U.S. Aims to Constrain China by Shaping Its Environment, Blinken Says

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Thursday that despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China remains the greatest challenger to the United States and its allies, and that the Biden administration aims to “shape the strategic environment” around the Asian superpower to limit its increasingly aggressive actions.

“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it,” Mr. Blinken said in a speech laying out the administration’s strategy on China. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”

The speech was the first public overview of President Biden’s approach to China, and it is based on a much longer classified strategy that was largely completed last fall. U.S. officials say that decades of direct economic and diplomatic engagement to compel the Chinese Communist Party to abide by American-led rules, agreements and institutions have largely failed, and Mr. Blinken asserted that the goal now should be to form coalitions with other nations to limit the party’s global power and curb its aggressions.

“We can’t rely on Beijing to change its trajectory,” he said. “So we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open and inclusive international system.”

China’s open alignment with Russia before and during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine have further clarified for American and European officials the difficulties of engaging with Beijing. On Feb. 4, almost three weeks before the invasion, President Vladimir V. Putin met with President Xi Jinping in Beijing as their two governments issued a 5,000-word statement announcing a “no limits” partnership that aims to oppose the international diplomatic and economic systems overseen by the United States and its allies. Since the war began, the Chinese government has given Russia diplomatic support by reiterating Mr. Putin’s criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories that undermine the United States and Ukraine.

“Beijing’s defense of President Putin’s war to erase Ukraine’s sovereignty and secure a sphere of influence in Europe should raise alarm bells for all of us who call the Indo-Pacific region home,” Mr. Blinken said to an audience at George Washington University.

Mr. Blinken emphasized that the United States does not seek to overthrow the Communist Party or subvert China’s political system and that the two nations — nuclear powers with entwined economies — could work together on some issues. However, Chinese officials will almost certainly regard major parts of the speech as the outlines of an effort at containment of China, similar to previous American policy toward the Soviet Union.

In private conversations, Chinese officials have expressed concern about the emphasis on regional alliances under Mr. Biden and their potential to hem in China.

Mr. Blinken pointed to the creation last year of a security pact, called AUKUS, among Australia, Britain and the United States. The work on coalition building is the opposite of the approach of President Donald J. Trump, who denounced U.S. partners and alliances as part of his “America First” foreign policy.

Mr. Blinken’s speech revolved around the slogan for the Biden strategy: “Invest, Align and Compete.” The partnerships fall under the “align” part. “Invest” refers to pouring resources into the United States — administration officials point to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year as an example. And “compete” refers to the rivalry with China, a framing the Trump administration also promoted.

Both administrations emphasized the same core problems in U.S.-China relations: The integration of China’s economy with those of the United States and its allies gives Beijing enormous strategic leverage. And the wealth that China has amassed from trade helps it chip away at American dominance of the global economy and technology as well as military power in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Beijing wants to put itself at the center of global innovation and manufacturing, increase other countries’ technological dependence, and then use that dependence to impose its foreign policy preferences,” Mr. Blinken said. “And Beijing is going to great lengths to win this contest — for example, taking advantage of the openness of our economies to spy, to hack, to steal technology and know-how to advance its military innovation and entrench its surveillance state.”

Mr. Blinken also said that to meet the challenges Beijing posed, he was creating a “China House” team to coordinate policy across the State Department and work with Congress.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said after the speech that “competition does exist in some areas such as trade, but it should not be used to define the overall picture of China-U.S. relations.”

“It is never China’s goal to surpass or replace the U.S. or engage in zero-sum competition with it,” he added.

Mr. Blinken also noted the human rights abuses, repression of ethnic minorities and quashing of free speech and assembly by the Communist Party in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. In recent years, those issues have galvanized greater animus toward China among Democratic and Republican politicians and policymakers. “We’ll continue to raise these issues and call for change,” he said.

But Mr. Blinken sought to defuse any misunderstandings over Taiwan, the biggest single flashpoint in U.S.-China relations. He reiterated longstanding U.S. policy on Taiwan, despite remarks by Mr. Biden in Tokyo on Monday that the United States has a “commitment” to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if China attacks the self-governing democratic island. The U.S. government for decades has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan — leaving unsaid whether it would use force to protect the island from China — and has opposed Taiwan independence.

Mr. Blinken said it was China’s recent actions toward Taiwan — trying to sever the island’s diplomatic and international ties and sending fighter jets over the area — that are “deeply destabilizing.”

“While our policy has not changed, what has changed is Beijing’s growing coercion,” he said.

Yawei Liu, a political scientist at Emory University and director of the China Research Center in Atlanta, said Mr. Blinken’s words would not reassure Beijing. “I don’t think this is going to satisfy the China side,” he said in a Twitter Spaces conversation after the speech.

But Mr. Blinken stressed that despite the rising concerns, the United States was not seeking a new Cold War and would not try to isolate China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Mr. Blinken credited China’s growth to the talent and hard work of the Chinese people, as well as the stability of the agreements on global trade and diplomacy created and shaped by the United States in what Washington calls the rules-based international order.

“Arguably no country on earth has benefited more from that than China,” he said. “But rather than using its power to reinforce and revitalize the laws, agreements, principles and institutions that enabled its success, so other countries can benefit from them too, Beijing is undermining it.”

After China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, which the United States supported, leaders in Beijing carried out far-reaching changes to the nation’s planned economy to open up further to outside trade and investment, helping to transform China from one of the world’s poorest countries into its biggest factory hub, and lifting hundreds of millions of people into the global middle class.

But China stopped far short of becoming the free-market democracy that many in the West had hoped, and over the past decade, under Mr. Xi, the Communist Party and Chinese state have exerted an even heavier hand over the private market and individual freedoms.

Both Democrats and Republicans now see Chinese trade practices, including the government’s creation of heavily subsidized national champions and its acceptance of intellectual property theft, as one of the biggest factors undercutting American industry.

“For too long, Chinese companies have enjoyed far greater access to our markets than our companies have in China,” Mr. Blinken said.” This lack of reciprocity is unacceptable and it’s unsustainable.”

The administration introduced a core initiative to shape the economic environment around China — the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — during Mr. Biden’s visit to Tokyo this week. The United States and 13 Asia-Pacific nations will try to negotiate new industry standards.

But skeptics have said Washington’s ability to shape trade in the Asia-Pacific region may be limited because the framework is not a traditional trade agreement that offers countries reductions in tariffs and more access to the lucrative American market — a move that would be politically unpopular in the United States.

Mr. Blinken did not highlight Chinese government influence operations and espionage in the United States, which had been a focal point of the Trump administration’s messaging about China. He said he welcomed Chinese exchange students, and that many of them stay — “They help drive innovation here at home, and that benefits all of us.”

“We can stay vigilant about our national security without closing our doors,” he said. “Racism and hate have no place in a nation built by generations of immigrants to fulfill the promise of opportunity for all.”