The pendulum has been swinging wildly in Washington in recent months, from a conviction that China is rapidly displacing US leadership around the world to a growing perception that “peak China” has been reached and the country is now in economic and geopolitical decline.
Both may be true.
Opinions also vary on whether an economically weaker and geopolitically challenged China should be feared or embraced. On one hand, China’s slowdown reduces its resources and constrains its global ambitions. On the other hand, an insecure China might be more prone to lash out, particularly when it comes to Taiwan, using nationalist fervor to distract its 1.4 billion people from slowing growth and rising unemployment.
Both these arguments could also be true.
Here’s what to remember as the seventy-eighth session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opens this week in New York. The world is in the beginning of a new global era, one in which the United States has begun a strategic contraction, and China has greatly increased its influence in most parts of the world. At the same time, middle powers are rising—India chief and most significant among them—with their own aspirations, while telling Washington they don’t want to pick sides.
The international order of rules and institutions has never been a neat one, but the global scrum is growing a lot messier with a host of regional and ad hoc groups ranging from BRICS and the QUAD to the Group of Seven and Group of Twenty (G20)—and countless others. No one quite knows what will emerge from this scrum, or which blocs and countries will gain influence. It won’t be a time of nonalignment, but more one of muddled multi-alignment.
In this new era, the question is how the United States should best manage its relations with China, which has decided that Washington is out to strangle its access to technology, contest its leadership in its own region, and undermine its rise.
In crafting its strategy, the United States should begin with a geopolitical serenity prayer, seeking the wisdom to distinguish between what it can and cannot change. By focusing sharply on what it can control, it may also have considerable influence on what it can’t determine—that is, China’s trajectory.
The United States should give urgent and ongoing attention to four broad categories: winning in Ukraine; reinvigorating alliances and reassuring allies; harnessing technological change for good; and, perhaps most difficult of all, addressing its own domestic, democratic weaknesses.
It’s important not to ignore the ever-shifting Chinese context. China’s economic slowdown has stunned investors, even as its military buildup and weapons advances worry strategists. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is shaking up his leadership, with a defense minister gone missing weeks ago, a little more than a month after Xi removed his foreign minister and the army’s top two generals.
Don’t let all that distract you. Here are the areas that will produce the best outcomes.
The stakes are as high for the United States in Ukraine as they were in West Berlin during the Cold War. The two situations are different in many respects, including the fact that US soldiers aren’t in Ukraine though their presence in Berlin was an ever-present deterrent to Moscow.
The situations are similar in that the security and freedom of West Berliners was crucial to the positive Cold War outcome: an expansion of democratic rule and open markets, the enlargement of the European Union and NATO, and (for a while, at least) economic globalization and expanding prosperity.
The security and freedom of Ukrainians will have no less an impact on the period ahead. It’s understandable that US President Joe Biden would want to avoid the downstream dangers of being drawn into the war in Ukraine or doing anything that would prompt Russia to use tactical nuclear weapons. At the same time, Biden needs to focus more on the historical advantages of Ukraine prevailing, which far outweigh such dangers.
Nothing could serve his legacy more. Success in Ukraine may have the added benefit of deterring China from aggression in Taiwan.
Alliances and allies
The United States’ strengths include a solid set of global allies and a NATO alliance that China can’t match. This is, however, a time to both modernize those alliances and reassure their members of US purpose.
Biden’s recent meeting at Camp David, bringing together South Korean and Japanese leaders, was a crucial breakthrough for the trilateral partnership—one which can be built upon. NATO’s seventy-fifth-anniversary summit in Washington next July provides a significant moment to prepare the Alliance for the future, by inviting Ukraine to join, deepening global partnerships, and advancing technological cooperation and capabilities.
In the game of alliances, China has only harmed itself by disengaging from the G20 and will continue that harm by failing to attend UNGA this week.
Imagine for a moment how different the world would be today if the Third Reich produced J. Robert Oppenheimer and got to the Manhattan Project first. What if the Soviet Union had invented the internet, produced Silicon Valley, or developed the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which put the United States at the forefront of military technologies?
The race for the commanding heights of new technologies—artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and bioengineering, to name a few—will perhaps be even more significant in shaping the new era. There’s an accompanying need to work cooperatively and globally to establish the rules and set the standards to harness technological change for good.
Nothing hobbles China more than its one-party rule and its increasingly autocratic leadership. Xi won’t be able to produce the growth his country requires without loosening state control of his economy. However, he fears that relaxing that control could be the Communist Party’s undoing.
Just as China’s future depends on how it manages its autocracy, the United States’ future requires attention to the threats to its democracy.
These threats are not new, as Karl Rove powerfully wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s bad today, but it’s been worse before, and it will be better ahead. Change is coming. We don’t know precisely when, but it’s coming. The better angels of our nature as Americans will emerge and win out.”
One hopes he is right, but only Americans themselves can ensure that.
The United States’ friends are scratching their heads over how the United States, with its vast human resources, could be facing a 2024 election of historic consequence between an aging, 80-year-old Biden and a four-times-indicted, 77-year-old former President Donald Trump.
In a week when Americans needed inspiration, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) provided it through his announcement that he wouldn’t run for re-election at age 77. At the same time, he suggested Biden and Trump follow his lead. He’s not betting they will listen.
