In Biden’s view, the United States and other democracies are in a competition with China and other autocracies. This is being exacerbated by a period of rapid technological change that could give China an opportunity to leapfrog the United States in certain areas. Biden regularly invokes his many conversations with Xi Jinping to observe that the Chinese leader is deeply ideological in his personal commitment to authoritarianism. Biden’s top Asia adviser, Kurt M. Campbell, has echoed that sentiment, saying that Xi has “almost completely disassembled nearly 40 years of mechanisms designed for collective leadership,” and that he is largely responsible for a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.
Beyond the rhetoric, the Biden administration is working with Congress to pass the Endless Frontier Act in order to counter China’s economic and geopolitical ambition, especially in technology; it has prioritized relations with Asian allies over bilateral diplomacy with Beijing; and it has pressed Europe to do more to counter China.
This has been a bit of a journey for the president. Two years ago, he spoke about why he thought reports of China’s strength were overstated, and made a remark that Republicans hammered him for during the 2020 campaign: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Now he worries that they are competition for America, and not only that—they might win. This belief underpins the Biden doctrine.
To many within the Democratic Party, the speed with which Biden has adopted this stance has been a surprise. Some in the party’s foreign-policy establishment hope that his views on China are not yet settled, and that he will moderate his rhetoric and outlook over time, deemphasizing the contest between democracy and authoritarianism. They worry that the United States could find itself embroiled in an ideological struggle with China akin to the Cold War. Like Biden in 2019, they think that China’s strengths are overstated, and that the U.S. can afford to be patient and restrained. They believe that while Washington must stand up for its interests, it also needs to quickly transition to a point of peaceful coexistence with China—basically a restoration of the Obama administration’s approach.
A Biden-administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss government deliberations, told me that while the top foreign-policy officials are simpatico with the president, some in the government share the restorationists’ concerns, while others have yet to grasp the significance of the president’s statements.
America’s allies in Europe, especially Germany, are also nervous about the emphasis on facing off with China. It is perhaps no coincidence that Biden published an article on the eve of his trip to Europe in which he downplayed the competition with autocracies, emphasizing instead the general need to prove democracy’s effectiveness.