How to Talk About China Without Talking About China

The first rule of great-power competition with China is you don’t talk about great-power competition with China.

The first rule of great-power competition with China is you don’t talk about great-power competition with China.

On a visit to the South Pacific this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken capped off a flurry of new U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the region—all driven by the undercurrent of growing tensions with China—by signing a new defense pact with Papua New Guinea. But in a joint press conference with Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape, Blinken insisted that the defense pact had nothing to do with China.

“The agreements that we reached, the work that we’re doing, is not about any other country. It’s about our relationship with the Pacific islands and the shared vision that we have for this region,” Blinken said on Monday.

His statements in Papua New Guinea point to an overriding, and some say paradoxical, approach in Team Biden’s policies to countering China’s growing geopolitical clout on the world stage. At each turn, they stress that it’s not about competing with China.

This phenomenon has played out time and again in some of the Biden administration’s most significant diplomatic initiatives—including a major U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit last December, a summit with Latin American leaders in 2022, and, more recently, with the Biden administration not rejecting out of hand China’s purported efforts to work on a peace settlement in Ukraine.

The broad thinking among Biden administration officials, according to multiple officials and experts, is that if Washington tries to force countries to pick a side, it will only backfire.

“There’s a balance the U.S. has to strike here—pushing countries too hard could just alienate them or drive them into China’s arms,” said Ash Jain, an expert on foreign-policy strategy at the Atlantic Council.

“It’s a stark shift from the Cold War when the U.S. was much blunter about countering the Soviets,” Jain added.

Marape in his press conference with Blinken took pains to avoid casting the new defense pact as a move against China. “What we’ve signed does not encroach—or affect, rather—Papua New Guinea’s own relationships we have with other nations we trade with or we have relationships with, be it military or government-to-government relations. Period,” he said.

Whether that messaging works remains to be seen. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Beijing opposes “any introduction of any geopolitical games into the Pacific island country region” when asked about Blinken’s visit to the South Pacific.

Yet, for its messaging campaign to work, Washington also needs to show other countries that it’s responding to their own priorities, rather than making them out as geopolitical pawns.

For the South Pacific, that means the Biden administration has to emphasize climate change, protecting fisheries, and promoting economic development. In the eyes of Pacific leaders, all of these issues “take precedence over competing with China,” said Charles Edel, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The silk-gloved messaging stands in stark contrast to the mood back in Washington, where China seems to be all anyone is talking about these days. The State Department set up its own so-called “China House” to monitor Beijing’s growing influence all over the world, and on Capitol Hill, a new select committee on China has uncaged the hawks and increased the pressure on the Biden administration to take even more hard-line approaches.

The race to out-hawk political rivals is only likely to grow ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential election cycle and could prompt a shift in U.S. President Joe Biden’s messaging to foreign leaders abroad. Top Republican presidential contenders are all burnishing their foreign-policy credentials by bashing China, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin showed in their separate recent trips to Asia.

Republican politicians criticized recent developments in the South Pacific as a Biden foreign-policy failure turned into a frantic cleanup. When the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China in 2022, it caught Washington and Canberra entirely flat-footed. “While this and previous administrations ignored the Pacific islands, the Chinese Communist Party quietly worked to claim the allegiance of our partners in this critical area,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told the Australian Financial Review at the time.

In response, the Biden administration began a flurry of new diplomatic activity in the region to counter Chinese influence. It rushed to open a new embassy in the Solomon Islands in January and another embassy in Tonga this month. It is floating plans to open embassies in other small Pacific island nations, including Kiribati and Vanuatu, in the future. (Previously, U.S. diplomatic engagement with these nations was run by proxy out of the embassies in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.) Most recently, the Biden administration signed compacts with the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, with another similar deal to be signed later this year with the Marshall Islands.

“The U.S. needs to make up ground in the region,” Edel said. “Years of strategic neglect from Washington produced a strategic vacuum that China was eager to step into. The result has been that China has been steadily increasing its influence and power in the region, which the U.S. is now working to counter.”

And that plan may just work—as long as Biden officials avoid uttering the word “China” in press conferences, that is.

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