The United States can watch the pendulum swing on China without concern if it acts with greater purpose and consistency in supporting Ukraine, shoring up its alliances, advancing its critical technologies, and fixing its democracy.
Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.
THE WEEK’S TOP READS
#1 Xi’s Tight Control Hampers Stronger Response to China’s Slowdown
Lingling Wei and Stella Yifan Xie | WALL STREET JOURNAL
Read this smart analysis to understand how Xi’s authoritarianism hampers China from fixing its economy.
“Officials in charge of day-to-day economic affairs have been holding increasingly urgent meetings in recent months to discuss ways to address the deteriorating outlook, people familiar with the matter said,” Wei and Yifan Xie wrote. “Yet despite advice from leading Chinese economists to take bolder action, the people said, senior Chinese officials have been unable to roll out major stimulus or make significant policy changes because they don’t have sufficient authority to do so, with economic decision-making increasingly controlled by Xi himself.”
Minxin Pei, a scholar and writer on China, told the Wall Street Journal reporters: “Xi’s centralization of power has caused a crisis of confidence in China’s economy not seen since 1978,” after Mao Zedong’s death. Read more →
#2 Deterrence in Taiwan Is Failing
Hal Brands | FOREIGN POLICY
Hal Brands argues in Foreign Policy that a clash between China and the United States over Taiwan would be “the war everyone saw coming.”
“Biden knows the threat is rising—he recently called China a ‘ticking time bomb’—which is why he has repeatedly said Washington won’t stand aside if Beijing strikes,” Brands writes “But make no mistake: A great-power war over Taiwan would be cataclysmic. It would feature combat more vicious than anything the United States has experienced in generations. It would fragment the global economy and pose real risks of nuclear escalation. So the crucial question is whether Washington can deter a conflict it hopes never to fight.”
“The United States and its friends are making real, even historic progress,” writes Brands, before concluding, “alas, they are still struggling to get ahead of the threat.” Read more →
#3 The China Model Is Dead
Michael Schuman | THE ATLANTIC
“The vaunted China model—the mix of liberalization and state control that generated the country’s hypersonic growth—has entered its death throes,” Michael Schuman, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, writes in his latest essay.
“Economists and even Chinese policymakers have warned for years that the China model was fundamentally flawed and would inevitably break down. But Xi was too consumed with shoring up his own power to undertake the necessary reforms to fix it. Now the problems run so deep, and the repairs would be so costly, that the time for a turnaround may have passed.”
Despite this grim prognosis, Schuman warns against mistaking China’s downturn for an economic win for the United States. “China may turn out to be a less formidable competitor than once imagined and offer a less attractive model of development for the rest of the world,” he writes. “But economic failure could also heighten Xi’s determination to overcome American dominance—if not by becoming richer, then through other, possibly more destabilizing means.” Read more →
#4 President Biden should not run again in 2024
David Ignatius | THE WASHINGTON POST
This Ignatius column had the White House stirring this week.
As the 2024 election approaches, Ignatius lays out the strongest argument yet against Biden’s candidacy, one that even a growing number of the president’s friends are reportedly making in private. “Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement,” writes Ignatius, “which was stopping Trump.”
“Biden has never been good at saying no,” writes Ignatius. “He should have resisted the choice of Harris, who was a colleague of his beloved son Beau when they were both state attorneys general. He should have blocked then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which has done considerable damage to the island’s security. He should have stopped his son Hunter from joining the board of a Ukrainian gas company and representing companies in China—and he certainly should have resisted Hunter’s attempts to impress clients by getting Dad on the phone.”
Now, Ignatius argues, “Biden has another chance to say no—to himself, this time—by withdrawing from the 2024 race. It might not be in character for Biden, but it would be a wise choice for the country.” Read more →
#5 As India Rises, the G20 Reveals a Shifting World Order
Walter Russell Mead | WALL STREET JOURNAL
Last week’s G20 summit in New Delhi was no historical landmark. However, Mead argues in the Wall Street Journal, “it reflected three important continuing shifts.”
“The first and, from an American standpoint, the most beneficial of these developments is the emergence of India as one of the world’s leading powers and as an increasingly close partner of the US,” Mead writes. “The G20 summit was a personal diplomatic triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With both the Chinese and Russian leaders absent, Modi dominated center stage at a world gathering just weeks after India joined the elite club of countries that have landed probes on the moon.”
The second trend that Mead points out is not as positive for the United States. “China, Russia and some of their partners are stepping up their opposition to the American-led world order that has dominated global politics since World War II.” The third trend, Europe’s waning global influence, is similarly disruptive to a US-dominated world order. Read more →
Atlantic Council top reads
New Atlanticist Sep 13, 2023
Twenty questions (and expert answers) about Iran one year after Mahsa Amini’s death
By Atlantic Council
A year after the twenty-two-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman died following her arrest by authorities, Iran has changed—and is still changing—in important ways.
New Atlanticist Sep 13, 2023
Bahrain’s new strategic pact with the US is just the beginning for the Gulf
By Adam Ereli
The newly signed security and economic pact between the United States and Bahrain will have far-reaching consequences for the Gulf and beyond.
New Atlanticist Sep 13, 2023
What the Putin-Kim authoritarian get-together means for Russia’s war and North Korea’s capabilities
By Atlantic Council experts
Experts react to Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia.