The contours of the game plan of the world’s most powerful nation to confront the China challenge are becoming clearer. In his first major foreign policy outreach, US President Joe Biden addressed European Union leaders and sought to rally the West at the Munich Security Conference recently.

“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China…   I know the past few years have strained and tested the trans-Atlantic relationship…   the United States is determined to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership,” he said, clearly indicating an end to the Trump-era policy of isolationism and transactional ties with traditional allies.

While President Biden spoke on a host of issues, his focus was clearly on China which is increasingly being seen as an existential threat to the West ~ to its values and its institutions. He was careful, though, to include the USA’s non-European allies in the matrix, specifically mentioning “allies in the Indo-Pacific” who have worked hard to build a rules-based global order over the past seven decades.

A pushback against China’s alleged economic abuses and coercion which undermine the basis of the international economic system was urged by Mr Biden who iterated: “Everyone must play by the same rules…  Chinese companies should be held to the same standard as US and European ones….  We must shape the rules that will govern the advance of technology and the norms of behaviour in cyberspace so that they are used to lift people up, not used to pin them down…  We must stand for the democratic values that make it possible for us to accomplish this and against those who would monopolise and normalise repression.”

Rousing rhetoric, indeed. China’s response was as usual blunt but with a twist in the tale. In his annual speech at the Lanting Forum, a platform initiated by the Chinese foreign ministry to promote communication between government, businesses, academia, media, and citizens, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said the Biden Administration should stop “smearing” the ruling Communist Party of China and its one-party political system, lift sanctions on trade, and halt Washington’s backing of “separatist forces in Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang”.

As a palliative, though, he added: “We have no intention to challenge or replace the United States. We are ready to have peaceful coexistence and seek common development with the United States of America.” Beijing clearly recognises that the ground is shifting.

For, while the Trump Administration’s policies of harsh economic measures including punitive barriers for Chinese goods and services may have optically suggested a so-called hard line, in reality the rupture of the relationship between Washington and its allies gave China leeway to flex its muscle in various theatres ~ from the South China Sea, to the Indian border, and in trade deals with Europe. Going forward, a more accommodative stance by Beijing, as long as what it terms its “core interests” are not threatened, seems likely. At least in the short term.