Blowups With #China and #Russia in #Biden’s First 60 Days
President Joe Biden got a taste of what the next four years could hold just sixty days into his presidency.
President Joe Biden got a taste of what the next four years could hold just sixty days into his presidency: a new era of bitter superpower competition, marked by perhaps the worst relationship Washington has had with Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall and with China since the two countries established diplomatic relations.
It’s been simmering for years, ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping took sharp turns toward authoritarianism. But it blew up in the open this month after Biden acknowledged that Putin is a “killer,” and the Chinese, meeting with the US for the first time since the new administration took office, lectured Americans on the folly of their arrogant belief that the rest of the world wants to copy their liberties.
On both sides, much of it was for show, with cameras whirring. All of the participants, including the Biden team, were addressing domestic audiences. But it wasn’t completely a performance.
While the Cold War has not resumed — there is little of the nuclear threat of that era left, and the current competition is centred on technology, cyberconflict, and influence operations — the current scenes have echoes of the bad old days. The meeting between the Americans and the Chinese in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday and Friday was reminiscent of when Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, made headlines around the world 60 years ago by knocking his shoe on a United Nations desk and screaming about American imperialists.
However, as veterans of the Cold War will point out, today’s superpower rivalries bear little resemblance to those of the past. Putin has lamented that the Russia of the early twenty-first century is a pale imitation of the Soviet Union, where he was trained as a KGB agent. Russia’s economy is comparable to that of Italy. Its greatest power now is to disrupt and instil fear, whether through the use of nerve agents like Novichok to silence dissenters around the world or through the use of its cyber capabilities to pierce deeply into the networks that keep the US running.
Despite his country’s economic weakness, Putin has shown remarkable resilience in the face of escalating international sanctions since he took control of Crimea in 2014, which intensified after he used nerve agents and cyberattacks. It’s difficult to argue that his behaviour has been tamed.
Sanctions “are not going to do much good,” Robert Gates, a former CIA director and defense secretary, said recently in a public interview with David Ignatius of The Washington Post. “Russia is going to be a challenge for the United States, a national security challenge for the United States, and maybe, in some respects, the most dangerous one, as long as Putin is there.”
The story is vastly different for the Chinese, who were still dealing with the failures of the Great Leap Forward when Khrushchev was banging shoes and intimidating President John F. Kennedy in a first meeting in Vienna.
Its strategy for gaining power is to create new networks rather than disrupting existing ones. Economists debate when China will have the world’s largest GDP — possibly by the end of this decade — and whether they will be able to achieve their other two major national goals: By 2049, the 100th anniversary of former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong’s revolution, China will have built the world’s most powerful military and dominated the race for key technologies.
Their power arises not from their relatively small nuclear arsenal or their expanding stockpile of conventional weapons. Instead, it arises from their expanding economic might and how they use their government-subsidized technology to wire nations — be it Latin America or the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe — with 5G wireless networks intended to tie them ever closer to Beijing. It comes from the undersea cables they are spooling around the world so that those networks run on Chinese-owned circuits.
It will ultimately come down to how they use those networks to make other countries reliant on Chinese technology. Once that happens, the Chinese could export some of their authoritarianism by selling facial recognition software to other countries, which has allowed them to suppress dissent at home.
That is why, in a series of recent writings, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, who was in Anchorage with Secretary of State Antony Blinken for the meeting with their Chinese counterparts, warned that it could be a mistake to assume that China intends to win by directly confronting the US military in the Pacific.
“The central premises of this alternative approach would be that economic and technological power is fundamentally more important than traditional military power in establishing global leadership,” he wrote, “and that a physical sphere of influence in East Asia is not a necessary precondition for sustaining such leadership.”
The Trump administration reached similar conclusions, though it did not publish a formal China strategy until weeks before it left office. Its efforts to strangle Huawei, China’s national telecommunications champion, and seize control of social media apps like TikTok turned out to be a disorganised effort that frequently involved threatening and angering allies who were considering buying Chinese technology.
Part of the goal of the Alaska meeting was to persuade the Chinese that the Biden administration is committed to competing with Beijing on all fronts, including semiconductor manufacturing and artificial intelligence, even if it means spending billions on government-led research and development and new industrial partnerships with Europe, India, Japan, and Australia.
In a two-hour conversation with Xi last month, Biden referred to this, telling him, according to aides, that the Chinese narrative of the United States’ decline was badly misunderstood. However, publishing a broad new strategy will take months at best, and it is unclear if corporate America or major allies will support it. “It’s not going play out in a day or a week or a month,” said Kurt Campbell, the president’s top Asia adviser, who is leading the strategic review. “This is probably a multiadministration effort.”
When the Chinese launched their attempt to put the US delegation on the defensive in Anchorage, Campbell was at the table with Sullivan and Blinken. They accused the US of being “condescending,” claiming that the country’s leaders had no right to lecture others about human rights violations or the preservation of democracy. They talked about Black Lives Matter and the contradictions in a U.S. democratic system that leaves so many behind.
“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior diplomat, said in a lengthy statement at the opening of the session.
He added, “Those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”
The implication of his message was that China would intensify its efforts to dominate rule-making bodies, such as the World Trade Organization and lesser-known organisations that set technical standards.
The Chinese have a new ally in some of these forums: the Russians, who are similarly keen to reduce US influence and strengthen authoritarianism. Cyberintrusions into the complex networks that are the lifeblood of the US government and private industry are becoming increasingly popular between the two countries, and the US is especially vulnerable to them.
The two major violations in recent months, one thought to be orchestrated by the Russians and the other by the Chinese, demonstrate how the two countries have become much more sophisticated in their use of digital capabilities for political purposes over the last decade.
They’re learning how to hack on a large scale in order to demonstrate that they can insert malware into systems that the US relies on every day. The Russian intrusion into SolarWinds network management software gained them access to approximately 18,000 private and government networks, from which they selected only a few hundred to extract data. Microsoft claims that a Chinese government-sanctioned group obtained access to its Exchange servers, which are used by tens of thousands of businesses and government agencies.
The question is whether the two nations were merely stealing secrets or if they had a different goal in mind, such as reminding US leaders of their ability to bring down these systems and paralyse the country.
It is a mind game, much as moving missiles around the country during the Cold War was. But it can also spin out of control.
Sometime in the next few days to weeks, Biden’s aides say, the United States will respond. Some of that response will involve more sanctions. But Gates said recently, “I think we need to be more aggressive with our own cybercapabilities” and find creative ways to raise the cost for U.S. adversaries. Biden expressed similar sentiments during the transition.
The risk, of course, is one familiar from the Cold War: escalation.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.