WASHINGTON – With China testing American diplomacy like “never before,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said how the U.S. responds over the next decade will determine whether China achieves its goal of becoming the world’s leading power.
“This is a charged moment for the world,” Blinken said, noting that Russian and Chinese bombers flew a joint patrol mission over the Western Pacific on Tuesday when President Joe Biden was in the region.
Blinken said the Biden administration would not let the war in Ukraine distract the U.S. from countering China, which he said has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.
“Even as President (Vladimir) Putin’s war continues,” Blinken said, “we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.”
Blinken made the remarks in a major speech at George Washington University, where he tried to put some meat on the bones of the Biden administration’s China policy.
The U.S. is not looking for conflict with China, Blinken said, or a new Cold War. Nor does Washington want to block China from its role as a major power.
In fact, he said, China is integral to the global economy and to the world’s ability to address major issues, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Put simply, the United States and China have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future,” he said. “That’s why this is one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any that we have in the world today.”
The United States needs to strengthen its own foundations – including democratic governance and economic competitiveness, such as passing pending legislation to boost computer chip production and strengthen supply chains, he said.
Those steps will make the U.S. more effective as it seeks to work with allies to counter the Chinese Communist Party on everything from its human rights abuses, unfair trade practices and regional aggression, Blinken said.
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His remarks came days after Biden returned from Asia, using his first presidential trip there to send a similar message.
Through the launch of a new economic pact, consultations with Indo-Pacific leaders and a gathering of the “Quad” alliance of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, Biden sought to counter China – the only country, according to Blinken, with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.
But what drew the most attention on the trip was Biden’s response to a reporter who asked whether the U.S. would respond militarily if an increasingly aggressive China moves on Taiwan.
“Yes,” Biden said, setting off a debate about whether he was changing the U.S. policy of reserving the right to come to Taiwan’s defense without promising to do so, even as Biden insisted that’s not what he was doing.
On Thursday, Blinken reiterated that U.S. policy has not changed, though emphasized that policy includes making sure Taiwan has the ability to defend itself and that the U.S. can “maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize our security or the social or economic system of Taiwan.”
“What has changed,” he added, “is Beijing’s growing coercion.”
The U.S. can’t rely on Beijing to “change its trajectory,” Blinken said, so it must “shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.”
He announced the State Department is building a “China House,” to coordinate policy across issues and regions.
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Like his predecessors, Biden has tried to make clear the importance of the Indo-Pacific region for U.S. foreign policy.
“We’re here today for one simple purpose,” Biden said Monday at the rollout in Tokyo of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an effort to deepen cooperation and U.S. economic engagement in the region. “The future of the 21st century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific.”
Biden is still deciding what to do about tariff hikes imposed on Chinese imports by the Trump administration. Easing them could reduce prices for American consumers being hit by high inflation. But doing so could open Biden to criticism that he’s not tough enough on China.
Biden’s trip to Asia was aimed in part at reassuring allies that he has not taken his eye off that important region because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other challenges.
Introducing Blinken, the head of the Asia Society said it’s been important to see the United States, as the leader of the free world, “comfortably managing” the challenges in both Europe and Asia at the same time.
“There is an emerging sense that America is now well and truly back,” said Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia and an expert on China who is president and CEO of the Asia Society.
Blinken was supposed to deliver his speech before Biden’s trip but he had to reschedule after testing positive for COVID-19.