Finally, we have arrived, not at a clash of civilisations, but at the clash of civilisations. Or so President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress would have you believe. The US versus China. The west versus the east. Democracy versus autocracy. Biden’s speech last week was rich in laying down markers for Washington in the contest of the century.
“They’re going to write about this point in history,” Biden told a gathering of US television news anchors before his speech, in remarks later released by the White House. “Not about any of us in here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.”
Once, authoritarian states were symbolised by the Soviet Union, which was seen as lumbering, clumsy and sclerotic. Now, the model is China, which is nimble, strategic and fast. “The question is,” said Biden, “in a democracy that’s such a genius as ours, can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
As with so many instances in which the US is accused of aggressively talking up the coming conflict with China, Beijing has already staked 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 nearly identical to the themes of the Biden speech, with a twist.
The buzz phrase – “The east is rising; the west is declining” – gained popularity in Beijing around the time of the chaotic final days of Donald Trump’s departure from office. China’s ability to bring the Covid-19 virus under control and return its economy to growth, in contrast to the mess in the US and most other democracies, instilled confidence in the leadership. The violence at the Capitol in Washington on 6 January reinforced it.
In late 2017, Trump’s advisers described a similar schism to guide US foreign policy, targeting China and Russia in a national security paper as “revisionist powers” intent on challenging the global status quo. Even before Trump, Barack Obama tried in 2011 to instil a sense of crisis in the US body politic, saying in a speech that his generation faced its own “Sputnik moment” with the rise of China.
What’s different with the challenge as laid out by Biden is in part personal. As vice-president, Biden was privately sceptical to the point of disdain of the notion that China and its ruling Communist party could ever become a peer competitor to the US. The US, in his view, not only had an innately superior system of government, but also overwhelming leadership in hard and soft power, backed by an unmatched system of global military and intelligence alliances. Biden has clearly changed his mind and he is now rushing to instil an urgency and unity into US policymaking of the kind that his predecessors failed to manage to meet the China challenge. China has changed as well, something that has belatedly sunk in across all levels of the system in the US.
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, applying relentless pressure on Japan in the East China Sea, sending its ships and planes at a greater pace into Taiwan’s waters and airspace and battling India on its western border.
Much analysis of China depicts Xi Jinping, who came to power in November 2012, as the singular driver of political change in China, but that is only half true. Xi is certainly a more assertive leader and one who is willing to take greater risks than his predecessors. Unlike them, however, he has the military and diplomatic firepower to do so. Plus, under Xi’s watch, the US has been a mess, something that Biden was keen to emphasise himself.
Xi’s China is also in a hurry, as underlined by the report in the Financial Times last week that last year’s census recorded a fall in the population for the first time since the great famine of the late 1950s. Beijing denied the report and says the official count, the release of which has been delayed for more than a month, will show the population is still rising.
Whether the figures will have been massaged by the time they are out, China’s working-age population is already falling. Beijing began easing the one-child policy in 2013 but it can do little to arrest the contracting population.
Still, it’s wise to be cautious about the demography-is-destiny line, which favours the US over China. About 13% of China’s population is 65 or older, compared with 28% in Japan and 16% and 19% in the US and the UK respectively. China’s population won’t be as old as Japan today until 2050, according to Matthews Asia, a US investment company.
The contest between the US and China is multifaceted – over trade, the economy, the military, geopolitics and ideology. Whether demographics is decisive depends on the arena of competition that has heated up most intensely in recent years – over technology and its applications in weapons systems and industry.
Xi has entirely retooled Chinese economic policy on the principle of not just self-reliance in technology, but dominance in some areas in order to give Beijing leverage over other countries. The US is trying to maintain its lead where it has one or work with friendly countries in Europe and Asia that are ahead of it, and China, in strategic sectors.
“You know, things are moving so damn rapidly,” Biden said. Xi Jinping agrees.
Richard McGregor is at the Lowy Institute, a thinktank in Sydney, and is the author of numerous books on Chinese politics and foreign policy