2022 showed impressive momentum in efforts by the so-called Washington Consensus to target adverse Chinese practices. Featuring bipartisan majorities in Congress working closely with Trump and Biden administration officials, the consensus over the past five years has created an ever stronger a “whole of government” effort to counter Beijing’s very serious security, economic, and governance challenges.
Two challenges have been seen as representing particularly dangerous, existential threats to U.S. national security and well-being. The first is the Chinese effort to undermine U.S. power and influence in Asia and dominate the region. The second is the Chinese effort to seek dominance in the high technology industries of the future. Such dominance would make the United States subservient to Chinese economic power, and because such technology is essential to modern national security, subservient to Chinese military power.
After protracted deliberations lasting over a year, a compromise was approved in the U.S. Senate on July 26 and the House on July 28 on the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, which supports U.S. competition with China in high technology industries and military forces dependent on high technology. In the end, 17 Republican senators and 24 Republican representatives voted for the bill, which was warmly welcomed by the Biden administration.
Concurrently, Senate Democrats made compromises allowing passage of a $369 billion climate and tax package, which was enthusiastically signed by the president in August. Among the many provisions targeting China, the Inflation Reduction Act favored electric vehicles made in the United States rather than China, and favored the sourcing of batteries and other components from the United States and its allies. The legislation raised the U.S. profile in climate change deliberations, putting China on the defensive.
In October, the U.S. government imposed sweeping new export restrictions designed to hobble China’s ability to manufacture or acquire high technology computer chips. Heavily dependent on this technology, China was reluctant to retaliate for fear of a tighter embargo.
Other measures explicitly defending the United States against Chinese threats involved advances in defense, economic, and governance measures taken in conjunction with U.S. allies and partners in Europe, Asia, and North America. Heading the list were Washington’s Quad partners, Australia, India, and Japan; the AUKUS security alliance involving Australia and the United Kingdom; the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, involving 13 regional governments, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, led by the G-7 countries; and the Blue Pacific Partners, an initiative focused on the Pacific Islands involving the United States, United Kingdom, and regional powers.
Doing the “Right” Thing
Adding significantly to the momentum countering China in 2022 were U.S. measures not directly focused on China but which nonetheless added significantly to the circumstances impeding China’s headlong march to Asian dominance and global power.
Topping the list on doing what is widely seen as “right” in the United States and much of the world has been the Biden government’s effective leadership, strongly supported by Congress, in creating a broad international coalition to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and deal with the related energy, food, and economic issues, which are important to governments throughout the world. The salience of these problems cast an ever more critical international spotlight on China’s wide-ranging support for Vladimir Putin, including heretofore strong Chinese pressure on world governments to not side with the United States in supporting Ukraine and criticizing Russia.
Against this background, NATO, the European Union, and major European countries have now joined the Washington Consensus in seeing China as a threat. They are now taking steps to counter Chinese expansionism in Asia and in high technology development.
Adding to the mix has been Biden government’s practice of treating allies and partners with respect, listening to and accommodating their views and thereby doing what is “right,” in marked contrast with the disrespectful and inattentive practices of former President Donald Trump. Biden’s advantage as an experienced, collaborative, consultative, and accommodating leader in building coalitions to deal with international problems was notably on display when the U.S. president consulted closely with other leaders in an emergency meeting of the G-7 and met with NATO members during the G-20 summit over a missile strike in Poland.
By contrast, China’s leader, just emerging from nearly three years of COVID-19-induced personal isolation, has come across as rigid and stern, especially following his long authoritative report to the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October pledging resolute struggle against adverse forces abroad.
Biden’s commitment to climate change and the passage of $365 billion legislation was seen by majorities in the United States and in many world capitals as doing what is “right” in correcting mistakes from the past and carrying out constructive world efforts, notably at the COP27 summit in Egypt in November. China did poorly in contrast. China solidified its position as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases; Xi Jinping was notable for not attending the summit; and in recent months China blocked climate change talks with the United States in retaliation for then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan was subject to strong international and domestic debate for several weeks leading up to Pelosi’s visit and over four days of provocative Chinese military shows of force surrounding the island. The Biden government reacted cautiously but firmly, avoiding weakness in the face of Chinese pressure. U.S. efforts to defend Taiwan favored by the Washington Consensus went forward, while the Biden government continued efforts now lasting over a year to begin substantive discussions with Beijing on establishing guardrails to ensure that rising China-U.S. rivalry will not lead to war. Beijing remained firm that such talks were contingent on changes in U.S. policy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi underlined this message in a long meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 9, where he gave several lists of improvements the United States should undertake.
Whether or not the United States or China were better positioned in this stand-off over Taiwan and other differences seemed clarified when Xi, meeting Biden on November 14, ignored past preconditions and accepted negotiations to establish guardrails on the China-U.S. rivalry. Beijing followed with public advocacy of more benign and flexible Chinese approaches to several recently alienated Western-aligned governments. The resulting improved China-U.S. dialogues reduced what was arguably the most important concern among Asian and other leaders in the 2022 summits – the danger of an escalating China-U.S. conflict.
One final area where the United States can be viewed at having done the “right” thing and benefited in competition with China is the Biden government’s resolute correction of the Trump administration’s enormously damaging handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective use of advanced vaccines – in fairness, a program Trump began – and the provision of expert guidance of the broad public health requirements worked effectively with the weakened potency of virus in an increasingly immune U.S. population to allow for a return to greater economic normalcy, raising the influence and attractiveness of the U.S. economy.
By contrast, China’s well-justified pride in avoiding the death rate seen in the United States seems much less important now as Beijing remains isolated internationally, subject to rigid zero COVID lockdowns that harm the economy but if halted could result in a wave of fatal illness among poorly vaccinated elderly people in particular.
How far China will go in its new flexibility is hard to predict given the power of Xi Jinping to reverse policy as he deems appropriate. On the U.S. side, the Washington Consensus is stronger than ever, and the Biden administration will continue to pursue efforts to build greater support at home and abroad to counter Chinese government challenges. These efforts seem likely to continue to benefit from the policies and practices of the Biden government, which are not directed solely at China but seek to do the right thing in world affairs, complicating China’s adverse practices. The U.S. countermeasures are very likely to prompt a comparable Chinese response, meaning that tensions will rise, even as the nascent China-U.S. dialogue seeks to manage these tensions and offset the danger of conflict.