Confusion on China

There has been criticism of President Joe Biden’s rambling performance at his Hanoi press conference and not just from partisan outlets. But there was also substance, both good and bad, in his remarks that indicate two important aspects of the administration. The use of diplomatic boilerplate to cover actions that speak louder than words, and the obvious differences in policy agendas within the executive branch which Biden merely repeats without being able to reconcile, giving the impression he is merely a placeholder and not the true leader.

Biden raised eyebrows with his claims about not wanting to “contain” or “hurt” China, and that “We’re all better off if China does well -- if China does well by the international rules. It grows the economy.” It is clear that we (meaning not just America but the world) are worse off if the Beijing communist regime is doing well at expanding its power and influence given its aggressive nature. Its economy is what provides the means for it to expand its military and acquire strategic assets both at home and abroad. Biden was right to hope that China’s current economic problems make an invasion of Taiwan less likely by reducing its capabilities.

Biden’s trips to India and Vietnam were to “strengthen alliances around the world to maintain stability” which means containing Chinese expansion. A Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was declared with a former enemy in Hanoi. India has moved from nonalignment to active membership in the Quad with the U.S., Japan, and Australia, all building up their military strength to counter Beijing’s threats. The agreements signed in New Delhi stressed U.S.-India defense industry cooperation and the shifting of supply chains away from China (also mentioned in Vietnam). Yet, Biden claimed “we’re not looking to decouple from China. What I’m not going to do is I’m not going to sell China material that would enhance their capacity to make more nuclear weapons, to engage in defense activities.” Here, Biden is trying to straddle two competing interests; the national security concern of a rising hostile power that has been stealing as well as developing advanced weapons technology and business concerns which have foolishly hopped into bed with China for cheap labor and an illusionary mass market (which Beijing will never allow to be dominated by foreigners). The trips to China by secretaries Janet Yellen (Treasury) and Gina Raimondo (Commerce) have been to appease both Beijing and the Chamber of Commerce (who may donate to Biden’s campaign to avoid a return to President Donald Trump’s harder line).

Presidents since George H.W. Bush have tried to use trade to induce China to behave. There is Bush’s infamous letter to Deng Xiaoping soon after the Chinese “reformer” had ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre. In it, Bush notes “the clamor for stronger action remains intense. I have resisted that clamor making clear that I did not want to destroy the relationship you and I have worked hard to build.” Bush vetoed economic sanctions passed by Congress. After the Korean crisis of 2010 which saw large naval exercises by China and Russia in support of Pyongyang and competing U.S. and allied demonstrations supporting Seoul, President Barack Obama told a group of Chinese and American business leaders meeting in Washington on the sideline of the U.S.-China summit that he counted on them to keep the peace. The joint statement at the end of that 2011 summit read “The United States reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs.” The policy behind this statement was “the pivot” of American power and focus from the Middle East to Asia.

President Trump broke this narrative. His 2017 National Security Strategy stated, “These competitions [China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea] require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades -- policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.” President Biden’s security team has continued most of Trump’s policies (except for Iran) without, of course, acknowledging doing so. But Biden seems to have lost control of other parts of his administration which are pursuing polices that undermine national security (and much more) as they promote their own anarchial agendas.

The business lobby has already been mentioned, but the Green lobby is even more dangerous. The contradiction in policy was painfully evident in Hanoi. Biden proclaimed a commitment to economic growth both at home and worldwide. “If everybody in the world had a job they get up in the morning and wanted to go to and thought they -- and they could put three squares in the table for their family, no matter where they live, the whole world would be better off” he said. Correct, but not the Green goal. And Biden quickly moved to their anti-growth ideology in the same presentation, blaming the “climate crisis” on “the countries that cleared their land and put cattle on there and farming and -- and did all the things that -- and increased development, they, in fact, are the ones -- the reasons why -- the main reason why we’ve gotten as far down the road to disaster here as we have.” This is China’s argument, posturing as the leader of the developing world. The West must retreat economically so the rest can advance. The United Nations has based its agenda on this notion. China and India are today’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, but it is alleged “emissions from burning fossil fuels over the past 150 years are responsible for the warming happening today. Over that period, the U.S. has cumulatively emitted the most of any country.” So, development is bad, except for those non-western lands who still want to develop more.

The Greens constantly reference “preindustrial” times. It is the UN goal to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above “preindustrial levels” (a target developing countries reject). The claim is human activity, rather than the natural cycle of heating and cooling seen throughout history, is the threat. The UN put out a list of activities that create climate change: it covers everything involved in modern civilization: power, manufacturing, transportation, food, and “consuming too much.” The issue is about ideology not science. This list reflects the Left’s long hate campaign against middle-class life and the capitalist system that spreads affluence throughout the population. In his long diatribe When Corporations Rule the World David Korten argued “A life free from fashion fads, impulse buying, junk foods, useless gadgets, and the long hours of work required to buy them, is a life free from much of what alienates us from the life of community, family and nature.” His book won praise from Ralph Nader, Klaus Schwab (World Economic Forum), and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others.

As I have argued at length before, the “climate crisis” solves the Left’s main problem in selling a socialism that cannot create a better material life. If growth is bad, then capitalism must be ended because it produces growth. Sustainable economies will have to be managed from the top to be “fair” in distributing what little is available. Yet, this left-wing argument has no appeal outside privileged western circles. Last year’s UN climate summit produced no commitment to end fossil fuels, not even coal, which is abundant and secure across the world. This year’s UN climate summit will do even less, being held in the oil kingdom of Dubai with an agenda that will require robust growth to provide for the 17 identified social goals (Climate Action was assigned unlucky #13).

It is these traditional pursuits of wealth and power that drive Great Power rivalry. They must be at the core of wise and responsible national policy but are not in an administration where confusion extends far beyond the White House.

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications. 


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