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White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaking at the White House in Washington in September. Photo: Reuters

US national security strategy calls competition with China its ‘most consequential geopolitical challenge’

  • American cooperation with Nato, G7 and ‘like-minded democracies’ to form core of post-Cold War strategy, says top Biden adviser
  • Guidance declares competition between democracies and autocracies a priority along with transnational challenges
US President Joe Biden’s administration identified major-power competition with China as the “most consequential geopolitical challenge” facing America in a post-Cold War era as it unveiled its long-awaited national security strategy on Wednesday.
Invoking much of the rhetoric Biden administration officials have used since taking office last year, the guidance puts America’s national security priorities into two broad categories: competition between democracies and autocracies, and shared – or transnational – challenges, with climate change foremost among them.
“China harbours the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favour of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit,” Biden said in the document’s introduction. “ Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war on its neighbour Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and impacted stability everywhere.”

“Autocrats are working overtime to undermine democracy and export a model of governance marked by repression at home and coercion abroad,” he added.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking hours after the strategy’s official release, declared that the “post-Cold War era is over”.

“The competition is under way between the major powers to shape what comes next,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University.

Earlier on Wednesday, Sullivan said the fundamental premise underpinning the strategy was that the US had entered a “decisive decade” with respect to the two broad challenges.

“This decisive decade is critical, both for defining the terms of competition, particularly with the PRC, and for getting ahead of massive challenges,” he added, referring to China’s official name.

Highlighting Biden’s emphasis on China, Sullivan noted differences with Beijing in the strategy’s list of transnational challenges, including climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases such as the coronavirus pandemic, terrorism, energy transition and inflation.

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“Geopolitical competition changes, and often complicates, the context in which shared challenges can be addressed while those problems often exacerbate geopolitical competition, as we saw with the early phases of the Covid-19 pandemic when the PRC was unwilling to cooperate with the international community,” the document stated.

The Chinese embassy in Washington said that the new policy aims to spread disinformation, hold China back, “smear” it with America’s cold war mentality and interfere in its internal affairs.

“The China-related content of the US National Security Strategy hypes up major-power competition, zero-sum game and ideological confrontation,” said embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu. “Playing up [the] ‘China threat’ cannot solve America’s own problems and will only lead the world down a dangerous abyss.”

Added Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Mao Ning in Beijing: “The US needs to follow the principle of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation” and work to bring US-China relations back on track.

While a US government investigation into the pandemic’s origins dismissed the possibility that the pathogen was developed as a biological weapon, analysts trying to determine Covid-19’s origins remained divided about whether the virus came from a lab leak or jumped from an animal reservoir to humans naturally. Calls continue for more investigative work in China.
The Chinese government has pushed back by calling for a World Health Organization investigation of the US military base Fort Detrick and blocking the WHO’s proposed second-phase investigation into the pandemic’s origins.

The Biden administration’s latest strategy identifies American security concerns in the coming years and is meant to provide clearer guidance that builds on an interim national security policy document released in March last year, with a similar emphasis – and much of the same language – on China.

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As relations between the world’s two biggest economies have worsened in recent years over issues ranging from tech competition to security tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, the Biden administration has defined China as posing the main challenge to American global leadership and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom.
“Competition with China suffuses every chapter” of the strategy document, said Daniel Russel, assistant US secretary of state for Asian and Pacific affairs under former US president Barack Obama.

“And while the paper also pledges to build the broadest coalition of nations to enhance the collective capacity to solve global challenges, it will be difficult to fulfil that promise if a country as powerful as China is absent,” he said.

“We should take the administration at its word that it is willing to cooperate with geopolitical rivals to address shared challenges,” Russel added. “A major omission, however, is a strategy for obtaining urgently needed cooperation from recalcitrant major players like China.”

