Biden’s China strategy: Coalition-driven competition or Cold War-style confrontation?

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrives with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (not pictured) at a China-US Business Dialogue in the Beijing Hotel in Beijing August 19, 2011. China and the United States "have a responsibility to strengthen macro-economic policy coordination and together boost market confidence," Xi told visiting Biden on Thursday, according to Chinese state media. REUTERS/How Hwee Young/Pool (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS)
Editor's note:
The following is an excerpt from Cheng Li’s essay originally published in the May 2021 Trends Research & Advisory report, “Deconstructing President Biden’s 100 Days in Office: Outlooks and Prospects.”

In 1998, at a time when the United States enjoyed supreme power and influence on the world stage, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, wrote his classic book on grand strategy, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. In the book, Brzezinski, one of the world’s foremost strategic thinkers, issued a warning to the American foreign policy establishment:

Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an “antihegemonic” coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances. It would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower. Averting this contingency, however remote it may be, will require a display of U.S. geostrategic skill on the western, eastern, and southern perimeters of Eurasia simultaneously.

The geopolitical landscape today seems to reflect what Brzezinski feared over two decades ago. Throughout President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, his administration has largely continued the Trump administration’s hawkish approach toward China. President Biden has also made international coalition building his primary foreign policy initiative, which differs markedly from his predecessor’s “America First” approach.

To counter this strategic move, China has enhanced its diplomatic, economic, and military relationship with both Russia and Iran in recent months, resulting in the closest ties these countries have had in the post-Cold War era. This “Cold War-like bloc” or “Cold War-style alliance” (jiemeng lengzhan) — a new term that has been used by government officials and geopolitical analysts around the world — reflects concerns within the international community regarding Biden’s foreign policy strategy.

The Biden administration is still reviewing its strategy and policies toward China, which are expected to be finalized over the summer. Senior officials on the foreign policy team have frequently emphasized three “C” words: competition, cooperation, and confrontation. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the new administration’s approach to China will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” The Biden administration has reaffirmed the desire for collaboration and cooperation with China in areas that serve American interests, a sharp contrast with the “all-encompassing decoupling” policy toward China in the final year of the Trump administration. However, Biden himself has emphasized that “stiff competition” defines U.S.-China relations.

Is the world heading toward what the late Brzezinski referred to as “the most dangerous scenario”? What can the Biden administration do to distinguish between strategies of “coalition-driven competition” and “Cold War-style confrontation? How will other countries respond to this “stiff competition,” especially if it evolves into an adversarial relationship? To what extent has the Biden administration’s China strategy reflected the enduring impact of the Trump administration? Can some of the Biden administration’s recent moves be interpreted as temporary tactics rather than long-term strategy? What role has domestic political pressure in the United States and China’s economic and technological challenge played in shaping Biden’s China strategy? This chapter aims to address these important questions about the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world today.