Biden's plan for the US Empire

Joe Biden’s first 100 days as US president were met with enthusiasm by many of those who regarded Donald Trump’s four years in office as an unmitigated nightmare. Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar told her readers: “Most Democrats I know are positively giddy about Joe Biden’s presidency”. “Transformational” was the word most commonly used to describe the early days of the new presidency. Leading liberal Democrats who had denounced Biden during the presidential nominations contest as an uninspiring, out of touch conservative joined the praise. In Australia, progressives of various stripes in the Greens and the ALP, who had alternated between treating the Trump administration as circus clowns and dangerous madmen, fell swooning over the new-look Biden. This response was not restricted to those in professional political circles. In Trump’s last year in office, just one in six of the public in a dozen US allies had confidence that the US president would do the right thing in world affairs; in 2021, with Biden occupying the White House, that figure rose to three-quarters. Biden helped to give the US fresh appeal: those with a favourable view of the US jumped from 37 percent in 2020 to 61 percent in 2021.

We must be blunt. This response is wrong-headed. It may be understandable that leading Democrats in the US and “progressive circles” in Australia would be breathing a sigh of relief that the US under President Biden is now in safe hands. Such people may now with clear consciences once again swear their allegiance to the world’s biggest imperialist power. But what may be welcome to them should be resisted by socialists. Far from constituting a sharp break with the Trump administration, the Biden presidency is in some important respects only consolidating Trump’s program, in particular its attempt to prepare the country for conflict with its new imperialist rival, China.

For all the social, political and other divisions in the US, the ruling establishment –Republican and Democratic alike – is united on one thing: a concern to outcompete China and contain its rise. China has been growing in the twenty-first century while the US has been beset by a string of crises, several of them self-inflicted, which have undermined its own standing in the world. While previous US administrations have recognised and attempted to respond to Beijing’s increasing global influence, the Biden administration is trying to develop a more cohesive strategy to deal with relative US decline and to confront China. Some elements of this strategy appear to offer workers a break from the policies of successive administrations that only rewarded the rich at the expense of the poor. But the fundamental purpose of the strategy is to defend US global hegemony. In what follows, I spell out the Biden administration’s plans to protect the US’s place at the top of the imperialist heap, along with some limits and contradictions.

The evolving US response to the rise of China

The US response to China’s rise has evolved considerably over the past five decades. During the 1970s and 1980s, Washington looked to Beijing to balance against the Soviet Union, and the two nations worked together on several fronts. The collapse of the USSR removed this as a factor in relations between the two and raised the potential for China to at some point become a threat to the US. But with China’s economy one-ninth the size of America’s in 2000 (expressed in US dollars) and with no ability to project power far from its shores, there were few in Washington who regarded China as a serious threat.

The Clinton and George W Bush administrations operated on the assumption that China would expand its economy under the auspices of the US-led global framework of commerce, much as Germany and Japan had done earlier. There were great advantages for the US to promote China’s development because of the complementarity of the two economies: China offered US corporations a low-wage platform to offshore their factory operations, along with a rapidly growing market. China ran a large trade surplus with the US but was willing to invest its foreign currency reserves in US Treasury bonds, thereby underwriting US government debt and preventing the US dollar from sliding. On the basis of this complementarity, the US sponsored China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.

Although there were occasional attempts to elevate China as a threat, as when George W Bush criticised President Clinton in 1999 for his treatment of China as a “partner” not a competitor, in practice successive administrations, including that of Bush himself, pursued what they called “comprehensive engagement” with China. In 2002, Bush, now president, told an audience at Beijing’s Tsinghua University that “My nation offers you our respect and our friendship”. The changes underway in China would, Bush argued, “lead to a stronger, more confident China – a China that can astonish and enrich the world”. As late as 2014, President Barack Obama could declare to an audience of Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) business leaders that:

The United States welcomes the rise of China as a prosperous, peaceful and stable state… Over recent decades, the United States has worked to help integrate China into the global economy – not only because it’s in China’s best interest, but because it’s in America’s best interest, and the world’s best interest. We want China to do well.

China enjoyed nearly two decades without any significant US pushback. It helped that the US was distracted by the War on Terror. And then from 2008, the Obama administration was occupied for several years in dealing with the global financial crisis, a period when China played a big role in lifting the world economy out of a deep recession.

Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” in 2011, with its commitment to deploy 60 percent of US naval and aerial power to the Asia-Pacific, was the first real sign that the US ruling class had begun to regard China as a serious threat, but the continuing pull of dramas and conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, including the challenge from a revived Russia, prevented the administration from focusing its efforts on containing China.

China, meanwhile, continued to grow from strength to strength. In 2008, it surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy and by 2015 its economy was 60 percent of that of the US, a more than sixfold increase in its relative size in just 15 years. The Chinese ruling class used these years to leverage its booming economy into geostrategic power through its Belt and Road Initiative. Its “Made in China 2025” program spells out China’s ambitions to develop a leading role in a wide range of advanced industries. Its military and strategic power accumulated in proportion from the mid-1990s onwards. As China grew, it made clear that it had no intention of remaining in America’s shadow and was now striving for great power status itself.

The 2016 presidential contest between Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton and the Republican Donald Trump marked something of a turning point. Clinton ran hard marking out China as a threat to US hegemony and positioned a White House under her leadership as one that would aggressively take on its new rival. Trump made much of China’s huge trade surplus with the US which, he alleged, was the result of China cheating, manipulating its currency and stealing from America. For too long, Trump argued, China had taken the US for a ride, and it was time to “put America first”. China, however, was not America’s only adversary. In Trump’s view, the whole international order was stacked against the US. America’s willingness to oversee world trade, commerce and governance via institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, WTO and the United Nations had allowed its rivals, China included, to rise at its expense.

In office, Trump maintained his inflammatory rhetoric against the international system of trade and diplomacy that the US had helped create and, using the rhetoric of “national sovereignty” and “Make America Great Again”, downgraded US support for the international liberal order. This involved undercutting the operations of the WTO, which Trump described as “a disaster”, reducing funding to the United Nations, withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accord and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Multilateral trade negotiations were put aside in favour of bilateral trade deals. The US also exited the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Global Compact on Migration and threatened to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), with Trump declaring the military alliance “obsolete”. Trump was, however, nothing if not inconsistent, on the one hand blasting China for its alleged economic crimes and appointing noted China hawks to key positions, on the other making much of his meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, describing their allegedly warm personal relations and the good deals the two leaders had struck.

While Trump blew hot and cold about China in his first year in office, leading elements in the state apparatus resolved that the US had to shift to a much more aggressive approach. The main changes, when they came, came quickly. In December 2017, the White House released its new National Security Strategy. This was followed one month later by the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy and that in turn one month later by the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific. These were followed with a little gap by the US Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (December 2018) and the State Department’s US Indo-Pacific Strategy (November 2019).

These were not primarily the work of Trump and his closest ideologues. In some domains, in particular US relations with Russia, the documents ran directly counter to Trump’s stance. These strategy documents were described by the head of the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Security College and a leading China hawk, Professor Rory Medcalf, as “one of the few achievements of an otherwise grim era in American foreign policy”:

The slightly reassuring news is that beneath President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, conceit and unilateralism, the policy professionals were striving to advance a more serious and coherent agenda. There was a plan after all, however incomplete and insufficiently resourced its implementation.

The significance of the Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific was that, in Medcalf’s view, it represented “the beginning of a whole-of-government blueprint for handling strategic rivalry with China”.

What might be called the “China pivot” had several components. First was the US ruling class’s clear acknowledgement that its domination of the world, unchallenged since the fall of the Soviet Union, was now at risk. “Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding”, the Defense Strategy read. Four rivals to US power were identified: two “rogue regimes”, Iran and North Korea, and two “revisionist powers”, Russia and China. Very significantly, China was no longer a “strategic partner” but a “strategic competitor”:

China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage…displacing the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future.

Like the first Cold War, there was a clear ideological aspect to this struggle:

Inter-state strategic competition, defined by geopolitical rivalry between free and repressive world order visions, is the primary concern for U.S. national security.

Specifically,

[i]t is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions.

Second, those responsible for the China pivot recognised that the existing strategies towards the “revisionist powers” had not reined them in. The US must therefore change course:

These competitions [with China and Russia] require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades – policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.

Urgent action was needed to deal with the threat China represented in its region because “US security and prosperity depend on free and open access to the Indo-Pacific region, which will remain an engine of US regional and global economic growth”.

One element of the response involved expanding US military capacity. In his State of the Union address on 31 January 2018, Trump announced his determination to “modernise and rebuild our nuclear arsenal” to build “unmatched power” as “the surest means to our true and great defence”. On top of more ballistic missiles and bombs, the Trump administration increased investments in long range and stealth weapons, upgraded US bases around the Asian periphery, enlarged the inventory of sophisticated munitions and developed technologies such as hypersonic systems, unmanned systems and new advanced missiles. The US also began to step up its so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols, challenging Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Despite Trump’s erratic behaviour, the US under his watch opened negotiations to restart the Quad, a pact involving the US, India, Japan and Australia whose main purpose was to combat China. The US began to sell allies more sophisticated defence systems. The US also expanded the role of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing pact which in 2019-20 issued statements denouncing China’s crushing of democracy in Hong Kong.

The Trump administration’s bid to forestall China’s threat to US power also included economic measures. The Security Strategy stated that “the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression” by its trading partners. Of particular concern to the Pentagon was the notion that US military capability had been undermined by the run-down in US manufacturing capacity. In January 2018, the president announced new tariffs on imports of washing machines and solar panels, and this was followed later in the year by the imposition of tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium, justified on national security grounds; the US wanted to ensure it had the capacity to produce the steel for the big new orders coming through for missiles, bombers and ships.

While Silicon Valley capitalists are a Democratic Party stronghold, they nonetheless cheered the Trump administration’s commitment to what the Security Strategy called the “national security innovation base” – the companies and research institutions that provide the information technology that guides and powers US weapons systems. The Trump administration imposed export controls, limiting Chinese high tech firms’ ability to procure a variety of US goods and components, tightened the constraints on China’s ability to invest in the US (including the ability to acquire US firms), restricted the enrolment of Chinese students in advanced science and technology programs at the best US universities, and placed limits on Chinese high tech firms’ ability to do business in the US. Confrontations over Huawei’s 5G technology and the “digital Silk Road” were manifestations of the deeper danger that China might use its national champions to build new electronic infrastructure networks that the Chinese government could exploit. Pressure by the Trump administration on this front eventually succeeded in forcing the British government to renege on an earlier agreement with Huawei to operate Britain’s 5G network.

Even though the Trump administration undertook a definite shift in US policy towards China, many elements in the US state apparatus tasked with developing imperialist strategy, most obviously the CIA, State Department and Pentagon, were not convinced that Trump was the leader who could carry this through. They shared several concerns.

First, Trump jeopardised vital US alliances on which the China pivot depended. The key policy documents endorsed close relations with allies, but Trump did the opposite, trashing international agreements and abusing important US partners. In what was meant to be America’s main region of concern, East and South East Asia, Trump was missing in action. Trump attended only one Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) summit during his four years in office and ignored the APEC leaders’ meeting in 2018 and the East Asian Summits in 2018 and 2019. In Europe, Trump described the European Union as an “economic foe” and did not hide his disdain for many of America’s NATO partners.

Trump’s economic warfare was scattergun, imposing tariffs on goods from China but also on key US allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, the EU, Brazil, Mexico and Canada. Only under pressure did Trump relent on some of these measures. Trump’s support for bilateral trade deals in place of WTO multilateral trade rounds threatened to make America’s trade relations with other countries significantly more complicated. By rejecting the Paris Climate Accord, Trump also signalled that the US had no interest in leading the international effort to respond to global warming. Trump’s support for Brexit concerned the State Department, since Britain had been the US’s wedge in the European Union. With Britain out of the EU, the balance of power would tilt further to the rather less pliant Germany. Trump also supported the far right in Europe whom established figures in the State Department regarded as dangerous irritants.

Trump’s undermining of alliances gave China the opportunity to pose as a player in international affairs. There were already concerns in Brussels and Washington following China’s establishment of the “17+1” arrangement in 2013 which involved China drawing Central and Eastern European governments into its Belt and Road program, undermining the EU’s ability to present a united front in negotiations with China. But it was not just the minnows; no European government wanted to be left behind in the China goldrush. The Conservative government in Britain boasted that the UK was “China’s best partner in the West”. Britain was the first G7 country to join the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and lobbied within the EU for China-friendly trade policies. In 2019, Boris Johnson, just before becoming prime minister, insisted that the government would be very “pro-China” and that he was “very enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative”. Germany, too, was an enthusiast for closer links with China, its biggest trading partner, and Chancellor Angela Merkel was an early champion of a new investment pact between the EU and China, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. German companies, in particular the car manufacturers, were big investors in China. In Asia, China engineered the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program in 2019 to draw Asian nations towards China, while excluding the US. Such developments appeared increasingly threatening to US strategists who could sense that traditional allies might be swayed by their new economic partner.

