On May 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a major speech defining the Biden administration’s China policy.
Though the US is pouring tens of billions of dollars of weapons into Ukraine, the training on how to use them, and the intelligence to target them on Russian soldiers, Blinken said it is not Russia, but China that is the number one threat to, and the number one priority of, the US. Blinken insisted that, "Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China."
Blinken compared the China of today with the China of a half century ago, saying it has moved from isolation and poverty to being a global power. He then claims that "China’s transformation . . . was also made possible by the stability and opportunity that the international order provides. Arguably, no country on Earth has benefited more from that than China." He then accuses China of using its new found power, not to reinforce the international order that made it possible, but to undermine it.
Blinken’s accusation is an old one. It is an incarnation of the theory that Alexander Lukin, Head of International Relations at the HSE University in Moscow, says insinuates that China deceived the West by accepting its help in joining the international trade system and international organizations, making it possible to launch its economic growth, and then reneged on the implied agreement that it would then take its subordinate place, on America’s terms, in the international system under US hegemony.
The assumption behind Blinken’s charge against China is that membership in the international system supposes taking your place under US leadership and that any country that follows an alternative path to the US led path needs to be contained so that it does not challenge the world’s inevitable adoption of the American social, political and economic model and leadership.
Blinken claims that the US doesn’t "seek to block China from its role as a major power." But neither China, nor anyone else, can believe that: they are words that are empty of any reality. Biden has boasted that he has "elevated the QUAD partnership among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.” But the sole purpose of the QUAD is to confront and contain China. Igor Denisov, et al point out in a 2021 paper that the whole new idea of the Indo-Pacific Region is a response to China’s growing influence that "is aimed at the military and political containment of China." It is meant to ensure "the containment of China in all areas and the maintenance of U.S. dominance of the region." Dikarev and Lukin maintain that China is well aware that the QUAD "is intended to manage Asian affairs under the leadership of the United States."
So, how can China hear Blinken’s sentencing of China as "the most serious long-term challenge to the international order?" Blinken says that "China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it."
How can China hear the accusation that they conspire to challenge the international order as meaning anything other than challenging an international world order in which the US hegemon legislates rules that its subordinates must follow but that, hypocritically, do not apply to them? Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, told me that China and Russia have always understood "the so-called rules-based order" as "a code word for the arbitrariness of the Atlantic powers.” In opposition to Blinken, China believes that the US has used international organizations to hypocritically support its own foreign policy instead of using its foreign policy consistently to support international organizations.
How has China threatened the international order unless "order" is seen as an ordinal ranking of nations with the US as the hegemon and everyone else equal as its subordinates?
China has not violated the international order by going to war. While the US has directly or indirectly waged war in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen – to name only some of the overt wars and none of the covert, drone or economic wars – China has seldom gone to war with anyone. Lukin has pointed out that "In order to avoid wasting valuable resources, Beijing does not intervene in international conflicts that do not concern it directly and typically only states its point of view on the question." He adds that "Beijing devotes particular attention to resolving territorial and other disputes with neighboring states by every means possible, including compromise."
China does not undermine the international order by circumventing the Security Council. Rather, it complains that the US periodically circumvents the Security Council, as in Kosovo and Libya, while China advocates a world order with the UN and international law as the foundation: not American exceptionalism. Chinese President Xi Jinping has frequently said that China stands "for the basic norms governing international relations with … the UN Charter as the cornerstone."
As for challenging the international order by violating human rights or ignoring human rights in its trade deals, that may or may not be, but the US led international order does not need China to undermine that for it. The US has installed and supported an anti-pantheon of dictators and trades with countries with the most abysmal human rights, including selling arms to human rights abusers like, most recently, the State Department’s approval of the $2.6 billion sale of fifty-six CH-47F Chinook Helicopters and related equipment to Egypt despite its awareness of Egypt’s human rights abuses.
When Blinken accuses China of being "the most serious long-term challenge to the international order," China can hear that as nothing more than an equivocation on the word "order" to mean that China challenges, not international laws and institutions, but international ranking of powerful nations with the US unchallenged at the top and China dutifully taking its place below like everyone else.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.