airfield, serves as an important logistical pre-position site and is also a submarine base.

It’s also a US sovereign territory that is home to about 170,000 American citizens.

The blog also suggests increased funds for Pacific area deterrence programs. Despite warnings about China’s strides, US military deployments in Europe, along with infrastructure, training and pre-positioning, are budgeted at US$5.9 billion compared with only $2.2 billion for the Pacific region.

In unusually harsh tones, the US military’s top intelligence officer for the Asia-Pacific expressed skepticism that the government takes China seriously as a threat. 

“I’m wondering in Washington how many folks are truly persuaded by the warning which the intelligence community has already provided … with regard to the nature of the Chinese threat,” Rear Admiral Mike Studeman told the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. “We would say the danger is clear and present already.”

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.