Even though officials in the Biden administration, including Biden himself, continue to emphasise that the purpose of their renewed engagement with Southeast Asia/ASEAN is not containment of China, Washington’s drive to reinvent the QUAD, as well as the recently signed AUKUS treaty that could nuclearize the Indo-Pacific, is only a series of steps that it has taken in the past few months to confront China in much the same way the US confronted the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Most recently, the Central Intelligence Agency, recognising China as the most important threat to the US, has established a ‘China desk’ to specifically focus on China with a view to not only devising and implementing a set of policies that would hurt the Chinese interests, but also purportedly enable the US to retain its dominance. The ‘new’ mission comes against the backdrop of some consistent loses the CIA has been facing for past few years in losing its informants all over the world, including in China. With the agency now reinventing its ‘China mission’ against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry – which may inevitably have global consequences – the possibility of a new intelligence war looms large, including in the form of the CIA funding jihadi networks to penetrate the mainland China and destabilising it from within.
To the extent that America’s increasing shift ignores China’s message of super-power coexistence, the ‘China centre’, as the official statement said, will specifically “address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China that cuts across all of the agency’s mission areas,” adding that it “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”
The increasing confrontation is not a result of Biden’s so-called ‘negative’ view of China’s Xi; in fact, this is structural in as much as the US foreign policy and defense establishment has a view of China that does not have much space for co-existence. Even during the Trump era, wider US intelligence community saw China as a country preparing for a long term and open-ended era of confrontation with the US for global supremacy. In December 2020, the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, termed China as the US’ ‘enemy number 1.’
“Beijing intends to dominate the US and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically. Many of China’s major public initiatives and prominent companies offer only a layer of camouflage to the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Adding that the US has “intelligence” that,
“China also steals sensitive US defense technology to fuel President Xi Jinping’s aggressive plan to make China the world’s foremost military power. US intelligence shows that China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities. There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power”… This generation will be judged by its response to China’s effort to reshape the world in its own image and replace America as the dominant superpower. The intelligence is clear. Our response must be as well.”
It is this an essentially predatory view of China that has penetrated the US ‘deep state’ and continues to shape its militaristic and confrontationist response to its rival more directly than is often assumed.
What this structural focus indicates is that decisions like releasing Meng Wenzhou, the heir of Chinese tech giant Huawei, is unlikely to steer the US-China ties to a new and diplomatically well-chartered territory. The formation of the China Mission Center comes just a day after national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Switzerland — following up on a phone call last month between Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. As reports indicate both officials failed to make any meaningful or tangible progress to end the existing stalemate, although both agreed to make way for a Biden-Xi summit at the end of the year.
The consistent failure of the Joe Biden administration to break out of the ‘iron-cage’ of rivalry put in place by the Trump administration shows that the US-China rivalry was, is and will never be solely determined by the individuals sitting in the Oval office. Although there is no ‘capitalism vs. communism’ divide, super power rivalry, or inter-state confrontation, does not necessarily need an ideological opposition of the kind that characterised the Cold War. The vey rise of a rival power that appears to have the potential, both economic and military, to unsettle an existing hegemon may itself be a sufficient reason for inviting resistance. Indeed, struggle for power, even when the world was not divided by competing ideologies and systems, was the heart of many wars that emerged and consumed empires. The same holds true of the US and China as well. According to Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official, China and the US are “structurally .. set up as antagonists and I don’t think the [Joe Biden] administration is willing to repudiate the larger rivalry paradigm.”
It is for this reason that every diplomatic interaction between the US and the Chinese officials ends up as yet another episode of confrontation. So, even though the meeting between Sullivan and Yang promised a Biden-Xi summit, the White House readout of the meeting shows how the US mainly used the meeting to reinforce its confrontation with China. According to the official readout, Sullivan “raised a number of areas” with Yang in which the US officials “have concern” with the Chinese government’s actions, including those “related to human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and Taiwan.”
Continuous deterioration in bi-lateral ties, notwithstanding the US-China economic interdependence, is a bad omen for the rest of the world, especially those located close to China, such as the ASEAN nations, or those directly or indirectly involved in China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) projects, such as Pakistan, and have a history of ties with the US. So, even though Biden contends that he is not looking to start a new Cold War, it remains that the increasing US-China competition is going to thrust upon these countries a range of problems and foreign policy challenges that these countries may or may not be able to cope, and which may ultimately require ‘choosing sides.’
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.