Analysis

Biden’s battle of democracies and the China challenge

The New Cold War between Washington and Beijing might be on ice but fundamental issues remain

A New Cold War between China and the United States has been put on ice.

In a keynote address, US President Joe Biden outlined the dangers facing global democracies from the world’s second-largest economy. 

But he kept the chill factor just above zero during the online Munich Security Conference after the Group of Seven video summit.

Taking his first virtual steps on the international stage since moving into the White House, Biden warned that China poses a “long-term strategic” challenge.

“We cannot and must not return to the rigid blocs of the Cold War,” he said, reassuring his fellow political leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom that make up the G7 with the US.

“Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all. For example, we must cooperate if we’re going to defeat Covid-19 everywhere,” Biden added earlier this week.

Collaboration not confrontation will be his buzzwords at least with Washington’s allies.

In a stroke, he drew a line under former President Donald Trump’s abrasive approach to diplomacy with so-called “friends.” China will not be so lucky.

Biden’s blueprint

“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China. How the United States, Europe, and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake,” he said in his “America is Back” speech.

Beijing’s response to Biden’s blueprint was predictable even before he uttered a single word.

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President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party believes that nothing can stop the continued rise of China and that the nation is destined to be the ultimate superpower.

After the Trump era, Xi and his inner circle see the US as divided politically with cracks appearing in Pax Americana as the sun starts to set on the stars and stripes. 

The Covid-19 crisis has only accelerated the decline of the West, they point out. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy simply reinforced that view.

“Underneath all these strategic choices lies Xi’s belief, reflected in official Chinese pronouncements and CCP literature, that the United States is experiencing a steady, irreversible structural decline,” Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, wrote in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs.

Yet that has not stopped Beijing from playing the well-worn “victim” card. It is still pumping out shriek soundbites to a domestic audience, underscoring the perception that China is being “bullied” by Uncle Sam. 

Siege mentality

Wang Yiwei, the director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, illustrated this siege mentality when he accused Biden of putting ”new wine into an old bottle” when referring to Washington’s containment plan.

“Not all of them see China as the ‘enemy’ such as France and Germany. Even Japan, one of the US’ most important allies in Asia may not view China as an ‘enemy.’ Under such circumstances, few of them would choose a side and a New Cold War is not in line with their interests,” he told the state-run newspaper Global Times, adding that an “alliance” would quickly disintegrate.

Indeed, there are weak links in Biden’s coalition of the willing. The European Union, which was represented at the G7, is now China’s biggest trading partner. In turn, that has boosted German exports and lined the pockets of the country’s big auto groups such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

A roll of the dice in the game of global geopolitics. Image: Dreamstime / China Factor

Chancellor Angela Merkel has tended to take a pragmatic approach when dealing with Beijing. She was the driving force behind the China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the EU. Yet considerable hurdles remain if it is to get through the European Parliament later this year.

There are other problems. The decision by Merkel to step down later in 2021 after 15 years running Germany will leave a massive hole not only in domestic politics but also in the broader EU foreign policy mission. 

China will be watching the situation closely, hoping it will be business as usual with the most dominant member of the eurozone.

Still, there are issues that resonate within the G7 of major industrialized countries. They include Beijing’s predatory trading practices, the militarization of the South and East China Seas and the lack of transparency that percolates throughout the nation.

Crucial concern

Human rights is another crucial concern. Up to 1.4 million Uighur Muslims have been held in internment camps in Xinjiang province. Media reports containing allegations of “rape, sexual abuse and torture” have horrified the international community while being strenuously denied by Xi’s administration.

The destruction of the “One Country, Two Systems” model in Hong Kong and the arrest of pro-democracy activists have also prompted wide-spread condemnation from the entire G7.

Biden used those fears during his virtual address and looked down the road ahead, offering a vision of democracy amid China’s embrace of autocracy.

“I believe that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed-world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission,” he said. 

“[But] democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it. We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of our history; it’s the single best way to revitalize the promise of our future,” Biden added.

The only question now is whether the world’s leading democracies will live up to the rhetoric?

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