MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 31st of March, 2021.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.
Up next, the threat of an emerging communist superpower.
The growing friction between the United States and a Chinese government working to supplant the United States as the dominant world power was on display two weeks ago in Alaska.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken hosted a delegation of top Chinese diplomats in Anchorage. In his opening remarks, he listed U.S. complaints with China.
BLINKEN: We’ll also discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, economic coercion toward our allies.
Chinese officials effectively called Washington hypocritical for denouncing human rights abuses in China saying the United States has a long history of its own abuses.
And through an interpreter, Foreign Minister Yi Wang added this:
WANG: China is firmly opposed to U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs. We have expressed our staunch opposition to such interference, and we will take firm actions in response.
REICHARD: Wang also called Blinken’s remarks no way to welcome a guest or to deal with the Chinese people.
The pointed exchanges illustrated an increasingly contentious rivalry between the two nations.
Joining us now to talk about the growing tension is Will Inboden. He is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas. Professor, good morning!
WILL INBODEN, GUEST: Good morning. Good to be with you.
REICHARD: Professor, we just talked about some of the chest beating we saw at the meeting in Anchorage earlier this month between U.S. and Chinese officials. What was your reaction to that meeting?
INBODEN: It wasn’t very surprising. I would say it was shocking but not surprising. Shocking in terms of it was unusually cantankerous for a diplomatic exchange, especially early on in an administration. But not surprising in that both the Biden administration and the Chinese side had been sending signals that both sides see this as an adversarial, competitive relationship. And the relationship is going from bad to worse. So, in that sense I think the meeting really verified what a lot of us who follow these things closely had already been seeing. This is that the Biden administration is going to be taking a hard line on China, and China has already decided to pursue a pretty aggressive stance towards the U.S.
REICHARD: Very few Americans would trade our freedoms for China’s authoritarianism. But it seems they have one big advantage in that Xi Jinping can play the long game here, whereas many in Washington rarely think beyond their next election. From what you can see, what is China’s long-term strategy to surpass the United States?
INBODEN: Well, that’s the big debate but it does seem more and more clear that China’s long term strategy—and, frankly, it’s now turned into their short and medium term strategy—is to become certainly the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region. And then, frankly, to become the dominant autocracy in the world and to rewrite a lot of the standards and rules by which the globe seems to run to be much more favorable to authoritarian governments and much more inimical to democratic governments.
And so for the last few decades China was pursuing a more quiet strategy of biding their time, slowly marshalling their strength, trying to keep a more congenial face to the world. But Xi Jinping has abandoned that. He’s jettisoned that. He sees a real opening. He sees the United States as weak and divided. And he sees China as strong and ascendant. And so he is pressing his advantage right now and trying to seize as much new geographic territory and ideological advantage as he can.
REICHARD: And how are we seeing that play out right now?
INBODEN: Sure. Well, again, to give a little bit of context of just how unique Xi Jinping is, is since Deng Xiaoping, the standard for Chinese rulers had been that they would serve essentially two terms of about 10 years each and then step aside. None of them wanted to return to kind of a lifelong dictatorship as they’d had under Mao.
And Xi Jinping has jettisoned that. He’s declared himself ruler for life. He’s trying to subconsciously model himself on Mao. He’s promoting a cult of personality, calling it Xi Jinping Thought. Again, we hadn’t seen that before since the days of Mao. And so he’s been doing that internally in China to consolidate his control even while he pursues a genocide in Xinjiang, trying to quite literally exterminate the Uyghur Muslim population there. Of course he’s pressed his advantage in Hong Kong, violating his treaty commitments. He’s stepped up his aggression towards Taiwan.
We’re seeing this in the South China Sea, which is by the rest of the world regarded as international waters, but China’s trying to turn that into its own private lake.
And then, of course, very aggressive espionage against American companies, against Canadian companies, against European companies, stealing as much technology as they can. And then, finally, he’s forging a deep and almost unprecedented partnership with Russia. He’s teaming up with Putin on military exercises and other ways that they can block the Western alliance in the global system. So, it’s a really global strategy. It’s sophisticated and it’s aggressive and it’s so far succeeding. So it’s going to be a real test for the Biden administration.
