In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis when Soviet ships heading for Cuba stopped short of the U.S. blockade line, Secretary of State Dean Rusk remarked, “We’re eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” The current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a major foreign policy speech at George Washington University, went eyeball to eyeball with China and “blinked.” Faced with the greatest peer competitor challenge in our nation’s history, instead of announcing a policy of confrontation or “firm and vigilant containment,” as we did when confronted with the Soviet’s post–World War II challenge, Blinken settled for “invest, align, compete” and “integrated deterrence.”
Blinken also backed away from President Biden’s recent remark that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
Blinken’s speech constitutes a rejection of the increasingly confrontational approach to China undertaken in the last year or so of the Trump administration, which was detailed in Josh Rogin’s fine book Chaos Under Heaven. In essence, Blinken’s speech is a return to the engagement/competition approach of every previous U.S. administration, except Trump’s, in the post-Cold War world. It is as if the Biden administration has learned nothing from the failures of his predecessors to persuade China to become a member of the U.S.-led global system.
And yet in his speech, Blinken noted that China has become a “global power” that has “rapidly modernized its military” with the intention of achieving “global reach.” China, he said, wants to “create a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” Under President Xi, Blinken said, China “has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.” China, he continued, by its actions in the South China Sea, is “undermining peace and security, freedom of navigation, and commerce.” And, most ominously, China has declared that its security partnership with Russia is “without limits” in the midst of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine.
The U.S. response: “At times like these,” Blinken said, “diplomacy is vital.” The United States “will shape the strategic environment around Beijing” by a strategy of “invest, align, compete.” He bragged about the huge number of Chinese students in American universities, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those students must pledge fealty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and are a potential source of espionage and scientific theft. In fact, Blinken made the obligatory bow to wokeism by stating that even to raise the issue of the possible nefarious intent of such students is equivalent to “racism” and “hate.”
Blinken suggested that the competition between China and the United States pits autocracy against democracy, but he assured our adversary that “We do not seek to transform China’s political system.” What a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s public prediction that communism will end up on the “ash heap of history.”
Blinken emphasized the importance of our alliances, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. He mentioned human rights and criticized China’s treatment of Tibetans and the Uyghurs. And he talked about “out competing” China in manufacturing and innovation. But, he said, “competition need not lead to conflict.” The United States will seek to preserve peace by an approach called “integrated deterrence,” which he defined as “bringing in allies and partners; working across the conventional, the nuclear, space, and informational domains; drawing on our reinforcing strengths in economics, in technology, and in diplomacy.”
Blinken also backed away from President Biden’s recent remark that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Our “one China policy,” he said, has not changed. “We do not support Taiwan independence” but will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense efforts. This is so, even though he admits that China’s policy toward Taiwan has changed — he characterized it as “growing coercion.”
Blinken concluded his speech by reverting to engagement with China on issues like climate change, the pandemic, arms control, and illegal drug interdiction. And he pledged our commitment to “peaceful coexistence.”
The tone and substance of Blinken’s speech is meant to ease tensions and strengthen areas of cooperation between the U.S. and China. It is, in other words, détente all over again — not the hardheaded version practiced by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, but more like the flaccid détente of the Carter administration of the late 1970s.
China is challenging the United States’ global leadership across a broad geopolitical spectrum, including economic, military, information, cyber, space, intelligence, scientific, technological, and diplomatic. Engagement and détente will not effectively meet China’s “unrestricted warfare” approach to U.S. global leadership. We are eyeball to eyeball with China, and we just blinked.
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