The Wages of Biden Leading from Behind on China

The United States needs reliable, capable allies to thwart the Chinese tyranny’s determination to achieve global hegemony, starting with the Indo-Pacific. The size, speed, and scope of China’s implacable military buildup and Beijing’s mounting belligerence across the board, underscore the urgency of bolstering deterrence in this vital region. 

The recent intensification of Australian, Japanese, and South Korean rearmament, therefore, comes as welcome news. Defying relentless Chinese pressure to conform its foreign policy to the PRC’s, Australia signed the Aukus agreement calling for the United States and Great Britain to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines. With China prominently in mind, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised to double Japan’s defense budget. South Korea’s dovish President Moon Jae-in continues likewise to increase the defense budget substantially, culminating this past September in South Korea’s successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. 

Although encouraging, these preliminary measures will take years to consummate. The short-term trends in the military imbalance with China remain alarming. 

No anti-hegemonic coalition can succeed in the absence of greater American credibility, capability, and resolve. Joe Biden’s Afghanistan pullout has delivered a heavy blow to the Biden Administration’s already fragile and declining credibility. As Sadanand Dhume lamented in the Wall Street Journal, the Afghan debacle undermines the progress President Trump facilitated reviving the Quad, composed of the United States, Japan, India and Australia—a cornerstone of any effective counter to Chinese ambitions. 

The Taliban’s triumph will also undermine India’s willingness and ability to concentrate on the Chinese threat by reviving the potential for terrorism on India’s western front. To the dismay of the Biden Administration, India not so coincidentally announced in early December its decision to continue its defense ties with Russia, including the purchase of Russia’s S-400 surface to air missile system.

America’s ignominious exit from Afghanistan further emboldens China by validating, in Xi Jinping’s eyes, the perception of American weakness and decline, which a series of ill-advised Biden Administration moves had already crystallized:

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s troubling performance during his first summit in Anchorage, when his Chinese counterpart bullied him about America’s purported sins, reminiscent of President John Kennedy’s wavering performance at the Vienna Summit in April 1961, which encouraged the Soviet Union to initiate the Cuban Missile Crisis.  
  • The Biden Administration’s plans to cut the defense budget, while increasing domestic spending massively, which will compound our huge deficits, raise  barriers to innovation, slow growth, and constrain the U.S. ability to fund an adequate defense establishment.  
  • The administration’s serial dissimulating about the origins of COVID-19, which only a lifetime member of the flat earth society could believe emanated from a wet market instead of a Chinese lab
  • The administration’s obsession with reaching a meretricious climate deal that may seduce the president to delay and defang the long-overdue reckoning with China the Trump Administration initiated. 

 The Afghan pullout appears to have accelerated China’s timetable for provoking a showdown over Taiwan. Ever since, Chinese spokesmen have routinely mocked the credibility of any American pledge to defend Taiwan in the event of a military confrontation, while brazenly flying more than 152 military sorties into Taiwanese airspace over a five-day interval in October 2021. 

Seth Cropsey, senior fellow and director at the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, warns that the United States increasingly risks losing a war with China over Taiwan, given the existing military balance and its current trajectory. A series of wargames the Pentagon conducted recently resulted in the United States failing miserably in this scenario.

Contrary to the prediction of pessimists such as Graham Allison that the United States must accommodate itself to China becoming number one, American decline is a choice, not an inevitability. Josef Joffe and Matthew Kroening make strong cases that representative democracies such as the United States enjoy significant advantages waging long-term contests with closed societies such as China. These advantages help explain why democracies since the beginning of the 20th century typically prevail. 

This Chinese tyranny has an array of daunting structural problems enhancing America’s comparative advantage. Among other things, Beijing would need to defy the laws of political gravity to avoid a fundamental crisis of legitimacy arising from the inherent contradictions between sustaining prosperity and maintaining the Communist Party’s vice-grip on political power. 

But faced with a short-term window of opportunity to capitalize on the Biden Administration’s misguided priorities, irresolution, and disarray, this Chinese leadership may throw caution to the wind, confronting Taiwan with a fait accompli sooner rather than later to reverse the long-term structural trends heavily in America’s favor.  

It will take considerably more than the Biden Administration’s soaring rhetoric to restore the robustness of American military capability and resolve necessary to deter or, if need be, defeat China should deterrence fail. 

Reliable allies such as Australia, Japan, Great Britain, South Korea, and India can supplement, but never substitute, a deficit of American power. Above all, the fate of Taiwan and the prospects for muscular anti-hegemonic coalition crystallizing depend foremost on whether the Biden Administration summons the strategic clarity and political will to act towards China as Reagan rather than Carter did towards the Soviet Union. 

Biden will have to repudiate much of his long and dismal national security record to do that. Although the United States cannot succeed against China without reliable allies, even the most determined conceivable combination of U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific cannot succeed without the United States leading the coalition of the willing in word and deed. 

About Robert G. Kaufman

Robert G. Kaufman is the Dockson Chair at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, and author of four books, including Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.

Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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