While antagonising partners, Trump appeared to his detractors in the State Department and Pentagon too friendly to US rivals. His pronouncements about his good relations with Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un caused palpitations in foreign policy circles, something the Democrats were happy to run with. After the president had described Xi as “an incredible guy” and “a friend of mine” at a time when the Chinese government was cracking down on Hong Kong democracy protests, Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer told the press: “For a guy who promised to be tough on China, President Trump’s reliable deference to President Xi is all the more bewildering”. Close relations between Trump’s team and the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election campaign caused the New York Times and Washington Post to campaign hard against Trump on the basis that he represented a national security threat to the US. That was the significance of Russia’s inclusion as a “revisionist power” in the National Security Strategy, a slap-down of Trump and his relations with Putin.

Finally, Trump’s fostering of right-wing extremism at home worried some elements of the state apparatus. The growing preparedness of the hard right to bomb and murder its targets, with a nod and wink from the president (and forbearance by many police departments), raised alarm within the FBI, which began to describe such actions as “domestic terrorism”. The military top brass also grew concerned. Following the November 2020 presidential election, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A Milley, prepared to head off any attempt by Trump to use what he called the president’s “Brownshirts” and “Nazis” to overturn the election result. The January 6 attack on the Capitol building only confirmed the fears of Milley and his colleagues. The political polarisation which Trump thrived upon did not suit the Pentagon’s desire to project US power overseas because it highlighted US political dysfunction at a time when the Chinese regime appeared competent and stable by comparison. In 2021, just one in six people in America’s major allies believed that “US democracy is a good example for others to follow”, while nearly six in ten believed that this was once the case but is no longer.

In summary, the Trump administration signalled a clear shift in the US approach to relations with China. Nonetheless, by alienating US allies and destabilising American politics the Trump administration created opportunities for China to expand its influence, thereby undermining America’s ability to contain its new imperialist rival.

Biden’s program

The Biden administration has continued and intensified the China pivot set in motion by its predecessor, what The Economist has described as “the most dramatic break in American foreign policy in the five decades since Richard Nixon went to China”. Before outlining the main themes of Biden’s policy towards China, it is important to confirm that the primary factor in the development of a more aggressive response to China is not the presidents themselves. As vice president during the Obama administration, Biden had not marked himself out as a China hawk. As late as May 2019 he ridiculed the idea that China represented a threat to the US. But as his bid for the presidency gathered steam later in the year, Biden shifted tack. An important role in this transition was played by key advisers, almost all China hawks, including Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell who, as Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, had been largely responsible for the administration’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011.

The first indication that Biden had embraced an aggressive approach to China was his article in the March/April 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, the premier journal of the US foreign policy community. “The United States does need to get tough with China”, he wrote. The new imperialist rival was mentioned 17 times in the article. By the time of the presidential debates in September 2020, Biden was as bullish on challenging China as Trump.

Following his victory in the November 2020 elections, Biden appointed Sullivan his national security adviser, and Campbell as National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific. Rush Doshi, author of newly published The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, works under Campbell as China director on the National Security Council. Biden also appointed Anthony Blinken, another longstanding China hawk, Secretary of State. Biden’s maiden speech as president to Congress spelled out the priority of the new administration: “We can’t stop now – we are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century”.

The following are the main elements of the Biden administration’s policy towards China, some which continue where Trump left off, some which represent a distinctive shift.

Linking domestic economic policy to imperial geo-policy

One area where Biden is very much following in the footsteps of Trump is by explicitly linking economic and industrial policy to imperial policy. America’s ramshackle infrastructure has increasingly been thrown into the spotlight as a competitive failing when compared to the rapid steps that China has taken to improve its ports, highways, airports, fast rail and in particular its internet capacity.

The ability of the US to run a war economy is further challenged by the very measures that successive US administrations encouraged to boost the profits of US corporations over many decades, namely, outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage countries through extended international supply chains. Such business practices helped US corporations cut costs but they have also exposed the country to danger in the event of war, especially since many of these supply chains originate in China itself. One important area where the US has fallen behind is in semiconductors, a vital component in both civilian and military industries and the subject of ongoing tension between the US and Asian producers since the 1980s. US imports of semiconductors tripled in value between 2010 and 2020.

Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” promised to rebuild infrastructure and recreate a robust manufacturing base. Nonetheless, the administration’s regular announcements of a new “infrastructure week” became a running joke; “like Samuel Beckett’s Godot, it was perennially promised and never arrived”, as The Economist put it. Trump’s main economic achievement in office was to push through tax cuts for big business and the wealthy and to remove environmental regulations, rather than pumping public money into rebuilding the physical capacity of the nation to transport goods and people effectively.

The Trump administration had boasted of its ambition to bring industry “back home” by cutting corporate taxes and imposing tariffs on imports. Trump targeted companies that had offshored operations to China. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that his policies had much success. In Trump’s last year in office, the US still ran a massive deficit on its balance of trade on goods and services with China – $679 billion, up by $100 billion on 2019. Merchandise imports from China continue to run ahead of exports to China by four to one.

COVID-19 has proven brutal in exposing problems in the US. Leaving aside the initial denialism by the Trump administration, the US response in 2020 suffered from disrupted supply chains in PPE, ventilators and pharmaceuticals, along with longstanding problems in the public health system. This situation was particularly embarrassing when China, let alone countries much poorer, smaller or weaker than the US such as Vietnam and Cambodia, were initially able to take decisive action to stop the spread of the pandemic. China’s rapid response in tackling the pandemic has been compared to a new “Sputnik moment”, the moment when the successes of the US’s chief imperialist rival cast doubts about its own, at least in the early stages.[1]

“Economic security is national security” sums up much of Biden’s response to these problems. Prior to his election, Biden identified China as “a special challenge” in terms that could have been lifted from Trump’s campaign speeches:

If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage – and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future.

Years of neoliberal economic mismanagement, which had weakened America’s domestic manufacturing capacity, had now become a matter of national security, argued his adviser Sullivan and fellow former State Department adviser Jennifer Harris:

While military power will still matter, the emerging great-power competition between the United States and China will ultimately turn on how effectively each country stewards its national economy and shapes the global economy.

For too long, Harris and Sullivan argued, US trade policy had pandered to companies which offshored most of their manufacturing, avoided paying tax and charged US consumers extortionate prices. Such practices had to end if the US was to recover its dominant position. Harris and Sullivan argued that a big program of investment in infrastructure, technology, innovation and education was needed to improve US competitiveness with China. While Trump had promised much, his corporate and personal tax cuts had only piled up “bad debt”.

