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Op-ed: China is stepping up its diplomatic bravado, testing how hard Biden will push back

Top U.S. government officials are studying China’s increased diplomatic bravado and growing military assertiveness with all the intensity of elite athletes pouring over game films of their most resourceful rival.

From the CIA to the White House, and from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, what these officials are reporting is a far greater willingness by China to go on the offensive in the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The Chinese are readier to push back against real and imagined slights from the United States and its allies, even as they escalate warnings and military activities around Taiwan.

The new messaging from Beijing has been consistent: the Biden administration, in trying to undermine China’s rise, is promoting a false and dangerous narrative of competition between democratic and autocratic systems. Thus, countries around the world must decide whether to follow the divisive but declining United States or embrace a rising, unifying, and nonjudgmental China.

Between the lines, Chinese President Xi Jinping is saying that human rights violations and democratic failings are internal matters beyond debate. Going beyond that, Chinese officials are ready to publicly attack the U.S. record on racism and democracy, as did Beijing’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in an unprecedented 16-minute diatribe to open the first high-level U.S.-Chinese talks of the Biden administration on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Recently, there has been this tendency to compare China and the United States to ‘democracy versus authoritarianism,’ seek(ing) to …  pin labels on countries,” said Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, building on the Alaska message last week at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But democracy is not Coca-Cola which, with the syrup produced by the United States, tastes the same across the world.”

Said Wang, “using democracy and human rights to conduct value-oriented diplomacy, meddle in other countries’ internal affairs or stoke confrontation will only lead to turmoil or even disaster.”

His use of the term “disaster” caught his listeners’ attention, and he made clear what he meant by that.

“The Taiwan question is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” he said, arguing that it should also be in the U.S. interest to oppose Taiwan independence and separatist instincts. “Playing the ‘Taiwan card’ is a dangerous move, like playing with fire.” 

Such rhetorical and potentially strategic shifts do not happen by accident in (yes) authoritarian China. So, it’s both urgent and necessary to understand their meaning and respond appropriately. That will not be easy, given the contradictory mix of hubris and insecurity in the latest Chinese moves and measures.

On the one hand, President Xi Jinping is projecting a growing national confidence that this is China’s historic moment. Xi hopes to build on what he sees as game-changing momentum in this centennial anniversary year of the Chinese Community Party, having emerged from the pandemic and having declared the end of absolute poverty in the country.

At the same time, Xi is responding to new challenges from the Biden administration, which itself is escaping rapidly from Covid-19 through impressive vaccine distribution and by pumping $4 trillion and counting of stimulus and infrastructure development into the economy. U.S. growth could match or be greater than that of China this year at a remarkable 6.5%.

Where the two countries’ leaders appear to agree is on the fact that “we are at an inflection point in history,” as President Biden told a joint session of Congress this week. “We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”

President Xi framed it differently earlier this year, speaking to a Communist Party school session: “The world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century, but time and the situation are in our favor. This is where our determination and confidence are coming from.”

In Biden, however, Xi sees a more methodical and coherent leader than was his predecessor, one more willing to work within institutions and alongside allies.

Biden on March 12 convened the first leader-level summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, bringing together Japanese, Australian, and Indian leaders. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga then on April 16 was the first foreign leader to visit the White House since Biden took office, and the two leaders issued the first joint statement in support of Taiwan since 1969.

Chinese leaders also were caught off guard on March 22 when the United States, the European Union, Britain, and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. Beijing’s response was immediate, and seemingly counterproductive, slapping punitive measures against EU individuals that were broader. The price of its tough message is that the European Parliament has put on ice the recently announced Chinese-EU investment agreement.

There seem to be three immediate targets for China’s current approach: the domestic audience, U.S. partners and allies, and the developing world.

Any authoritarian leader’s priority is political survival. President Xi’s appears to have strengthened his hand within the Chinese Community Party, and weakened potential rivals, through nationalist rallying around Hong Kong and Taiwan and through portraying the United States as a power determined to reverse China’s rise.

The second target for Chinese bravado is a pre-emptive effort to reach U.S. allies and partners before the Biden administration has had sufficient time to galvanize greater common cause. Wherever necessary, it wants to demonstrate there will be a steep price for those who embrace Washington at Beijing’s expense. 

One U.S. official quotes a Chinese saying to explain this strategy: “kill a chicken to scare the monkey.” President Xi’s third target is the developing world, where Chinese inroads have been greatest. The aim here is to portray China as a more reliable and consistent partner for their development, with its own inspiring track record of modernization and commitment to stay out of other countries’ internal affairs (and, indeed, supply fellow authoritarians with the surveillance tools to remain in power).

At the same time, of course, China is also testing the Biden administration. The aim is not to win over Washington, where the consensus about the Chinese challenge has been growing. Rather, it is to test the willingness of the Biden administration to act on any number of issues—ranging from technology controls to human rights—but most significantly regarding Taiwan.

Beijing is wagering, from previous experience, that President Biden’s bark will be worse than his bite. If convinced of that, count on even more Chinese bravado and assertiveness over the next four years.

 Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.  




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