REICHARD: Back in December, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe called China the greatest threat to the free world since World War II. He said, “Beijing intends to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically.” From what you’ve seen so far, does the Biden administration take the threat China poses as seriously as did the Trump administration?
INBODEN: I’ll go one further, and I say this as a conservative Republican who does not like a lot of what Biden is doing on domestic and economic policy. I think the Biden administration is taking the China threat more seriously than the Trump administration did.
When President Trump came into office, he pursued the same line that Obama had first pursued when he came into office. He wanted a reset with China. He invited Xi Jinping to Mar-a-lago. He downplayed any criticism on human rights while Trump was trying to pursue a grand bargain on trade. And was really courting and trying to build a friendship with Xi Jinping. And that continued for the first couple years of the Trump administration. And then finally the Trump administration realized that this conciliatory approach to China was not working, just as the Obama administration had belatedly realized that as well. And then they started taking a harder line.
Anyway. I don’t see any of that naivete among the Biden folks. I actually think they’re more unified in taking a harder line towards China. I think they’ve learned from some of the mistakes they themselves made when they were in the Obama administration as well as some mistakes the Trump administration made.
REICHARD: President Biden has moved quickly to undo President Trump’s policies in many areas. But what about the trade war with China? What are we seeing there from the Biden administration?
INBODEN: Yeah, and, again, I say this as someone who is overall pretty critical of the Biden administration in a lot of other ways, but on the trade
policy, the Biden administration has continued the Trump sanctions and tariffs. And, if anything, they have even increased some of them, such as sanctions on Chinese leaders who are engaging in the human rights abuses in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. But they haven’t lifted any of the tariffs. Frankly, even though I don’t favor lifting the tariffs, I was frustrated that the Trump administration missed chances to take more targeted action against a number of the Chinese enemies that were stealing American intellectual property. I think just focusing on the trade imbalances of the lower-cost manufactured goods was not the most strategic way to go.
And then the other thing that the Trump administration missed, which the Biden administration I hope will revisit but I’m not sure yet, is building deeper trade ties with our allies in the region because when we withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was a region wide trade agreement that excluded China, when we withdrew from that our allies such as Japan and South Korea and Australia and then new partners such as Vietnam and Indonesia, they had nowhere else to go but to turn to China. So they have now forged a free trade agreement with China and that is deepening their ties with China, and we want to bring those countries back over to our side economically.
So while I think we need to keep having a strong line towards China on the trade and economic front, part of maintaining that strong line is deepening our alliances and partnerships. And, again, that was one of the unforced errors, I thought, in the Trump administration. One more example I could give you is Trump kept trying to withdraw troops from South Korea, which was exactly what Beijing wanted. And so the Biden administration just concluded a deal with South Korea that we will keep our troops there. And, you know, most people read that through the lens of deterring North Korea and that’s part of it, but a big part of it also is deterring China as well.
REICHARD: Is China on track to achieve its goal of overtaking the United States economically, militarily, or technologically?
INBODEN: On the present trends for China look positive, but I often try to remind people that China also has some major internal problems. In the long game, I’m still very bullish on the United States. Here’s how I often put it is, when Xi Jinping puts his head on his pillow at night wherever he sleeps, what’s keeping him awake? What he’s most afraid of is not the United States. It’s his own people. That’s why China spends untold hundreds of billions of dollars each year on internal surveillance, on trying to monitor and control everything its people are thinking and saying and doing. That is not a strong country, right? If you are terrified of your own people, of letting them even have a modicum of religious freedom or political freedom, that’s a real vulnerability and that’s where I would love to see the United States pressing more on human rights and religious freedom. Because that’s a way we can bring the Chinese people more over to our side against their government. Our fight is not with the Chinese people. Our fight is with the Chinese Communist Party, and we need to keep that distinction in mind. And that’s a real vulnerability for China.
MR: Will Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas. Professor, thank you for joining us.
INBODEN: Thank you, Mary. I enjoyed it.