Economic security was a theme that ran through several of Biden’s early major statements – the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan and the president’s first speech to Congress on 28 April. The initial version of the Jobs Plan involved major outlays on so-called “hard infrastructure”, including $621 billion on transport infrastructure, including rail, bridges, roads, airports, mass transit and electric vehicle development, $300 billion for assisting manufacturers and small business and improving access to capital for green energy, $100 billion for workforce training and billions more for expanding broadband access and upgrading electrical grids.

While some elements of Biden’s agenda, such as his tax hikes on big business and increased social spending, drew strident Republican opposition, Republicans have been more open to some of Biden’s proposals to expand spending on infrastructure. On 8 June, in a bipartisan vote, Congress passed the US Innovation and Competition Act, which provided for $52 billion added spending on US semiconductor manufacturing. The Endless Frontier Act, which was also passed with support on both sides of Congress, significantly increases federal investment in domestic science and technology research in key areas. The Act provides for the establishment of ten regional technology hubs to help US companies exit the Chinese market, relocate production facilities outside of China, and to diversify sources to locations outside of China.

The Biden administration also maintained Trump’s sanctions against Chinese IT and semiconductor businesses, adding five Chinese companies to a US government blacklist on national security grounds and expanding a Trump-era order that banned US investment in Chinese companies that work with China’s military.

Biden made clear in his address to Congress that the main motivation for spending on infrastructure and semiconductors is the new Cold War. Why should the US renew and upgrade its investment in high tech research? Because, Biden told his audience, “China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future”. Why should rival politicians accept Biden’s plan? Because “we can’t be so busy competing with one another that we forget the competition that we have with the rest of the world”.

What has been called the return of industry policy is not counterposed to the Biden administration’s rhetorical commitment to free markets and international trade. The bipartisan Strategic Competition Bill states that the US must “lead in the advancement of international rules and norms that foster free and reciprocal trade and open and integrated markets”. As the fastest growing region of the world economy, the Indo-Pacific is of particular concern to Congress and “free trade” therefore inevitably draws in the power of the US state, including its military arm, to defeat threats to US interests. The Strategic Competition Bill enjoins Biden to ensure that:

the United States and its allies maintain unfettered access to the region, including through freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, consistent with international law and practice, and the PRC neither dominates the region nor coerces its neighbors.

While supposedly fostering “free and reciprocal trade”, the Biden administration has maintained the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on trade with China and continues Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. As Biden told Congress: “All the investments in the American Jobs Plan will be guided by one principle: Buy American”.

Military policy

The Biden administration is also maintaining Trump’s program of military expansion. The US, which spends three times as much as its Asian rival, enjoys an overwhelming military advantage over China on a global scale. It has about 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China. It has twice the tonnage of warships at sea, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers compared with China’s two carriers (which are much less advanced). Washington has more than 2,000 modern fighter jets compared with Beijing’s roughly 600. And the United States deploys this power using a vast network of some 800 overseas bases; China by contrast has only three.

The problem for the US is that China’s spending is primarily focused on expanding its reach in the Western Pacific, while that of the US is spread across the world. Given the troubles the US experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longstanding principle that the US should be able to fight and win wars in two different regions at once is now in question. A simultaneous conflict with Russia in Ukraine and with China in the Pacific, for example, could easily overwhelm US military capabilities.

Biden has been responding on several fronts. First, by lifting the Pentagon budget in 2021-22 to $715 billion, an $11 billion raise on Trump’s last military outlays. The administration is now winding back spending on fighter jets such as the F35 but devoting more money to hypersonic missiles, new generation warships and space-related projects. Second, the administration is rapidly expanding research and development spending on the technologies needed to guide weapons systems and disrupt those of America’s enemies, including China’s ability to deploy electronic warfare against vital US infrastructure and battlefield communications. And third, Biden is continuing the Trump administration’s program of more aggressive positioning of US navy and air force in contested areas.

China has in recent years been building a military presence in the South China Sea, establishing military facilities on island atolls and rapidly expanding its blue-water navy, while also increasing its capacity to strike the US Pacific fleet with land-based missiles. In response, the US has maintained and expanded so-called “freedom of navigation operations”, displays of US naval power in regions claimed by China – the so-called first and second island-lines. On 9 February, two nuclear-powered carrier groups conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea.

The major test for the US is Taiwan, situated just 160km off the coast of mainland China and a key US partner for 70 years. Leaving aside its value as a Western ally on China’s doorstep, Taiwan is home to 92 percent of advanced semiconductor manufacturing capacity. Were China to capture it, this would leave the US in a very vulnerable position. In recent months, Chinese fighter jets, navy ships and surveillance planes have conducted dozens of missions around and over Taiwanese territory. The US has also increased its presence. Since Biden’s inauguration, US warships have transited the Taiwan Strait on five occasions, heavily shadowed by Chinese aircraft which, on some reports, conducted mock attack runs on a US aircraft carrier.

There are mixed understandings in the US about how quickly such shadow-boxing with China might develop into something much larger. In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress that:

There is a fundamental understanding that the period between now and 2026, this decade, is the time horizon in which China is positioned to achieve overmatch in its capacity, and when Beijing could…widely choose to forcibly change the status quo in the region. And I would say the change in that status quo could be permanent.

His successor at the head of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, told the Senate Armed Services Committee later that month: “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us”. He added that the US needs to field weapons and capabilities to deter China “in the near term and with urgency”. Other US generals dispute this assessment, arguing that China is a long way away from being able to take aggressive action against Taiwan.

US relations with its allies

To sum up the argument so far: the Biden administration’s program in response to the threat to US hegemony represented by China involves substantial areas of continuity – a focus on rebuilding domestic manufacturing capability and infrastructure alongside escalation of military pressure in the South China Sea and Taiwan. Biden’s approaches to US allies and to domestic politics are, however, two areas of clear differentiation.

Biden recognises that America’s ability to challenge China relies on support from its allies. Such support, Biden contends, was jeopardised by Trump. In his 2020 Foreign Affairs article, Biden argued:

By nearly every measure, the credibility and influence of the United States in the world have diminished since President Barack Obama and I left office on January 20, 2017. President Donald Trump has belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners.

Biden promoted instead “a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations”. He promised to hold a global Summit for Democracy within his first year in office “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”.

On announcing his new national security and foreign policy team in the days after his election, Biden said:

It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Once again sit at the head of the table. Ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies. Ready to stand up for our values.

