No other global leader would have mustered the courage to call President Xi Jinping of China a dictator, as President Joe Biden did during his recent 2024 election fund-raising visit in California. It wasn’t a senior moment, a slip of the tongue in an unguarded moment, because later on Biden defended his remark without any regrets, when he said, “just not something I’m going to change very much.” In spite of fierce outrage from Beijing, Biden said that he would nonetheless meet with Xi sometime soon.
Ironically, this happened just after Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned from China, where he had gone to mend fences after the shooting of the Chinese spy balloon had created a diplomatic furore. After the conciliatory meeting with President Xi, Secretary Blinken said that he had no illusion about how profound and vehement the disagreements were between the two nations – about Taiwan’s de facto separate and self-governing status as a democratic country; China’s hegemonic efforts to dominate the South China Sea; China’s support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine;
China’s technology and intellectual property thefts; and China’s role in the smuggling of synthetic drugs that has led to the fentanyl crises. It’s worth noting that Secretary Blinken’s visit took place on the backdrop of the recent revelations that China was building a spy base in Cuba, as The Wall Street Journal reported. Putting up a cheerful diplomatic face, Secretary Blinken said that the relations with China could be managed, nonetheless. The United States has always managed to work with dictators without however giving up on its ideals of maintaining the liberal democratic global order based on the rule of law. Which dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are challenging now on the mistaken belief that the United States and the West are in a state of irretrievable decline.
Since dictators, paramount leaders, and presidents for life don’t care for freedom and truth, they overestimate their powers and cause chaos and destruction. They believe that disorder would create new order shaped by them. Writing in Foreign Affairs, “China Is Ready for a World of Disorder,” Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, recounts an interesting and revealing conversation between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in their March meeting in Kremlin. Xi told Putin, “Right now, there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.” Putin, smiling, responded, “I agree.” Leonard writes that the exchange ”neatly encapsulates the contemporary Chinese way of thinking about the emerging global order – or, rather, disorder.” Is China is really looking for competitive coexistence with America?
Only a bold US president, confident of America’s power, could speak the truth to dictators. Instead of forgetting about the spy balloon, President Biden dwelled upon it, “That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators when they didn’t know what happened. That wasn’t supposed to be going where it was. It was blown off course up through Alaska and then down through the United States. And he didn’t know about it.
When it got shot down, he was very embarrassed. He denied it was even there.” If President Xi did not know about the spy balloon, what else does this most powerful man on the planet – head of the state without any term limits or accountability, commanderin-chief of the PLA, the world’s largest military force, unchallenged boss of the ruling Communist Party – not know that could be dangerous to the world. Instead of spy balloons, there could be Chinese warplanes over Taiwan, but President Xi couldn’t pretend innocence. Lately, in fact, Chinese warplanes and naval ships have carried out maneuvers around Taiwan and the South China Sea that were extremely threatening to the US’s legitimate security presence and responsibilities in the region.
In an interview with “60 Minutes,” last year President Biden said that the United States would defend Taiwan if “there was an unprecedented attack.” This is the bipartisan consensus and the determination which would test America’s willpower in case China attacked. Last year President Biden called Vladimir Putin a “murderous dictator” and “pure thug” and condemned the invasion of Ukraine as an “immoral war.” The Ukrainian war has rejuvenated NATO and Europe as well as America.
But Russia, in spite of its vast natural resources and nuclear weapons, is much less integrated with the global economy than China. Concerned about the aggressive rise of China and its global ambitions, European countries have begun to reassess their relations with China and re-think about the importance of the Indo-Pacific, a region as vital to their geopolitical and economic interests as it is to the United States and the rest of world. Last year the US’ and Europe’s bilateral trade with China exceeded $1.6 trillion involving complex global supply chains connecting several nations in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, for China the war against Taiwan would be different, much more catastrophic than it has been for Russia against Ukraine.
And defending Taiwan wouldn’t be easy for the United States and its allies. But there would be no choice. Even decoupling from the Chinese economy seems difficult. As European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen said, “I believe it is neither viable — nor in Europe’s interest — to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white — and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on derisk — not decouple.” American and European Union’s strategies to de-risk their economies from Chinese economic power include ensuring the supply of critical raw materials, maintenance of crucial supply chains, monitoring the flow of investments that might pose security risks, and controlling technologies with military and intelligence applications.
Today America, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific countries face the challenge of how to continue economic ties with the world’s second biggest economy without letting China control the choke points and levers of global trade for which American power and the defense of Taiwan are indispensable. A judicious blend of European-style conciliatory and American-style confrontational diplomacy with China might work.
(The writer is affiliated with the diplomacy and international programme at the Norwich University Graduate College, US, and is the author of India In A New Key: Nehru To Modi. He publishes the Freedom Public Square newsletter and podcast.)