Biden wants to beat China. Beijing says, bring it on.

Frederic J. Brown/Reuters
The Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi (center), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (2nd left), China's state councilor and foreign minister, speak with their U.S. counterparts at talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
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As Washington limbers up for what President Joe Biden calls the defining battle of our times – in favor of democracy and against Chinese autocracy – Beijing seems more than ready to take up that challenge.

The United States is seeking to gather allies for the fight, but China is making it clear that those allies will pay a price if they join in too enthusiastically. It has just slapped sanctions on European countries that had sanctioned Chinese officials implicated in the abuse of Uyghur Muslims, for example. Unspoken, but understood, is the threat to close off European access to China’s huge consumer market.

Why We Wrote This

Washington is seeking allies to counter Chinese autocracy, and Beijing is girding for battle. But potential areas for cooperation could persuade both sides to avoid a new cold war.

And China has made a point of reminding Mr. Biden that it has friends of its own. In recent weeks Beijing has welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a message of support to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and China signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with Iran.

Can a new cold war be averted? Both sides have an interest in stopping short of that outcome, and could work together on common interests such as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. But they will have to tone down their rhetoric.

If a full-on “new cold war” is brewing between the United States and China – and we’re not there yet – Beijing is girding itself for battle.

As Washington seeks to build a common front to challenge China’s autocracy at home and assertiveness abroad, Beijing is signaling its determination to stymie that move and to build alliances of its own.

The two countries still have an interest in stopping short of Cold War II – a competition not just between two major powers but between rival power blocs across the world stage.

Why We Wrote This

Washington is seeking allies to counter Chinese autocracy, and Beijing is girding for battle. But potential areas for cooperation could persuade both sides to avoid a new cold war.

And at the first high-level U.S.-Chinese talks since the election of President Joe Biden – in Anchorage last month – both sides held out the prospect of finding areas for cooperation.

But such talk was drowned out by an extraordinary public exchange of accusations by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese foreign policy official Yang Jiechi. The main dividing line: human rights.

Mr. Blinken set out a frank bill of particulars: the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan, and the systematic repression of Uyghur Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Mr. Yang suggested that America should look to its own record on human rights before criticizing others.

A few days later, when the U.S., Europe, and Canada imposed sanctions against government officials in Xinjiang, China’s response was striking and unequivocal: Whatever pressure you or your allies bring to bear, we’ll match and raise.

Beijing retorted with sanctions of its own. Significantly, they were targeted more heavily against the European Union, in effect signaling to European countries that they risked paying a heavy price – access to China’s huge consumer market – if they aligned themselves with Washington.

The next day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on a visit. When Mr. Lavrov denounced Washington for falling back on “the military-political alliances of the Cold War era,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying backed him up. “Just look at the map,” she said, “and you will know that China has friends all over the world. What would we worry about?”

As if to drive home that point, Beijing proceeded to demonstrate the importance of its ties with two countries at the top of Washington’s worry list, and where Mr. Blinken would like Chinese cooperation.

Russian Foreign Ministry/Reuters
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attend a news conference following their meeting in Guilin, China, March 23, 2021.

First, nuclear-armed North Korea. Chinese leader Xi Jinping exchanged personal messages with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reaffirming their alliance. Pyongyang termed this a show of “unity” against the Biden administration’s “hostile” policies.

Days later, Foreign Minister Wang signed a 25-year cooperation agreement in Iran, sealing what he termed a “permanent and strategic” relationship that seems certain to deepen economic, infrastructure, and security ties under China’s “Belt and Road” financing program.

Closer to home, China’s parliament this week further tightened its grip on Hong Kong. It approved changes to the electoral system there, reducing the number of elected seats in its parliament and requiring all candidates to pass muster on their “patriotic” loyalty to Beijing.

The irony is that, at least in the near term, China’s assertive response seems likely to reinforce rather than erode cohesion between Washington and its allies. Popular sentiment toward China in major democracies has been souring. A Pew survey across more than a dozen advanced economies late last year found nearly 8 in 10 people lacked confidence in Mr. Xi to “do the right thing” internationally.

A series of recent reports concerning the Uyghurs – alleging, among other things, the use of forced labor and forced sterilizations – has further hardened criticism of China’s human rights record by members of the European Parliament.

That body must ratify a long-sought EU-China investment treaty, sealed last December. But since Beijing slapped its sanctions on a number of EU legislators, parliamentary ratification is looking increasingly unlikely.

The key question now is whether Washington and Beijing will be minded – or able – to find a way to stop short of across-the-board political confrontation and carve out areas of cooperation.

China’s recent diplomatic embrace of North Korea and Iran may have been intended not merely as a taunt, but as a reminder to Washington: If you want to rein in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and keep Iran from getting one, you’re likely to need our help.

And there’s another, broader issue where the U.S. administration has made clear that it sees China’s partnership as indispensable: the worldwide response to climate change. 

That issue may provide an early sign of whether cooperation indeed remains possible, and the litmus test won’t involve meetings, diplomatic overtures, sanctions, or rhetorical exchanges.

It will come in the shape of an RSVP to a virtual summit on climate change that Mr. Biden is hosting later this month.

Mr. Xi is on the guest list.

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