Very soon after his inauguration, Biden indicated the main themes of his approach. At his first speech at the State Department in February 2021, Biden stated:

We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.

Early moves have included halting US withdrawal from the World Health Organization. The US took steps to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The administration’s priority in its first weeks in office were US allies in the Indo-Pacific. After his confirmation by the Senate at the end of January, Secretary of State Blinken held video calls with the leaders of the Philippines and Thailand, two important US allies in Asia. On 12 March, Biden convened the first meeting of leaders of Quad nations as a video conference. While the resulting communique by the Quad does not mention China directly, the first statement of what is sometimes called the “Asian NATO” states the commitment of its signatories to maintain the Indo-Pacific as a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion”. In April and May, Biden held his first in-person meetings in Washington with foreign leaders – Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, representing Japan, the US’s most important ally in Asia, and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. The three leaders pledged to strengthen their alliance to combat China’s rise and condemned what they called its threats to Taiwan. The Biden administration also declared its support for another key US ally, Australia, which had been undergoing low-level economic warfare with China since 2019. On 23 May the US president attended the virtual ASEAN ministerial meeting, repairing a rift with the Asian bloc.

With the US’s main allies in Asia giving verbal support to a more aggressive position in relation to China, in June, the president and his ministers met European and other leaders to convince them to join the US’s anti-China bandwagon. On 13 June, Biden attended the G7 conference in England. Here the main priority was to overcome traditional European hostility to US attempts to foster enmity towards China. Even though the EU would not agree to broad anti-China joint statements proposed by the US, the G7 did issue a communique denouncing China for its treatment of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The G7 also agreed in the communique to adopt “collective approaches to challenging non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy”, clearly aimed at China. One such measure included a commitment to boost international investment in developing countries (“Build Back Better World”) in an attempt to push back against China’s Belt and Road program.

On the day after G7 meeting concluded, Biden attended the annual NATO summit in Brussels. NATO had been designed to contain Russia in Europe, whereas now the US’s major strategic concern was the Indo-Pacific, a region where the US’s European allies were of little use. Nonetheless, Biden was keen that NATO orient not just to Russia’s continuing challenges in Ukraine and its hacking of European and US infrastructure, but also to China. While many of America’s NATO allies had at best cool relations with Trump, they warmly welcomed Biden. For the first time, NATO declared China a “global security risk”.

The third leg of Biden’s European trip involved a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The US security and foreign policy apparatus is keen to hold Russia in check. Biden sought to set down certain red lines that must not be crossed by Russia, but the overall tone of the meeting was not one of confrontation. While the US regards Russia as a threat to US interests in Europe, its chief concern is China. In what may be conceived of as a “reverse Kissinger”, harking back to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s successful negotiations to pull China into an anti-Soviet bloc in 1971, Biden and his advisers want to “turn” Russia against China in the new Great Game in Eurasia. In June, the administration announced that it was dropping sanctions on the Russian company building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. Although there is no unanimity in the US state apparatus on this score, with accusations of “appeasement” lobbed at Biden by some in the Republican camp, it seems likely that the US is doing what it can to at least avoid driving Russia closer to China and to play up points of tension between the two, as for example over competing claims in the Arctic.

The Biden administration’s approach to climate change is an extension of its foreign policy. Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Climate Accord weakened US prestige. In a signal that the US is back in the game, the Biden administration organised a virtual climate summit on 22-23 April. It used the weeks leading up to the summit to embarrass China, which is deeply invested in coal mining and coal-fired power stations both at home and abroad. The summit failed to generate any serious commitments to reduce global warming, and the Biden administration demonstrated the seriousness of its climate credentials by granting hundreds of permits to drill on federal land and pressing ahead with a Trump-era oil project in Northern Alaska. Despite the US’s lack of commitment to climate action, the summit had served Biden’s purpose.

The COVID-19 pandemic is another arena where the Biden administration has sought to do battle with China. Following China’s donation of vaccines to developing countries, the Biden administration announced in May that it would support a waiver of World Trade Organization’s intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines. In his first speech to Congress in April Biden drew the clear link between vaccine distribution and foreign policy: “We will become an arsenal for vaccines for other countries, just as America is an arsenal for democracy for the world”. In late May, Biden ordered an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and whether it might have emerged as the result of a lab leak in Wuhan, bringing into the mainstream what had been dismissed up until this point by most Democrats as a right-wing conspiracy theory encouraged by the Trump administration.

The attempt to create an anti-China bloc among US allies is embedded in a clear ideological framework. Far more than Trump had done, the Biden administration is instrumentalising democracy as a weapon in the new Cold War. The Trump administration had pitched its foreign policy as a battle between “free and repressive world orders” and cynically used Xinjiang and Hong Kong as cudgels to beat Beijing. Nonetheless, Trump’s cordial relationships with figures such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and the Philippines’ Duterte, let alone his disdain for democracy in the US itself, meant that the president could hardly make a convincing case that the White House could wage a global defence of democracy. Biden, who is trying to position the US as the head of the world’s liberal democracies, at least appears more consistent. At the virtual Munich Security conference on 19 February, Biden framed the issue as follows:

We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world. We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that…autocracy is the best way forward…and those who understand that democracy is essential.

Like Trump, however, Biden used human rights rhetoric very selectively. China was the target. In his speech to Congress, Biden argued that the US must prove that democratic governance can work, because Xi Jinping “and others, autocrats, think that democracy can’t compete in the twenty-first century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus”. But the US under Biden continues close relations with friendly autocrats such Duterte, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all of whom Biden wants to join the US in the fight against China. Hypocrisy never stands in the way of the main game.

Social policy, electoral considerations and the US’s image

Another area where Biden has broken with Trump concerns social policy. Partisan Democratic Party electoral considerations and a desire for a united front at home as the US gears up for a clash with China are the main drivers of the administration’s switch.

In his first 100 days in office, the Biden administration announced several major spending plans: the $1.9 trillion Rescue Plan, comprising for the most part short-term emergency welfare relief in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, involving big outlays not just on the “hard infrastructure” already discussed but also on “human infrastructure”, including public housing, public schools, aged care and assistance for African American college students; and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan which includes childcare subsidies, assistance for health insurance, new education funding, paid family leave and family tax credits. To pay for these spending measures, Biden proposed tax hikes on business and the wealthy.

