The Chinese spy balloon’s lengthy sojourn over the United States led to the postponement of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing, yet the Biden administration’s efforts to compel talks with Chinese officials have intensified. This desire is present in almost every speech delivered by a national security figure in the Biden administration.
During May, national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Wang Yi, China’s highest foreign policy official, in Vienna, in part to sustain the dialogue. Also last month, CIA Director Bill Burns secretly visited China to meet with Chinese intelligence officials to maintain lines of communication. While these efforts are indefatigable, perhaps to the point of being Sisyphean, China continues to rebuff the U.S.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu refused to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference. In his speech to the conference, Austin provided warnings for China and stressed the importance of dialogue: “For responsible defense leaders, the right time to talk is any time, the right time to talk is every time, and the right time to talk is now. Dialogue is not a reward; it is a necessity. … And the more we talk, the more we can avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”
Regarding the U.S.’s demand for dialogue, China’s Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, provided a tart observation at the Shangri-La conference: “The U.S. has been calling for communication and exchanges on the one hand, and undermining China’s interests and concerns on the other, and claiming to enhance the management and control of crisis on one hand and acting tough and showing provocation on the other.”
Austin’s remarks were made about the same time as Sullivan’s address to the Arms Control Association’s annual forum in Washington, which was an entreaty to China and Russia to enter into arms control talks — and to state that the U.S. need not deploy nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. Sullivan said the Biden administration is “trying to adapt both our nuclear deterrence and our arms control strategies to meet this moment.”
Austin’s stated goal — that the point of a Sino-American dialogue is to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation — is itself a misunderstanding and miscalculation. First, to request dialogue plays to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) considerable strengths in political warfare. The U.S. appears as a supplicant, pleading with China to speak to it, which places China in the position of making the decision. That puts China in charge and plays into broader narratives that Beijing advances: that the U.S. is in decline, and so, states should not ally with it but instead should look to China to shape the future; and second, that the U.S. does not belong in the region. Beijing is attempting to de-legitimize Washington’s presence as a step toward evicting the U.S. from the Indo-Pacific.
Austin’s goal assumes there is some value in dialogue for its own sake, or that it will result in the CCP having an epiphany, realizing it was wrong and altering its behavior. The thinking is that this Damascene conversion might occur through reasoned exchange, in which China would come around to the way the U.S. sees issues. This would be as a result of Washington’s brilliant logic, or it might happen through intense discussion. Those who think this way assume that the CCP will come to realize that the U.S. is right after all, or that China simply did not see before that its interests can be accommodated with those of the U.S.
Sadly, those outcomes will not come to pass.
The need to talk betrays the Biden administration’s lack of strategic thought. The value of strategy is to tell you how to win. Strategy assumes that you have interests to advance and protect, and that threats to those interests exist. The CCP, at least, understands this; it considers the U.S. as its foe and acts like it. Despite its defense strategy released last fall, the Biden administration evidently does not truly accept that the CCP is the enemy of the United States, so it acts like it can alter the CCP’s understanding of its interests — which are to defeat the U.S.
The Biden administration will not state the powerful truth: China’s Communist Party is the enemy of the U.S. and threatens not only our national security but that of other countries in the Indo-Pacific and, indeed, around the world. At its root, this confrontation is zero-sum. As Frederick the Great is purported to have said regarding the origins of the First Silesian War against Austria’s Queen Maria Theresa, “There was no misunderstanding. We both wanted Silesia.” So, too, is it with the South China Sea or Taiwan or hegemony, or whether it will be China or the U.S. that defines the political values of the 21st century.
The U.S. must possess a strategy for victory. It must act like the superpower it is. Any dialogue with China should convey only this message: You will lose this fight.
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