Finwardly we have not arrived at a clash of civilizations, but at that clashes between civilizations. Or so President Joe Biden’s speech at a joint congressional session would make you believe. USA versus China. West to east. Democracy versus autocracy. Biden’s speech last week was rich in putting markers for Washington in the competition of the century.
“They want to write about this point in the story,”
Once upon a time, authoritarian states were symbolized by the Soviet Union, which was considered heavy, clumsy, and sclerotic. Now the model is China, which is agile, strategic and fast. “The question is,” said Biden, “in a democracy as genius as ours, can you reach consensus within the time frame that can compete with autocracy?”
As with so many cases where the United States is accused of aggressively speaking out about the coming conflict with China, Beijing has already put out the same territory. In recent months, the phrase du jour in Beijing, from the mouths of members of the Politburo to the tabloid press, has a tone almost identical to the themes of the Biden speech, with a twist.
The buzz phrase – “The East is rising; west falls ”- became popular in Beijing around the time of the chaotic last days of Donald Trump’s resignation. China’s ability to bring the Covid-19 virus under control and bring its economy back to growth, unlike the mess in the United States and most other democracies, instilled confidence in the leadership. The violence at the Capitol in Washington on January 6 intensified it.
In late 2017, Trump advisers described a similar schism for governing U.S. foreign policy and targeted China and Russia in a national security document as “revisionist powers” that aim to challenge the global status quo. Even before Trump, Barack Obama in 2011 tried to create a sense of crisis in US organ policy and said in a speech that his generation was facing its own “Sputnik moment” with China’s progress.
What is different about the challenge that Biden has posed is partly personal. As vice president, Biden was privately skeptical of contempt for the notion that China and its ruling Communist Party could ever become a competitor to the United States. The United States, in his view, had not only an innate overarching system of government, but also overwhelming leadership in hard and soft power, backed by an unsurpassed system of global military and intelligence alliances. Biden has clearly changed his mind, and he is now in a hurry to introduce an urgency and unity into American policy-making of the kind that his predecessors failed to meet the China challenge. China has also changed, something that has sunk in at all levels of the system in the United States.
China has become richer, more powerful, and developed the military capability to do things that the ruling party has long wanted to do. Beijing is taking over the South China Sea and 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 the western border.
Much analysis of China portrays Xi Jinping, who came to power in November 2012, as the only driver of political change in China, but that is only half true. Xi is certainly a more confident leader and one who is willing to take bigger risks than his predecessors. Unlike them, however, he has the military and diplomatic firepower to do so. Plus, under Xi’s supervision, the United States has been a mess, something that Biden was eager to emphasize himself.
Xis China is also busy, as the report emphasizes Financial Times last week, last year’s census recorded a decline in population for the first time since the Great Famine of the late 1950s. Beijing denied the report, saying that the official census, the release of which has been delayed for more than a month, will show that the population is still rising.
Whether the numbers will have been massaged when they are out, China’s working age population is already declining. Beijing began easing the policy for a child in 2013, but it can do little to arrest the contracting population.
Still, it is wise to be wary of the demographic-is-fate line that favors the United States over China. About 13% of China’s population is 65 years of age or older, compared with 28% in Japan and 16% and 19% in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. China’s population will not be as old as Japan today until 2050, according to Matthews Asia, a US investment company.
The competition between the United States and China is multifaceted – for trade, economics, the military, geopolitics and ideology. Whether demography is crucial depends on the competitive industry that has heated up the most in recent years – over technology and its uses in weapons systems and industry.
Xi has completely redeveloped Chinese economic policy based on the principle of not only self-confidence in technology but dominance in some areas to give Beijing leverage over other countries. The United States is trying to maintain its leadership where it has one or works with friendly countries in Europe and Asia that lie ahead of it, and China in strategic sectors.
“You know, things move so damn fast,” Biden said. Xi Jinping agrees.
Richard McGregor is at the Lowy Institute, a thin tank in Sydney, and is the author of several books on Chinese politics and foreign policy.