Despite the gushing by liberals, these packages if passed are far from “transformational”. They are nothing like as substantial as the New Deal of the 1930s or the Great Society program of the 1960s which created social security, Medicare and Medicaid. The existing proposals will not fundamentally transform the lives of the tens of millions of Americans destitute and saddled with debt in the richest country on earth, and do not bring US social welfare even close to the provisions in many European countries. Further, the Biden administration removed from the Rescue Plan an earlier plan to lift the federal minimum wage.

Nonetheless, Biden’s social and economic policies do stand out compared to the standard budget measures of the past 40 years. It is true that the Trump administration oversaw huge fiscal stimulus in 2020 but much of that was for tax cuts to the rich and handouts to big business, whereas Biden is flagging modest tax hikes for the rich. The Biden administration is trying to position the government very differently to its predecessors. Ronald Reagan’s argument that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, is clearly rejected by Biden. Instead, Biden wants Americans to have confidence in a government that can deliver for the mass of people as well as the billionaires; that can make services, that can deliver water, transport, ports, electricity, and can respond effectively to climate change.

Electoral considerations are clearly a factor in Biden’s proposals. The conventional wisdom in the Democrats is that the Obama presidency was wasted. They believe now that his administration (which of course included Vice President Biden) was too cautious and too concerned to seek compromise with the Republicans for its own sake. The fiscal stimulus during the 2008-09 global financial crisis was too small and too quickly wound back, meaning most workers saw nothing from Obama’s budgets while profits soared. For evidence, Democrat strategists can point to the big swing against the party in the 2010 Congressional mid-term elections, ensuring that Obama served the remaining six years of his presidency without a clear majority in Congress.

Political polarisation means that while Biden rates very highly among Democrat supporters, he has little support among Republicans. The administration wants to give the Democratic base a reason to vote for the party in the mid-term elections next year so as to secure clear majorities in both houses. If Biden’s spending packages are passed in full, they would definitely help in this regard, as all three are electorally popular.

Biden is also appealing to other sections of the ruling class. The 6 January riot at Congress was a boon for Biden and the Democrats since it allowed them to present themselves as the party of stability and order, able to govern the country competently without encouraging the far right or left. A substantial section of the US state apparatus and big capitalists do not want to see Trump return in 2024 with all the associated political instability that this might entail and are willing to see the Democrats pass some minor reforms if these will enhance the party’s chances in the coming federal elections. Notably, US stock markets rose at the fastest rate since the weeks following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration in Biden’s first 100 days in office.

Biden’s social programs could also potentially play a role in firming up the home front in preparation for war with China. Every imperialist power from Britain and Germany before World War I to the United States during the Cold War has understood that imperialist success depends in part on social stability at home. After the political polarisation and instability of the Trump years, Biden hopes that social reforms can settle things down again. As the ANU’s Rory Medcalf put it on the eve of Biden’s inauguration:

If the US is serious about that long-term contest [strategic rivalry with China], it will not be able to choose between getting its house in order domestically and projecting power in the Indo-Pacific. It will need to do both at once.

Biden’s project thus shares with Trump the nationalist project of “making America great again”, building America’s industrial base and military capacity and turning popular sentiment against China. It differs in that it appeals to college students, liberals, Black middle-class professionals, swathes of the big city working class, along with many big capitalists. This helps explain why Biden can adopt some of the language of Black Lives Matter and the climate movement, even as he champions the police and the oil industry. It is also why he appointed a tamed Bernie Sanders to chair his economic subcommittee and selected the most multicultural Cabinet in American history. These gestures should not, however, obscure the fact that Biden’s project is to rebuild the cohesion, prestige and fighting capacity of the most destructive imperialist power the world has ever known.

For a Democrat president to pitch themselves to the ruling class as the most competent champion of US imperialism is hardly unusual. It was Woodrow Wilson who took America to war in Europe in 1917. It was Roosevelt who in 1937 began to ramp up US military spending in preparation for a new world war in Europe and Asia at a time when many big capitalists were isolationists. It was Harry Truman who started the Cold War in the late 1940s and the shooting war in Korea, and it was John F Kennedy who started and Lyndon Baines Johnson who sharply escalated the war in Vietnam. The Democrats have repeatedly proven themselves the best imperialist warmongers.

Democratic presidents also tend to improve the US’s image in the eyes of its allies. So long as Trump was president, the US would have struggled to win widespread public support abroad for a major US-led war, such was his unpopularity in much of the world, in particular among key US allies and partners. But, as mentioned at the start of this article, Biden has done much to restore America’s prestige among international audiences.

Some questions

Biden is developing a program to deal with the threat of China; but whether he succeeds or not depends on the answers to several questions, four of which we highlight here.

How realistic is it for the US to decouple from China?

Trump and Biden’s economic nationalist project of winding back international supply chains and promoting the country’s domestic manufacturing base through tariffs and “Buy American” programs threaten significant sections of American capitalists who have prospered from international trade. For example, the higher steel prices and supply shortages resulting from tariffs on imports of Chinese steel are eating into the profits of the far more numerous and economically significant industrial users of steel.

Building new domestic supply chains is problematic because manufacturing capacity in some areas has already dwindled so far that reviving it will be difficult. The Biden administration is, for example, promoting uptake of solar power to reduce carbon emissions, but Chinese companies now account for 80 percent of all solar panels on world markets, and the US industry has largely collapsed. The first effect of greater solar panel use by the US will be to widen its trade deficit with China. Even if US companies move into manufacturing solar panels, one-half of the silicon used to produce solar panels originates from China’s Xinjiang province by enterprises now targeted by Congress sanctions for their use of forced labour.

As for semiconductor production, a priority for the US ruling class, three-quarters of current capacity is concentrated in East Asia. US efforts to boost domestic semiconductor production will take a decade or more, and even then, the US will need partners to create enough demand to make the economics of scale for an industry like semiconductors work.

Then there are cases where US business, far from “onshoring”, is seeking still deeper engagement with China. Wall Street banks, for example, are seeking to break into China’s domestic market, as the Financial Times reports:

In an era that is increasingly defined by geopolitical competition and a push towards economic “decoupling”, American finance has never been closer to Chinese wealth. Seduced by untapped savings and a growing asset management market, worth an estimated Rmb121.6tn ($18.9tn) last year, Wall Street’s most storied firms are embedding themselves more deeply than ever into the country.

At the same time, overseas investors’ holdings of Chinese equities and bonds are also rising sharply, up by 40 percent in 2020.

In short, it appears highly unlikely that the US will simply abandon trade and investment with China, but rather more likely that the US government under Biden and his successors will seek to more tightly guard key industries that are integral to the US military and to insulate them from pressures that China might be able to use against them.

How enthusiastic are the US’s allies to join in a new Cold War with China?

