Washington, DC – Despite the current focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China poses the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said.
In a major speech delivered at George Washington University in Washington, DC on Thursday, Blinken unveiled the United States’ multipronged strategy amid intensifying competition with China.
“The Biden administration strategy can be summed up in three words: invest, align, compete,” Blinken said.
“We will invest in the foundations of our strength here at home – our competitiveness, our innovation, our democracy. We will align our efforts with our network of allies and partners acting with common purpose and in common cause, and harnessing these two key assets we’ll compete with China to defend our interests and build our vision for the future.”
The top US diplomat stressed that Washington is not seeking to block Beijing’s role as a “major power”, but is looking to protect what he called the “rules-based order”, which he said maintains global stability and has enabled China’s own rise.
“We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War,” Blinken said. “To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.”
A spokesperson for China’s Washington embassy told the Reuters news agency that the two countries shared “extensive common interests and profound cooperation potential” and “competition … should not be used to define the overall picture of the China-US relations”.
“China and the US both stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation,” said Liu Pengyu, who said the relationship was “at a critical crossroads”. US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Ji Xinping held virtual talks in November 2021, and they spoke again in March.
“We hope the US side will work with China to earnestly implement the common understanding reached by the two leaders to enhance communication, manage differences and focus on cooperation,” the embassy spokesman told Reuters.
The relationship between Washington and Beijing has seen growing tensions in the past few years as the US prioritised strategic competition with China in its foreign policy under former President Donald Trump, a position fully embraced by Biden.
Biden also has pushed to revive the Asia-Pacific Quad alliance with India, Australia and Japan, and met with the countries’ leaders during his visit to Tokyo earlier this week after hosting them at the White House in September.
Earlier in May, the US also held a summit in Washington for the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), many of which have disputes with Beijing over competing claims to the South China Sea.
Biden drew Beijing’s ire this week when he said the US would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if China tries to capture the self-governed island by force.
Another issue in the relationship is the US’s criticism of China’s human rights record. In its final days in 2021, the Trump administration accused China of committing genocide against its Uighur Muslim population in the western region of Xinjiang – a determination that was backed by Biden and his foreign policy team.
China has rejected the genocide charge, calling it “slanderous” and “absurd”, arguing that the US is pushing the accusation for geopolitical reasons.
On Thursday, Blinken outlined Washington’s grievances with Beijing, saying that China has become “more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad” under President Xi.
“We see that in how Beijing has perfected mass surveillance within China and exported that technology to more than 80 countries,” Blinken said. “How it’s advancing unlawfully maritime claims in the South China Sea, undermining peace and security, freedom of navigation and commerce.
“How it’s circumventing or breaking trade rules, harming workers and companies in the United States, but also around the world. And how it purports to champion sovereignty and territorial integrity while standing with governments that brazenly violate them.”
The US secretary of state was referring to China’s close ties with Russia, which have persisted after the invasion of Ukraine despite Washington’s warnings.
China has taken a neutral public position on the war in Ukraine, urging nations to support efforts to reach a resolution to the conflict, while resisting pressure from Washington and its allies in Europe to condemn Russia.
It also has repeatedly criticised what it calls illegal and unilateral Western sanctions.
Blinken’s speech comes as China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi starts a tour of 10 Pacific states, including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, to strengthen ties with the countries.
“It’s fairly clear that Xi Jinping views his most important legacy as making China a superpower, as returning China to what he sees as its historically rightful place as a world power,” said Christopher Heurlin, associate professor of government and Asian studies at Bowdoin College in the US state of Maine. “And that means economic growth, but it also means becoming a military power that’s able to exert a large influence on politics in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.”
For the US, Heurlin said focusing on competition with China is one of the few things that unites Republicans and Democrats.
“There’s definitely a desire to preserve America’s superpower status and its influence in the world order, which does mean that these two countries do have conflicting objectives to a certain extent. So, there is certainly potential for tensions at the very least,” he told Al Jazeera.
Although the Biden administration purports to be safeguarding the international order that is rooted in documents such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, critics of US foreign policy say Washington has violated these principles.
For example, in 2003 the US led an invasion of Iraq without authorisation from the UN Security Council.
The Biden administration also continues to defend Israel at international forums and provide military aid to the country although Israel violates numerous provisions of international law, including by building settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Moreover, Washington has recognised Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights.
On Thursday, Blinken said Washington’s strategy to counter Beijing will see greater investment in research and innovation in the US. He also said Biden has directed the Department of Defense to hold China as its “pacing challenge”.
“The administration is shifting our military investments away from platforms that were designed for the conflicts of the 20th century toward asymmetric systems that are longer range, harder to find, easier to move,” he said.
Blinken highlighted the Biden administration’s emphasis on alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Quad, ASEAN and the security partnership between the US, UK and Australia, known as AUKUS.
He noted that Biden this week launched an initiative known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, bringing more than a dozen states from the region together in economic cooperation.
While Blinken made it clear that the competition with China will shape US foreign policy going forward, he said there are areas where the two countries should work together, including mitigating the climate crisis, combating COVID-19, thwarting the illicit drug trade and ensuring global food security.
Against this backdrop, the top US diplomat warned against hate or hostility at home against Chinese Americans and Asian Americans more broadly.
“Chinese Americans made invaluable contributions to our country; they’ve done so for generations,” Blinken said. “Mistreating someone of Chinese descent goes against everything we stand for as a country – whether a Chinese national visiting or living here or Chinese American or any other Asian American, whose claim to this country is equal to anyone else’s.”