Blinken’s Big China Speech: The Good, The Bad, and the Wrong

June 3, 2022 | 10:23 am
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken speaks on China at The George Washington UniversityU.S. Department of State
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Last Thursday Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered his long-awaited public articulation of classified decisions on US China policy the Biden administration made well over a year ago. Many were anticipating a continuation of the hawkish rhetoric he used during his initial meeting with Chinese counterparts at the March 2021 summit meeting in Alaska and in most of his subsequent remarks.  

Instead, the secretary was surprisingly positive and opened the door to robust, constructive engagement between ordinary Chinese and Americans. He also acknowledged the need for both governments to cooperate on global problems, like the climate crisis. And he emphasized the most important investments the United States needs to make are not in military hardware for a new cold war, but in civilian scientific research and public infrastructure. 

Unfortunately, the administration’s good intentions may come to grief. Opportunities for engagement are being held hostage to the administration’s goal of passing bipartisan legislation that enacts the ambitious agenda Blinken described. The China hawks in Congress– mostly on the Republican side of the aisle–are fighting to preserve tough restrictions on contact with China written into the Senate version of what is now being called the Bipartisan Innovation Act. President Biden and the Democratic leadership appear ready to sacrifice the more progressive and positive aspects of Blinken’s agenda to get bipartisan support for new domestic investments. 

The good 

The most important thing Blinken said is the United States does not support independence for Taiwan. That separates the administration from other US politicians, including Blinken’s predecessor at the Department of State. Voters concerned about the human, economic and environmental consequences of the war in Ukraine should be aware that a much larger war in East Asia is likely if a Taiwan independence advocate, like Mike Pompeo, wins the White House in 2024. 

It was encouraging to learn the administration does not blame or intend to punish Chinese citizens for the actions of their communist government. It’s an important distinction between the administration and congressional supporters of more aggressive scrutiny of Chinese entrepreneurs, students and scholars. Blinken praised ordinary Chinese men and women for the success they’ve earned through hard work. He welcomed their best and brightest to study in the United States and to stay after they graduate.  

The speech also contained language demonstrating an awareness that Chinese and other Asian Americans are being adversely impacted by hostile US government rhetoric on China. That’s commendable and may be one of the reasons Blinken spoke in more positive tones. But if the tougher language on China remains in the Bipartisan Innovation Act, Blinken’s reassurances to Asian Americans won’t mean much

Finally, Blinken said the United States is not seeking to change China’s government, that effective diplomacy is vital, and that conflict can be avoided. Peaceful coexistence appears to be the aim of US policy. That’s a better vision of the long-term future than imagining a cold war with China is inevitable. Sadly, the administration’s diplomatic outreach to China does not seem to be to be going well

The bad 

The worst part of Blinken’s speech, and the Biden administration’s approach to the Chinese leadership, is the failure to acknowledge the United States government shares a lot of the blame for the dissolution of established international norms, agreements, laws, and institutions. Consider the following behaviors: 

  • The post-Cold War US-led military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other nations were not authorized, as the UN Charter requires, by the United Nations Security Council.  
  • The questionable activities of US financial elites undermined confidence in the international financial system in 1997 and again in 2008.  
  • The NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed extensive long-term systematic and secretive illegal intrusions into individual, corporate, and government communications throughout the world that were enabled by decades of close cooperation with US IT companies.

Constructive conversations with China about restoring respect for international norms might be possible if the United States government were willing to acknowledge its own failings, which are not insignificant. The Chinese government’s efforts to insulate its economy, for example, are unquestionably tied to concerns about the stability of the existing US-led international financial system after the 2008 crash. 

Worse still is that Blinken gave no indication the United States government is interested in talking to Chinese leaders about reconstructing a just and stable international order both nations can accept. The administration seems reconciled to “coexisting” with what it perceives to be an international outlier that it influences, not through dialogue, cooperation, and compromise, but by “shaping its strategic environment” with the help of neighboring countries.  

Importantly, Blinken said the administration does not intend to force other nations to choose between the United States and China. But the US Congress does. The Bipartisan Innovation Act that will fund and regulate Biden’s China policy contains numerous provisions intended to monitor and manipulate diplomatic and economic activity between China and other nations in every region of the world. 

The wrong 

Blinken noted that China is a different nation than it was when US President Richard Nixon opened the door to diplomatic relations with the communist government in Beijing in 1972. While it is true China is wealthier and more scientifically and technically advanced than it was 50 years ago, so is the United States. There is still an enormous gap between the two economies, and societies, that Blinken and Biden fail to consider when assessing Chinese capabilities and intentions. 

The absolute size of China’s economy may be second only to the US economy, but it must sustain nearly five times as many people. When you take the size of that enormous demographic burden into account, China ranks 72nd among all nations in per capita  GDP and 73rd in per capita income.  600 million  Chinese–nearly twice the amount of people who live in the United States–earn less than 140 dollars a month. And that’s after decades of rapid economic growth that is environmentally unsustainable. 

Because Blinken and Biden fail to take these significant economic differences between the United States and China into account, they exaggerate the strengths and ignore the weaknesses of China’s economy. One apparent consequence is that they are blind to the possibility that China’s staggering economic challenges may be responsible for the recent shifts in Chinese economic policy and Chinese attitudes towards the United States.  

For decades after Nixon’s visit, Chinese elites, and the Chinese public, looked up to the United States. They admired US accomplishments, copied US practices they found appropriate to Chinese circumstances, and sent the country’s brightest students, experts, and officials to elite US universities and professional training programs.  

But things began to change at the turn of the century. Successive US missteps such as the Asian Financial Crisis, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the disastrous military misadventure in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and finally, the 2008 financial crisis, undermined Chinese confidence in US political and economic elites. They came to be perceived as incompetent, corrupt and unreliable. Chinese elites could no longer trust their US counterparts to manage the international systems they depended upon to meet the economic needs and rising expectations of the 1.4 billion people they govern. 

It is likely that Chinese anxieties about their country’s economic future, and their lack of faith in US leadership, is what is widening the divide with the United States. Chinese state and party propaganda does not champion “autocracy” as a superior form of government. And it is unlikely Xi Jinping would champion it in his conversations with Biden or other US officials, even if he believed autocracy was better than democracy. The administration should release the English and Chinese transcripts of those conversations so outside observers can see if Biden’s impression of the Chinese leader may be the product of a misunderstanding. It would not be the first. 

A recommendation 

There is enough room in the China policy Blinken announced for productive engagement between the two governments that could set US-China relations on a more constructive course. But for that to happen both sides need to believe that it possible. Treating China as an international outlier and imagining it as a champion of autocracy makes that next to impossible.  

If US officials were humble enough to admit their own failings, and earnestly entertained Chinese ideas about reforming international systems and institutions, it could greatly improve humanity’s prospects in the 21st century. That’s a better goal for US diplomacy than suffering through decades of acrimonious and counterproductive competition neither country, nor the rest of the world, can afford.  

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.