Column: How can competitive coexistence with China be possible?

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023. China on Wednesday, June 21, called comments by U.S. President Joe Biden referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a dictator “extremely absurd and irresponsible.” (Leah Millis/Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023. China on Wednesday, June 21, called comments by U.S. President Joe Biden referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a dictator “extremely absurd and irresponsible.” (Leah Millis/Pool Photo via AP, File) Pool Photo via AP — LEAH MILLIS

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 22, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) ap — Jacquelyn Martin

In this file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping make a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Pavel Byrkin/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

In this file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping make a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Pavel Byrkin/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) AFP/Getty Images/TNS file photograph — Pavel Byrkin

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By NARAIN BATRA

For the Valley News

Published: 07-01-2023 10:00 PM

No other global leader would have mustered the courage to call President Xi Jinping of China a dictator, as President Joe Biden did during his recent 2024 election fundraising visit in California. It wasn’t a senior moment, an unguarded slip of the tongue — later on Biden defended his remark without any regrets, when he said it’s “just not something I’m going to change very much.” In spite of fierce outrage from Beijing, Biden said that he would nonetheless meet with Xi sometime soon.

Ironically, this happened just after Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned from China, where he had gone to mend fences after the shooting of the Chinese spy balloon had created a diplomatic furor. After the conciliatory meeting with Xi, Blinken said he had no illusions about how profound and vehement the disagreements were between the two nations — to name a few, Taiwan’s de facto separate and self-governing status as a democratic country, China’s hegemonic efforts to dominate the South China Sea, China’s support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, China’s technology and intellectual property thefts, and China’s role in the smuggling of synthetic drugs that has led to the fentanyl crises.

It’s worth noting that Blinken’s visit took place on the backdrop of the recent revelations that China was building a spy base in Cuba, as The Wall Street Journal reported. Putting up a cheerful diplomatic face, Blinken said that the relations with China could be managed, nonetheless.

The United States has always managed to work with dictators without giving up on the ideals of the liberal democratic global order based on the rule of law — which dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi are challenging now on the mistaken belief that the United States and the West are in a state of irretrievable decline.

Since dictators, paramount leaders, and presidents for life don’t care for freedom and truth, they overestimate their powers and cause chaos and destruction. They believe that disorder would create new order shaped by them.

“China is ready for a world of disorder,” as the title of a piece by Mark Leonard puts it in Foreign Affairs. Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes of a revealing conversation between Xi and Putin in their March meeting in the Kremlin.

Xi told Putin, “Right now, there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Putin, smiling, responded, “I agree.”

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Leonard writes that the exchange “neatly encapsulates the contemporary Chinese way of thinking about the emerging global order — or, rather, disorder.”

That begs the question: Is China is really looking for competitive coexistence with America, or something more chaotic?

Only a bold U.S. president, confident of America’s power, could speak the truth to dictators. Instead of forgetting about the spy balloon, Biden dwelled upon it, “That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators when they didn’t know what happened. That wasn’t supposed to be going where it was. It was blown off course up through Alaska and then down through the United States. And he didn’t know about it. When it got shot down, he was very embarrassed. He denied it was even there.”

If Xi did not know about the spy balloon, what else did this most powerful man on the planet — head of the state without any term limits or accountability, commander-in-chief of the PLA, the world’s largest military force, unchallenged boss of the ruling Communist Party — not know that could be dangerous to the world. Instead of spy balloons, there could be Chinese warplanes over Taiwan, but Xi couldn’t feign innocence.

Lately, in fact, Chinese warplanes and naval ships have carried out maneuvers around Taiwan and the South China Sea that were extremely threatening to the U.S.’ legitimate security presence and responsibilities in the region.

In an interview with “60 Minutes” last year, Biden said the United States would defend Taiwan if “there was an unprecedented attack.” This is the bipartisan consensus and the determination, which would test America’s willpower in case China attacked.

Last year Biden called Putin a “murderous dictator” and “pure thug” and condemned the invasion of Ukraine as an “immoral war.” The Ukrainian war has rejuvenated NATO and Europe as well as America. But Russia, in spite of its vast natural resources and nuclear weapons, is much less integrated with the global economy than China.

Concerned about the aggressive rise of China and its global ambitions, European countries have begun to reassess their relations with China and rethink about the importance of the Indo-Pacific, a region as vital to their geopolitical and economic interests as it is to the United States and the rest of world.

Last year the U.S. and Europe’s bilateral trade with China exceeded $1.6 trillion, involving complex global supply chains connecting several nations in the Indo-Pacific.

That means a war against Taiwan would be much costlier and more catastrophic for China than the invasion of Ukraine has been for Russia. And defending Taiwan wouldn’t be easy for the United States and its allies. But there would be no choice.

Even decoupling from the Chinese economy seems difficult. As European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen said, “I believe it is neither viable — nor in Europe’s interest — to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white — and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on de-risk — not decouple.”

American and European Union strategies to de-risk their economies from Chinese economic power include ensuring the supply of critical raw materials, maintenance of crucial supply chains, monitoring the flow of investments that might pose security risks, and controlling technologies with military and intelligence applications.

Today the U.S., Europe and Indo-Pacific countries face the challenge of how to continue economic ties with the world’s second-biggest economy without letting China control the choke points and levers of global trade. A judicious blend of European-style conciliatory and American-style confrontational diplomacy with China might work.

Narain Batra is affiliated with the diplomacy and international program at the Norwich University Graduate College. Author of several books, he publishes the Freedom Public Square newsletter and podcast.