While the Biden administration is seeking help from its allies in confronting China, their response has been mixed. The Economist magazine summarises the situation as follows:

European and Asian democracies alike are wary of joining America in anything resembling a cold-war effort to check China’s aggression – especially if it jeopardises profitable trade relationships.

Consider America’s Asian allies. Japan is the staunchest US military partner in Asia, but it remains reliant on China, its biggest trading partner, for its economic prosperity. While some Korean companies have shifted manufacturing from China to Vietnam and India as Chinese production costs rise, the South Korean government has been careful not to join the US in confronting Chinese technology companies or condemning China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or Belt and Road Initiative. Trump and Biden have both tried to foster closer relations with Taiwan, but Taiwanese companies remain critical sources of advanced electronic components for Chinese industry – Taiwan cannot pursue policies that antagonise China without threatening its own economic security. South East Asian nations have also prospered by deeper integration with the Chinese, Japanese and US economies and are reluctant to narrow their economic options such as might be required by more antagonistic relations with China.

The situation is similar in Europe. China is rapidly catching up with the US as the EU’s major trading partner. Few European governments want to have to choose one against the other and nor are their electorates keen to do so: three-quarters of German citizens believe that their government should take a neutral position in the event of a dispute between the US and China; only one in six believe that Germany should back the US, albeit this survey was done while Trump was still US president.

The EU also has its own disputes with the US, chiefly concerning information technology patent rules, and who gets what share of the digital economy. The EU is doing its best to introduce regulations to force US companies such as Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to pay tax on their European operations. These create ongoing tensions in transatlantic relations.

The Biden administration’s ability to pull its allies around it and to promote their collective international influence in competition with China is also held back by the paltry resources the US has dedicated to its new initiatives. Mention has already been made of the administration’s refusal to follow through on its rhetoric with measures that will actually slow down the rate of global warming. Western half-heartedness is also apparent with the G7’s new Build Back Better World program, which so far lacks any firm commitment of funding by member governments or even a framework through which to deliver it. The G7’s commitment of one billion vaccines to poorer countries unable to afford expensive vaccines, in part a response to China’s international efforts, is woefully inadequate. And nor can the US offer its allies effective substitutes for many Chinese products. An unnamed “Middle Eastern ambassador” told the Financial Times in April:

America tells us to ban Huawei. But when we ask the name of America’s Huawei there is no answer. America has no Huawei. So what are we supposed to do?

It does not help Biden that many European and Asian leaders are hedging their bets on his attempt to draw them close to the US. They fear a return to American unilateralism should Trump regain the presidency in 2024, a not unlikely prospect.

Nonetheless, we should not exaggerate America’s difficulties. Japan and South Korea may trade with China, but their giant neighbour is their primary security threat. The two countries still host US bases housing tens of thousands of US soldiers that could well be mobilised in the event of conflict with China. The Biden administration has secured their support for a united approach in the event of war over Taiwan and, the Financial Times reports, the US and Japan are already conducting war games and joint military exercises. Then there is India which shares a contested border with China that has already been the subject of one war between the two powers and threatens to trigger another. Were the US and China to go to war, the US might expect support from India, which could force China to fight on two fronts.

Nor is European hesitancy to throw its lot in with the United States a given. There have been recent signs of a more aggressive approach by the EU towards China. A diplomatic row between the EU and China over China’s treatment of Uyghurs has led to a serious cooling of relations this year, resulting in the scrapping of the proposed investment pact between the two. Other indications of Europe adopting more aggressive measures against China include more rigorous investment-screening laws, investigations into “foreign influence” operations in domestic policies and blocking foreign bidders suspected of jeopardising national security. The European Commission is also proposing new curbs on state-subsidised firms wanting to compete in European markets, which will target Chinese companies. The European Union’s decision this year to join the US in establishing common internet protocols, a critical issue that will determine the shape of the internet as much as international product and service standards do for trade in goods and services, also reduces China’s opportunity to play the EU off against the US. Such developments may be extended if national elections in Germany in September put the Greens in a powerful position; the party is probably the most aggressive party in the German parliament towards China. While most Germans prefer neutrality in a clash between the US and China, they, like most in Europe, exhibit growing hostility towards China; the arrival of Biden as US president may boost support for the US in the event of a clash between the two sides.

That close trading relations with China need be no barrier to US allies backing the US is evident in the case of Britain and Australia. The British government continues to explore opportunities to expand trade with China, but in June dispatched what the Ministry of Defence called “the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation”. The strike group will visit 40 countries, but its ultimate destination is the South and East China Seas. The commander of the strike group described the presence of the US Air Force flying combat missions from a Royal Navy ship for the first time since World War II as a “significant moment”:

To date we have delivered diplomatic influence on behalf of the UK through a series of exercises and engagements with our partners. Now we are ready to deliver the hard punch of maritime-based air power against a shared enemy.

The same combination is evident in Australia. China accounts for close to 40 percent of the country’s exports but under both Labor and Coalition governments Australia has openly backed the US’s increasingly aggressive posture towards its imperialist rival. Far from holding back out of concern for damage to trade, Australia has frequently been to the fore in preparing for conflict with China. Successive Australian Defence White Papers have focused on competition with China as the country’s main priority, and the military budget will increase by hundreds of billions of dollars over the decade to 2028. The US now maintains a Marines base in Northern Australia, and also enjoys the use of port facilities in WA and air strips in the Northern Territory. Australian Defence Forces regularly participate in joint military exercises both in Australia and in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Australia has joined America’s diplomatic offensive in the Asia-Pacific and South Asia, encouraging India, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand to embrace the US’s project of containing China. At home, the federal government has also passed legislation targeting “foreign influence” and has specifically targeted Chinese investments in any “strategic” sectors of the economy, including vetoing the Victorian government’s involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Australian government was one of the first US allies to ban Huawei from the country’s 5G network.

Since the beginning of 2020, there has been a significant escalation of propaganda aimed at preparing the Australian population for a war with China. Government ministers and senior public servants have led the way, and Australia was one of the first countries to join the Trump administration’s call for an “independent inquiry” into the origins of COVID-19. While the Murdoch press has carried the government’s hawkish line, if anything it is outdone by the ABC and the Nine Entertainment press, which now includes the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, which report in detail the latest stories from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, one of the main conduits for Cold War propaganda in Australia. The propaganda barrage is certainly influencing popular opinions. In 2017, one-third of Australians held “unfavourable” attitudes towards China; three years later, the figure had jumped to 81 percent, making Australians only marginally less hostile to China than Japan (86 percent), historically always the most hostile, and Sweden (85 percent).

