On the campaign trail, candidate Joe Biden incredulously insisted that communist China is not an American competitor and would not “eat our lunch.” Less than a year into Mr. Biden’s presidency, it would appear that his words were a harbinger of a precarious China policy that refuses, or is unable, to grasp the multidimensional threat that Beijing does indeed pose.
Mr. Biden’s Zoom call with his communist counterpart, Xi Jinping, is yet another indication of the administration’s delusions and the strategic gains being made by Beijing on his watch. Rarely do such meetings yield any new information, so Mr. Biden cannot be faulted for a lack of novelty. Rather, the calamity rests with his rhetorical floundering and apparent supine conduct.
Equally vexing is his staff’s ostensible inability to anticipate how such mishaps are exploited by Communist propagandists to advantage Mr. Xi and the Party. Chinese state television coverage of the exchange was chiefly of Mr. Xi speaking, interspersed with images of Mr. Biden taking notes — like lower-ranking Party officials so often filmed dutifully scribbling Mr. Xi’s every word.
Photographs in the Chinese press similarly depicted an eager Mr. Biden and a resolute Mr. Xi. The subtext, of course, suggestive of the former’s weakness and the latter’s apparent strength: Xi Jinping, leader of a “new era.” A new era that might well be looming if Mr. Biden’s rhetorical gaffes continue unabated.
A day after reassuring Mr. Xi that the U.S. does not take a position on Free China’s sovereignty, Mr. Biden suddenly described the island democracy as “independent” — only to walk back the remark. It was at least the fourth time in nearly as many months that Mr. Biden or his aides have reversed course on America’s posture toward Taiwan.
Predictably, Beijing’s apparatchiks seized on the ambiguity to assert Mr. Biden’s agreement “with the Chinese official position.” While such lapsus linguae might appear trifling, language matters greatly. It matters especially in dealings with China’s Communists for whom wen — language and culture — is as essential a tool of statecraft as is force, wu.
One sign of this is Mr. Xi’s almost obsessive concern with developing discursive power. So understood, gaffes are not mere errors of which to make light, but signals of weakness — reckless blunders that create openings for one’s adversary to advance. Imprecise language bears similar vulnerabilities, as evidenced in Mr. Biden’s remarks at the mini-summit.
Mr. Biden underpinned the need for all countries to “play by the rules of the road.” Yet the very essence of Communist China’s challenge to the West concerns the rules — and who is at liberty to set them. For Beijing, the “rules based international order” is “a disguise that packages rules set up by a few Western countries.”
China’s communists warn of the West’s “false democracy” and advocate a Red Chinese alternative. In technology, too, Beijing aspires for dominance and leadership on standards. Mr. Xi then likely agrees with Mr. Biden’s call for rules to be followed. But Mr. Biden may yet eat his words, if not his lunch, should America find itself as the follower.
The hope, of course, is that Mr. Biden’s team has a plan. That Mr. Biden and his aides are aware of such nuances and pursuing a strategy of strategic ambiguity. Or even what was termed during the Nixon administration the “madmen theory,” feigning madness to maintain an air of unpredictability to avoid conflict. Could it be that the imprecision in Mr. Biden’s ostensible China policy is intentional? If only.
Ms. Gadzala-Tirziu is a foreign policy analyst, political writer, and university lecturer in international relations. @awgadzala.