Fin fact, we arrived not in a clash of civilizations, but in on clash of civilizations. Or at least President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress would make you believe. USA against China. West versus east. Democracy versus autocracy. Biden’s speech last week was rich in setting markers for Washington in the race of the century.
“They will write about this moment in history,”
Authoritarian states were once symbolized by the Soviet Union, which was considered clumsy, clumsy and sclerotic. Now the model is China, which is agile, strategic and fast. “The question is,” Biden said, “in a democracy that is as genius as ours, can you reach a consensus at a time that can compete with autocracy?”
As in so many cases in which the United States has been accused of aggressive talks on the impending conflict with China, Beijing has already laid the groundwork. In recent months, the phrase du jour in Beijing, from the mouths of Politburo members to the tabloid press, has a tone almost identical to the themes of Biden’s speech, with a twist.
The noisy phrase – “The East is rising; the west is shrinking “- gained popularity in Beijing during the chaotic last days of Donald Trump’s resignation. China’s ability to control the Covid-19 virus and return its economy to growth, unlike the turmoil in the United States and most other democracies, has instilled confidence in the leadership. The violence at the Capitol in Washington on January 6 intensified it.
In late 2017, Trump’s advisers described a similar schism that would guide US foreign policy, directing China and Russia in a national security document as “revisionist forces” aimed at challenging the global status quo. Even before Trump, Barack Obama tried in 2011 to instill a sense of crisis in US policy, saying in his speech that his generation was facing its “Sputnik moment” with the rise of China.
What is different from Biden’s challenge is partly personal. As vice president, Biden was privately skeptical of disregarding the idea that China and its ruling Communist Party could one day compete with the United States. According to him, the United States not only had an innate superior system of government, but also great leadership in hard and soft power, supported by an incomparable system of world military and intelligence alliances. Biden has apparently changed his mind and is now seeking to instill urgency and unity in US policy of a kind that his predecessors failed to meet China’s challenge. China has also changed, something that has been late in sinking at all levels of the US system.
China has become richer, more powerful, and has developed the military ability to do things that the ruling party has long wanted to do. Beijing is taking over the South China Sea, putting relentless pressure on Japan in the East China Sea, sending its ships and planes at a faster pace into Taiwan’s waters and airspace, and fighting India on its western border.
Many analyzes of China portray Xi Jinping, who came to power in November 2012, as the sole driver of political change in China, but this is only half true. He is certainly a more assertive leader and one who is willing to take greater risks than his predecessors. Unlike them, however, he has military and diplomatic firepower for this. Plus, under X’s supervision, there was a mess in the United States, something Biden wanted to emphasize.
China’s Xi is also fast, as highlighted in the report Financial Times last week, when last year’s census registered a population decline for the first time since the Great Famine in the late 1950s. Beijing has denied the report, saying the official census, whose release has been delayed for more than a month, will show that the population is still growing.
Whether the numbers will be massaged by the time they come out, China’s working-age population is already shrinking. Beijing began easing one-child policy in 2013, but could not arrest the contracting population much.
Still, it is prudent to be cautious about demographics – this is the fate that benefits the United States over China. About 13% of China’s population is 65 or older, compared to 28% in Japan and 16% and 19% in the United States and the United Kingdom. China’s population will not be as old as Japan’s today, until 2050, according to Matthews Asia, an American investment company.
The competition between the United States and China is multifaceted – in trade, economics, the military, geopolitics and ideology. Whether demographics are decisive depends on the arena of competition that has heated up the most in recent years – over technology and its application in weapons systems and industry.
Xi has completely restructured China’s economic policy on the principle of not only trust in technology but also dominance in some areas to give Beijing leverage over other countries. The United States is trying to maintain its leadership where it has it, or to work with friendly countries in Europe and Asia that are ahead and China in strategic sectors.
“You know, things move so fast,” Biden said. Xi Jinping agrees.
Richard McGregor is at the Lowey Institute, a think tank in Sydney, and has authored numerous books on Chinese and foreign policy.