Although there has been general optimism about a de-escalation between the US and China after the defeat of former US president Donald Trump in the recent US presidential elections, this has yet to be seen following President Joe Biden’s victory. The Biden administration has begun to work seriously on building flexible alliances to counter growing Chinese influence on the global level. US discourse seems to be more focused on restraining Beijing, and on preparing for a difficult and prolonged struggle between the two countries. This is what was laid out in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March 2021, which emphasized that the only foreign power with the capacity to take on the current international order is China.
In light of these developments, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis organized a workshop entitled “Examining the US-China Standoff in the Biden Era.” Various experts and researchers participated in the workshop in order to identify the most important features of the ongoing standoff between Beijing and Washington, as will be explained below.
The Return of Containment
The participants in the panel discussion posited that the Biden administration is applying a strategy of containment similar to the former US policy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The US is pursuing this policy through several avenues, the most salient of which are:
1- Strengthening US cooperation with allies in Asia: The workshop participants noted that during an international trip in March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited several countries in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and India. This sent an important message regarding the Biden administration’s desire to strengthen support for and cooperation with Washington’s Asian allies against Beijing.
2- Increasing the military capabilities of Asian allies: The participants stated that prior to this key trip to Asia, the Biden administration had extended the presence of US forces in Japan by a year and in South Korea by five years, in an effort by Washington to strengthen defense cooperation with Asian countries. The US Department of Defense is trying to strengthen Japanese missile defenses in light of the marked development of Chinese missile infrastructure and capabilities.
3- Expanding US sanctions related to Hong Kong: The participants said that sanctions remain a key tool in how the US deals with Beijing. The US Department of State announced in mid-March 2021 that sanctions would be imposed on financial institutions that process transactionsinvolving any of over twenty officials from China and Hong Kong, because their actions were undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In taking this action, the US Department of State affirmed that it would stand with its allies and support them against Beijing.
4- Forming a team with broad powers to confront Beijing: The participants affirmed that one of the most important indications that the US administration sees reining in China as a priority is the creation, in March 2021, of a special team withsweeping powers composed of around 15 people from the US Department of Defense. This team will formulate a comprehensive plan to strengthen US forces and arms supplies around the world in order to curb China’s power. It is expected that this team, led by Chinese affairs expert Ely Ratner, will produce a comprehensive report for the Department of Defense and National Security Council in order to improve US military preparedness against China.
The New Cold War
The attendees noted that Beijing is trying to strengthen cooperation with Russia as a key part of its standoff with the US. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech to NATO, calling for a united Western stance against Chinese military ambitions, the Chinese air force was violating Taiwanese airspace. At the same time, Beijing was also imposing sanctions on various individuals in the European Union and on some British politicians who have criticized human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The participants argued that there was a new Cold War taking place between the two countries. Blinken stated that China was threatening the current world order and its established values, while his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi said that the US needed to stop pushing its own democratic values on the rest of the world. At the same time, Beijing ramped up its activities with Washington’s opponents, including signing a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran, through which Beijing and Tehran aim to strengthen cooperation in order to launch a challenge to US power.
In conclusion, the workshop attendees agreed that there was an escalation on both sides of the US-China standoff, and that this would continue in the coming period, especially in light of the trade wars between the two countries, the changes in the international order, and increased Chinese efforts to strengthen its influence to confront Washington. China hopes that this will lead to a new era in which Beijing is at the top of the global order, which is something Washington will not allow. To prevent this, the US will strengthen its cooperation with various allies and employ all the tools at its disposal in both the short- and medium-term.