President Joe Biden cast challenges to the US from China, Russia and global shifts in stark terms Thursday, describing “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
The President underscored that the United States faces an unprecedented array of tests, with Beijing posing what might be the trickiest strategic challenge of all.
As global freedoms ebb, groundbreaking technological shifts are disrupting economies and climate change is posing an existential threat, all while Moscow continues challenging the West and an increasingly aggressive Beijing seeks to become – in Biden’s words Thursday – “the most powerful country in the world.”
Biden had been asked at his first press conference as President Thursday whether he would maintain tariffs on Beijing or ban Chinese goods made with forced labor. The questions were legitimate, the President said, “but they only touch a smidgen of what the relationship with China really is about.” Biden then drew back and offered his analysis of the hydra-headed challenge facing the country and the world.
“I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake,” he said. “Not just with China. Look around the world. We’re in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution of enormous consequence. Will there be a middle class? How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology? The environment. How will they do that?”
“It is clear, absolutely clear … this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” Biden said. “That’s what’s at stake here. We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
‘Steep, steep competition’
The multi-part challenge Biden described has shaped his administration’s foreign policy vision, one that Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed this week on an alliance-building trip to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he also framed the contest as a standoff between autocracies and democracies and referred often to the challenge posed by China.
One Biden foreign policy goal is to show Americans the importance of global engagement by underscoring the link between their prosperity, safety and well-being at home, and US leadership and policies abroad. A second goal, which Blinken highlighted last week in Japan and South Korea and this week in Europe, is to restore US alliances and re-establish US global leadership.
Biden, who developed a relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping while both were serving as vice presidents, said Thursday that Xi “doesn’t have a democratic with a small ‘D’ bone in his body, but he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys, like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future.”
The clash between Biden’s administration and China got off to a heated start with an unusually undiplomatic confrontation with Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan during a meeting last week in Alaska, when the officials from Beijing bristled at US criticism of China’s human rights record, economic coercion and aggressive expansion in Asian waters.
On Thursday, Biden outlined his own, more quiet stand off with Xi, a two-hour marathon phone call in which “we made several things clear to one another.”
Biden told the Chinese leader “that we’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition” and that “we’ll insist that China play by the international rules, fair competition, fair practices, fair trade.”
Biden told reporters his administration would also make three changes to compete more effectively with China and for the future. First, he said it will invest “in American workers and American science.”
“The future lies in who can, in fact, own the future as it relates to technology, quantum computing, a whole range of things, including the medical fields,” Biden said, announcing greater investment in medical research and the “industries of the future, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotech.”
“We’re going to make real investments,” Biden said. “China is out-investing us by a long shot because their plan is to own that future.”
The US will re-establish its alliances as a second step, with Biden set to host “an alliance of democracies” meeting in Washington, where countries will “discuss the future” and “hold China accountable to follow the rules.”
Biden’s third step, he said, will be to ensure the US stands up for its values and calls out China’s abuses of human rights. “America values human rights,” he said. “We don’t always live up to our expectations but it’s a value system. We are founded on that principle. And as long as you and your country continue to so blatantly violate human rights, we’re going to continue in an unrelenting way to call it to the attention of the world and make it clear, make it clear what’s happening.”
Referring to former President Donald Trump, Biden said the US pays a cost when it fails to stand up for its values. “The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did, is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world,” Biden said. Trump told Xi he had no objection to detention camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and according to his former national security advisor John Bolton, encouraged them. Trump denounced Bolton as a “liar.”
In Belgium, Blinken delivered a speech Wednesday on alliances, emphasizing values, the strength that comes from unity, and the need for greater collaboration in areas like cybersecurity, energy security, health security, and critical infrastructure safeguards.
In remarks Tuesday, the top US diplomat explained why the US and its democratic allies have to focus on delivering to their citizens at home as a way of countering the challenge posed by top-down autocratic countries such as China and Russia.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve been experiencing in recent years what some have called a democratic recession,” Blinken said in Brussels. “We see countries falling back on some of the basic hallmarks of democracy.” Blinken pointed to a study by Freedom House, an organization that tracks freedom and democracy and has found that of the 40 or so countries that have been consistently ranked as fully free through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, “fully half have fallen back.”
“At the very same time that that’s happening, we’re seeing the rise in strength of autocracies that are posing a direct challenge to democracies and saying, ‘We can deliver better for our people’,” Blinken said.
“We must demonstrate not only what our alliances defend against, but also what they stand for, like the right of all people everywhere to be treated with dignity and have their fundamental freedoms respected,” Blinken said. “This is where our interest in being trustworthy allies is bound up in fulfilling the needs of our citizens. We can’t build a foreign policy that delivers for the American people without maintaining effective alliances. And we can’t sustain effective alliances without showing how they deliver for the American people.”
Acknowledging the severe strain that US democracy and values have come under in recent years, Blinken added that the main challenge the US and allies have is to demonstrate “that in fact, democracies are more adept at delivering what people need and what they want.”
Biden said Thursday that he doesn’t criticize China for its ambitions.
“China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticize them for the goal,” he said, “but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world.”
“That’s not going to happen on my watch,” the President said, “because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”