The period that was broadly described as engagement” with China, argued Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs in the US National Security Council “has come to an end.” This comment – a part of a broader discussion on the US’s shifting “strategic focus on Asia” – made headlines across the continent. From Japan and Singapore to India, Campbell’s candid take was breaking news. Yet, there was little that Campbell and his colleague Laura Rosenberger – the Senior Director for China and Taiwan in the NSC – said, in a 50-minute-long discussion last week that was either novel or ground-breaking.
Senior officials, like Campbell, have outlined the intellectual framework of what America’s approach to China ought to be in at least a dozen or more publications in the past five-six years. A “sustainable approach to, and relationship with, Beijing,” Campbell has long argued, “requires honesty about how many fundamental assumptions have turned out wrong.” The bottom line for Campbell is that Chinese behaviour cannot be modified. Attempts in doing so, from Richard Nixon’s approach in the early 1970s – that broke the Cold War ice with Mao Zedong – to the decision to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, ultimately, Campbell believes, facilitated China’s rise and led it to become Washington’s “most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history.”
When Campbell says that the era of “engagement” with China is over, what he seems to really mean is that the Joe Biden administration has set itself on a path to completely rewire America’s advance. Rather than trying to change China, the senior NSC staffer has argued in the past, the US should focus “more on its own power and behaviour,” including those of its “allies and partners.” Competition with China does not necessarily mean the end of engagement in practice. Indeed, as he and Jake Sullivan – Biden’s National Security Advisor – have written together, the objective is a “steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favourable to US interests and values.”
What this means in practice is yet unclear. Campbell admits as much. The challenge, he underlines, is in still determining the “positive economic vision” for Asia, which lies at the heart of Biden’s geopolitical fulcrum. There is little merit in trying to discern what exactly a “clear-eyed” advance with regards to China will look like, at this point. Senior officials in the NSC are plainly in the process of discovering this themselves.
Yet, Campbell and Rosenberger’s remarks presents an opportunity to take a step back and at least distinguish the intellectual basis of Biden’s general approach to China. In fact, this administration’s advance may well turn out to be a lot more predictable than those of its volatile predecessor.
The ‘build back better’ plan
Discerning such an approach is less of a matter of science than it is about labouring over the writings of the US’s current officials. Refreshingly, these writings matter. They clearly shape the verve underlying Biden’s own approach. The commonality in grammar, argument, and literary poise across the many essays on China and foreign policy more broadly is telling. It is hard, at times, to distinguish between Sullivan or Campbell’s well-constructed syntax in Foreign Affairs – a policy-focussed journal – and the emotive lines in Joe Biden’s first speech to the Joint Session of the US Congress. From Biden to Senior Directors in the NSC, they are almost faultlessly singing from the same hymn sheet. So what is the anthem of the day?
Two points are moot.
First, there is an ideological, emotional, and material commitment to re-build America. ‘Build back better’ is this administrations bumper sticker. To enable this, the administration has invested in the ‘American jobs plan’, a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself,” as Biden puts it. Vice President Kamala Harris has been charged to oversee this. Such investments are also intended to finally ‘compete more strenuously’ with China, allowing America to dominate “the products and technologies of the future”.
Whether it’s controlling supply chains in advanced batteries or computer chips, the terms for economic progress are more and more likely to be shaped by an ambition to control. Self-reliance is the mantra of the hour. This is not necessarily America First – a poorly thought-out conception of the Trump White House. It is however a set of formulations that are deeply and constantly shaped by the polarised realities of America’s current politics.
As one report co-written by those in leading positions in the administration put it: “The economic challenges presented by globalisation…have gone largely unmet.” The middle class has not benefited. Such officials are also clear that trade is too often the “proxy for anxieties of a breakdown of a social contract” between business, labour, and the government. Hence, this is not necessarily about protectionism. It is about getting America’s economic (and hence social) house in order before it looks pro-actively beyond its own borders.
Yet, the focus on the home-front is unlikely to endear Biden’s America to any major trading arrangement, anytime in the near future. Free trade is simply not in the wheelhouse of possibilities at this time. Further, bilateral agreements, in the near term, will be difficult to negotiate. The give has to be as good or even better than the get. This is something that India’s negotiators in the Ministry of Commerce are likely to soon learn, as they sit across the table from their American counterparts.
Second, there is a clear realisation that whilst America is squarely in “competition with China” to “win the 21st century,” as Biden puts it, it cannot do so on its own. As much as the administration is determined to generate economic resilience and recover democracy at home, creating democratic alliances globally will be central to American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. However, what this means is far from clear. On the one hand, there is an ideological hue to strengthening democracies abroad, or speaking about a “competition of systems” between “democracies” and “autocracies”.
On the other hand, there is a creeping realisation that these somewhat haughty goals are difficult if not impossible to practice. There is a tension between ideals and the reality of global politics. What is clearer is that the aspirations of creating a large democratic coalition are ideas of the past. Working through smaller groupings, such as the Quad, is central to the larger approach to managing relations with China.
Yet, it is also worth keeping in mind that the “centrality of values” has a biblical edge for Biden that is unlikely to unravel anytime soon, or ever. How his plenipotentiaries resolve the tension between different or competing approaches to such values, even between partners and allies, is a task that will require enormous skill and patience. In other cases, exporting such values in technology standard-setting bodies, a declared aim of the administration, is as likely to frustrate relations with those very Asian nations that are in the process of defining their own standards and norms. In some cases, they are well ahead of the game. Indeed, the European Union and the US cannot even agree to the values determining privacy, leave alone those shaping the rules in the Indo-Pacific.
Lessons for India
It is too early to determine what the general approach, outlined above, and the more specific task of competing with China actually means for India.
For now, three quick conclusions might be merited. All of these are in practice, at some level, currently. First, as India deepens its relations with the Biden administration, it ought to continue to actively, and even urgently, further develop economic ties with the EU and the UK.
Second, continue to focus on the Quad and invest greater capabilities in it. At the same time, do more with plurilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific, such as the India-France-Australia trilateral.
Lastly, in time – and when and only if the de-escalation on the border with China commences in earnest – discover India’s way to what will surely be a more competitive relationship with China.
In the end, and as much as the US is a crucial partner for India, spreading foreign policy risk may just be as crucial in being able to maintain equitable ties with a Biden White House, especially as American ambitions – both ideological and material – are tested in practice.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)