If Labor wins the next federal election, Australian government policy will not change. The ALP is as committed as the Coalition to US domination of the Asia-Pacific. Labor may complain about some of the Coalition’s hostile rhetoric towards China, but it shares the same concern to support the US in what will be a battle to determine the future of the Asia-Pacific.

This brief review suggests that the hesitancy that some US allies currently express towards US escalation of tension with China might give way to support as a definite clash takes firmer shape. And, ultimately, while support from the US’s European NATO partners might be appreciated, its absence would not significantly impair America’s military capacity to wage war in the Asia-Pacific.

Will Congress gut Biden’s plans, and how serious is he anyway?

Much of the economic program proposed by Biden in his first 100 days in office faces opposition. The first obstacle is Republican opposition in the Senate, where the Democrats hold only a wafer-thin majority. Weeks of negotiations with the Republicans saw the initial infrastructure budget proposed in the Jobs Plan cut from $2 trillion to less than $600 billion, with any references to tax increases eliminated and only scant reference to climate expenditures. At less than $300 billion a year for eight years, the original Jobs Plan did not cover even maintenance of existing US infrastructure, let alone improve it. Now that it is significantly smaller, the Plan will do even less to fix problems and ensures US government spending on infrastructure will lag even further behind that of the Chinese.

On 13 July, Schumer, now Senate Majority Leader, announced plans for a revised $3.5 billion omnibus bill that will incorporate much of the “human infrastructure”, healthcare and social welfare provisions that featured in the original Jobs Plan and Families Plan, including measures to combat climate change and raise business taxes. Because of Republican opposition, the revised bill will be moved through the reconciliation process that does not require Republican support but does require all 50 Democratic Senators to vote in favour.

The administration’s revised legislative program is fraught with danger. It requires, first, that the Republicans do not walk away from the compromise infrastructure deal they have agreed to in response to the Democrats pressing ahead with the omnibus bill. Republicans looking to rally their base in preparation for the 2022 mid-term elections have so far obstructed most attempts by the Biden administration to win bipartisan support for any bills except those that are directly aimed at fighting China. There is a strong chance the compromise will collapse. Second, it requires that the conservative bloc of Democratic Congress representatives, most prominently Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, back Schumer’s proposed omnibus bill. They have already signalled their opposition to tax increases and their preference for bipartisan deals. The longer the process drags on, the more likely that Biden’s plans will be stripped further back, and at the time of writing (July 2021), neither bill had even been drafted.

Congressional pressure on the Biden administration is overwhelmingly from the right. Liberal Democratic Congress representatives have not shown the same kind of intransigence as the right-wing Democrats. With no significant left outside the Democrats and few signs of rising working-class struggle in the US, only the prospect of failing in the mid-term elections is likely to push the Democrats to persevere with even token reforms to deal with the dire condition faced by many millions of American workers.

If Biden’s social and economic programs face Congressional opposition, the only pressure on the administration over its military budget will be to increase it. Republican and Democrat representatives will not balk at spending money on the wherewithal to do battle with China.

What does it mean for the US to “beat China”?

The final question is perhaps the crux of the matter: what does “beating China” in the new Cold War look like from the point of view of US imperialism? China is not going to collapse like the USSR in 1991, nor is regime change likely in Beijing in the foreseeable future. Nor will China accept a subordinate role in a US-led world order in the way past great powers, such as Britain, or resurgent powers, such as Germany and Japan, did in the 1950s and 1960s. Much more likely is that it will continue to try to build its own sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere to the detriment of the US. Factors such as an ageing population and environmental degradation may well lower China’s rate of economic growth in coming decades but will not in themselves prevent its consolidation as a big power. China now has the largest domestic market in the world and a population that still has a long way to go before reaching high-income status, suggesting that sooner rather than later it will outrank the US. As it begins to overhaul the US, so it will exert an ever stronger gravitational pull far beyond its borders.

Militarily, it is difficult to see how the US could eke out victory in this new Cold War. China’s immediate priority is not global hegemony but control over the sea lanes to its immediate south and the ability to deny access to the US Navy and Air Force to sensitive areas in the region. The US, by contrast, is burdened with maintaining military hegemony across the planet and must spread its military assets accordingly. Nor does the US have the capacity to invade and conquer China, no matter how many allies it can call on.

Taiwan may be the first test for the US. China may not be capable of invading and holding Taiwan, but it could certainly conduct cyber-warfare operations aimed at jamming the operation of military communications and civilian infrastructure in preparation for a missile attack and a blockade of the island. And whatever may be the current balance of military force, China can afford to wait until the military calculus more clearly favours it. What resources would the US send to defend Taiwan if China attacked it? A conventional military response is one option, but China may now have the capacity to sink US aircraft carriers coming to Taiwan’s aid. It is possible, then, that the US might turn to “tactical” nuclear weapons. Would the US be prepared to use these to defend Taiwan if it risked provoking a Chinese nuclear attack on Guam, Hawaii or the US West Coast? On the other hand, the US’s failure to respond, or an intervention in which it clearly came off the worse, would cause immense reputational damage to US imperialism in the region and risk US allies breaking away and making individual deals with China. The wide range of possible military outcomes are such as to give the Pentagon reason for caution.

Wars also throw up the question of the preparedness of the population at home to fund them and to tolerate casualties. A serious war with China would involve the loss of many lives, both military and civilian. How many naval ships sunk would the US public be prepared to accept? Would the population continue to support a war with China if China mounted electronic attacks on the US, much as Russia has already done, to shut down oil pipelines, power stations, air traffic control, banks, transport infrastructure and hospitals? The American people are clearly being sensitised by their government to accept a conflict with China in coming years, but how much sacrifice they are willing to tolerate to save Taiwan cannot be determined ahead of time.

To conclude: Biden’s project to contain China may not succeed; several obstacles lie in its path. But its main purpose should not be in doubt. The Biden administration aims to put America in the best position to engage and defeat the challenge to US domination posed by China. The Australian government understands this and is fully backing the Biden administration in pursuing a strategy that, in the context of China’s parallel attempts to increase its sway in the Asia-Pacific, may lead to the first major inter-imperialist war since 1945. To the extent that progressives and the left let their guard down with Biden as president, this will only handicap our ability to create an anti-war movement now that the shape of a new battle between the two great powers is clearly coming into view.

[1] Subsequently, the poorer track record of China’s vaccines compared to those developed in the US now calls for some reassessment of this early judgement. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/business/economy/china-vaccines-covid-outbreak.html

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Marxist Left Review will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.