The Biden administration’s national security team is facing a series of complex and interrelated challenges. The common denominator at the nexus of these problems is the People’s Republic of China, or PRC.
Though, the administration indicated it will infuse the China challenge into every National Security Council directorate, effective management will require the new China czar to serve as the hub for developing the comprehensive policy for engagement, competition and deterrence of China.
The Biden administration signaled that domestic considerations (recovering from the pandemic and reviving the economy) will take top priority, giving indications that it intends to adopt a “tough” stance toward the PRC, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledging the Chinese “genocide” toward Uighur Muslims.
Notably, economic links will be critical to recovery: tension between domestic concerns and China policy must be balanced. The entanglement of U.S. domestic and foreign interests within the U.S.-PRC relationship makes it ideal for the assignment of a czar and justifies privileging the Indo-Pacific portfolio holder as first among equals.
The Atlantic Council’s CEO, Fred Kempe, went so far as to recently write that “this contest will be the one that will define his [President Joe Biden’s] place in history — and whether democracy or authoritarianism will be the ascendant system for the future.”
The Chinese threat to U.S. security and the liberal rules-based order — characterized by Beijing’s coordinated, centrally controlled malign acts in the areas of diplomacy, information, military strength and economy — is broad in scope, immediate, enduring and existential. In many portions of these areas, Chinese belligerence has crossed the threshold from competition to conflict.
Competitive policies will contain trade-offs. There will be a cost to protecting sovereignty and the rules-based order; effective steps in one area carry traits detrimental for another. With all choices complex, policy recommendations require clear priorities based on overarching strategic goals, and execution requires coherence, necessitating coordination through the Indo-Pacific lens.
Since the pivot to the Pacific almost 10 years ago, the U.S. government’s response has been loosely coordinated and, while broadly focused on competition, has not been implemented holistically. The China czar will be most effective in achieving U.S. goals over the next four years if he sets out to accomplish the following:
- Carry forward the most enduring elements of the 2017 National Security Strategy. Strengthen alliances, encourage regional economic competition and maintain a strong military presence in the region with a particular emphasis on naval forces.
- Develop an integrated, robust and nuanced competitive strategy that will transcend administrations. Prioritize the most pressing issues over the next 208 weeks to tackle issues like crisis avoidance: eliminate strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan and violations of its sovereignty; reinforce support of Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines in territorial disputes; reaffirm America’s competitive posture in space; take steps to provide alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and develop resilience in supply chains; pressure China to reduce harmful emissions.
- Consider all policy in light of the PRC’s active engagement in genocide. This will necessarily limit opportunities for engagement. Consider boycotting the coming winter Olympics. Demand transparency on the origin of the current pandemic as a prerequisite for cooperation with the PRC in any area of interest. Make the prevention of future pandemics and transparency a central pillar of any potential U.S. engagement with the PRC.
- Engage the PRC in trilateral arms control discussions while maintaining a robust nuclear modernization program to assure allies and sustain deterrence in the face of a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal. The U.S. is losing ground to China, but the U.S. Defense Department has made steps to focus on innovation to gain back precious ground. Ensure the whole government follows suit by implementing creative technological and non-tech solutions across the government for competition.
- Continue to convey to the American people the critical nature of competition with the PRC. To foster a new generational affinity for service to the country, develop a voluntary national service program that allows young people to play an intimate, short-term role in helping the nation compete with China.
It is imperative that the nation remains an advocate for freedom, encouraged thorough civics education and by highlighting the benefits of democracy, showing how to engage in what the first U.S. president, George Washington, described as the “great experiment” of the American government.
The appointment of the China Czar is an important step in ensuring the U.S. response to the PRC is effective. Long-standing China experts being brought into the administration in key roles demonstrates an understanding of a need for a comprehensive and lasting strategy. The critical last step to managing competition with China effectively is to ensure close coordination between those within the U.S. government and external allies and partners. Early signs are positive this is occurring.
Allowing the China czar to play the role of key policy integrator can both drive policy toward clear goals and provide priorities for implementation.
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Matthew R. Crouch is a senior military fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He previously served as director of operations for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Korea. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher P. Mulder is also a senior military fellow at the Atlantic Council center. Both are affiliated with the Scowcroft Center for Security and Strategy’s Forward Defense Initiative. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or other organization.