By singling out China and not mentioning Russia in his opening remarks to reporters on Wednesday, Sullivan underscored an intention to not allow Moscow’s war against Ukraine or threats to use nuclear weapons to distract from the Biden administration’s assessment that Beijing is a more crucial challenge, according to Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

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“There are a lot of countries that cause headaches for the United States, but you’d never call North Korea a great-power threat,” said Mastro, who is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

“We wouldn’t call Russia a great-power threat any more, either,” she added. “I think the administration correctly assessed that in order to compete with China we have to stay focused, and we couldn’t be distracted by other challenges which are absolutely important but are not of the same severity or calibre as what China presents.”

Ali Wyne, a senior analyst on US-China relations at the Eurasia Group, affirmed the direction taken by the administration. “China is obviously economically far more consequential than Russia,” he said at an event hosted by George Washington University on Wednesday.

“It’s far more integrated into the international system than Russia is. It’s less risk-taking relative to Russia. And I think that it poses a much more systemic long-term challenge than Russia does,” Wyne added.

Sullivan said the administration’s strategy was to continue to invest domestically in “underlying sources and tools of American power influence” and “build the strongest possible coalition of nations” to enhance collective influence.

In terms of international cooperation, he said the US would adopt a “dual-track approach”. On the one hand, it would cooperate “with any country, including our geopolitical rivals” on shared challenges, and on the other, it would seek to “deepen and sharpen our cooperation with like-minded democracies”.

The administration has put “alliances” with countries in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region as well as Nato and the G7 as “the core of this strategy”, the national security adviser said.

“But the strategy also makes clear that we avoid seeing the world float solely through the prism of strategic competition. And we will not try to divide the world into rigid blocs. We are not seeking to have competition tipped over into confrontation, or a new Cold War,” Sullivan added.

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The expanded national security strategy comes nearly two years into the Biden administration. Sullivan said the administration did not release it earlier because it would have been “imprudent in such a fast-moving and consequential moment”, alluding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The interim guidance had stressed the need for Washington to shore up alliances with democratic countries. It explicitly called out China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”.

Much of that strategy has been apparent in Biden’s efforts to strengthen those alliances. Biden took part in the first leaders’ summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – also known as the Quad – just a week after the interim national security policy was announced.
A few months later, the administration announced a trilateral military cooperation agreement with Britain and Australia, known as Aukus, to provide Australia nuclear-powered submarines. The initiative is widely seen as an effort to counter China’s growing military presence in the East and South China seas.

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However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than seven months ago has led to thousands of civilian casualties as well as disruptions in global energy and grain shipments, making clear how easily Biden’s vision for a rules-based order led by democracies can be undone.

The armed conflict has raised the stakes in a stand-off placing Washington, Nato, the G7 and much of the EU on one side and countries reluctant to condemn Moscow, including China, on the other.
Opec’s decision last week to cut oil production in spite of appeals by the Biden administration not to do so prompted the US leader to ask for a review of Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia, further illustrating Biden’s challenge.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August, which sparked a round of unprecedented PLA drills that all but blockaded Taiwan, played out in the period between the interim and final national security guidance, pushing Washington’s bilateral relationship with Beijing to new lows.

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“Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” is cited as one of many goals in the document’s “global priorities” section in which “out-competing China” tops the list.

While Biden reiterated his administration’s commitment to “our one-China policy” and its position opposing Taiwanese independence, he pledged to “uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act” to support the island’s self-defence and to maintain “our capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against” it.
Biden also announced last week some of the toughest measures yet aimed at preventing Chinese companies from acquiring American hi-tech products in a bid to keep such technology from reaching China’s military, whose modernisation has raised alarms at the Pentagon.

China’s economic and military influence globally has put pressure on Biden to message more effectively to a large group of countries that do not fit into the US leader’s labels, said Mastro.

The Biden administration has had to contend with the fact that “the majority of the world is no longer democratic or developed”, she said. “China’s making this plea for the rest of the world, so we really need to do a better job of interacting” with those whose system of government differs from that of the US.

Additional reporting by Bochen Han