That Was Fast: Blowups With China and Russia in Biden’s First 60 Days
It may look like the bad old days of the Cold War, but today’s bitter superpower competition is about technology, cyberconflict and influence operations.
WASHINGTON — Sixty days into his administration, President Joe Biden got a taste of what the next four years may look like: a new era of bitter superpower competition, marked by perhaps the worst relationship Washington has had with Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall and with China since it opened diplomatic relations with the United States.
It has been brewing for years, as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China took sharp turns toward authoritarianism. But it blew up in open fashion this month after Biden agreed with the proposition that Putin is a “killer” and the Chinese, meeting with the United States for the first time since the new administration took office, lectured Americans about the error of their arrogant view that the world wants to replicate their freedoms.
A lot of it was for show on both sides, with cameras whirring. All of the participants were playing to their domestic audiences, the Biden team included. But it was not entirely an act.
While the Cold War has not resumed — there is little of the nuclear menace of that era, and the current competition is over technology, cyberconflict and influence operations — the scenes playing out now have echoes of the bad old days. As a moment in theatrical diplomacy, the meeting Thursday and Friday in Anchorage, Alaska, between the Americans and Chinese was reminiscent of when the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, made headlines around the world 60 years ago by banging his shoe on a desk of the United Nations and shouting about American imperialists.
But as veterans of the old Cold War will suggest, the superpower rivalries today bear little resemblance to the past. Putin himself has lamented that the Russia of the early 21st century is a shadow of the Soviet Union that trained him to be a KGB agent. Russia’s economy is roughly the size of Italy’s. Its greatest power now is to disrupt and instill fear, using nerve agents like Novichok to silence dissenters around the world or deploying its cyberability to bore deeply into the networks that keep the United States humming.
Yet for all his country’s economic weakness, Putin has proved highly resilient in the face of escalating international sanctions imposed since he took over Crimea in 2014, which accelerated after he turned to nerve agents and cyberattacks. It is hard to argue they have curbed his behavior.
Sanctions “are not going to do much good,” Robert Gates, a former CIA director and defense secretary, said recently in a public interview with David Ignatius of The Washington Post. “Russia is going to be a challenge for the United States, a national security challenge for the United States, and maybe, in some respects, the most dangerous one, as long as Putin is there.”
For the Chinese, who were still coping with the failures of the Great Leap Forward when Khrushchev was banging shoes and intimidating President John F. Kennedy in a first meeting in Vienna, the story is drastically different.
Its pathway to power is building new networks rather than disrupting old ones. Economists debate when the Chinese will have the world’s largest gross domestic product — perhaps toward the end of this decade — and whether they can meet their other two big national goals: building the world’s most powerful military and dominating the race for key technologies by 2049, the 100th anniversary of former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong’s revolution.
Their power arises not from their relatively small nuclear arsenal or their expanding stockpile of conventional weapons. Instead, it arises from their expanding economic might and how they use their government-subsidized technology to wire nations — be it Latin America or the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe — with 5G wireless networks intended to tie them ever closer to Beijing. It comes from the undersea cables they are spooling around the world so that those networks run on Chinese-owned circuits.
Ultimately, it will come from how they use those networks to make other nations dependent on Chinese technology. Once that happens, the Chinese could export some of their authoritarianism by, for example, selling other nations facial recognition software that has enabled them to clamp down on dissent at home.
Which is why Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, who was with Secretary of State Antony Blinken for the meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, warned in a series of writings in recent years that it could be a mistake to assume that China plans to prevail by directly taking on the U.S. military in the Pacific.
“The central premises of this alternative approach would be that economic and technological power is fundamentally more important than traditional military power in establishing global leadership,” he wrote, “and that a physical sphere of influence in East Asia is not a necessary precondition for sustaining such leadership.”
The Trump administration came to similar conclusions, though it did not publish a real strategy for dealing with China until weeks before it left office. Its attempts to strangle Huawei, China’s national champion in telecommunications, and wrest control of social media apps like TikTok ended up as a disorganized effort that often involved threatening and angering allies who were thinking of buying Chinese technology.
Part of the goal of the Alaska meeting was to convince the Chinese that the Biden administration is determined to compete with Beijing across the board to offer competitive technology, like semiconductor manufacturing and artificial intelligence, even if that means spending billions on government-led research and development projects and new industrial partnerships with Europe, India, Japan and Australia.
Biden alluded to this last month in his two-hour conversation with Xi, telling him, aides said, that the Chinese narrative of the U.S.’s decline was badly mistaken. But it will take months, at best, to publish a broad new strategy, and it is unclear whether corporate America or major allies will get behind it. “It’s not going play out in a day or a week or a month,” said Kurt Campbell, the president’s top Asia adviser, who is leading the strategic review. “This is probably a multiadministration effort.”
Campbell was at the table in Anchorage, sitting next to Sullivan and Blinken, when the Chinese began their effort to put the U.S. delegation on the defensive. They accused the United States of a “condescending” approach and argued that the country’s leaders had no right to lecture others on human rights abuses or the preservation of democracy. They talked about Black Lives Matter and the contradictions in a U.S. democratic system that leaves so many behind.
“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior diplomat, said in a lengthy statement at the opening of the session.
He added, “Those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”
The subtext of his message was that China would speed up its effort to dominate the forums that set the rules, whether that is the World Trade Organization or lesser-known groups that set technological standards.
In some of those forums, the Chinese have a new ally: the Russians, who are equally eager to diminish U.S. influence and bolster authoritarianism. Increasingly, the two nations share an affinity for a short-of war weapon to which the United States is particularly vulnerable: cyberintrusions into the complex networks that are the lifeblood of U.S. government and private industry.
The two big breaches in recent months, one believed to be run by the Russians and the other by the Chinese, are examples of how the two countries have grown far more sophisticated over the past 10 years in making use of their digital skills for political ends.
They are learning to hack on an industrial scale, to prove they can insert malware into systems on which the United States depends for day-to-day life. The Russian intrusion into network management software made by a company called SolarWinds got them into roughly 18,000 private and government networks, from which they chose just a few hundred to extract data. Microsoft says it was a Chinese state-sanctioned group that gained access to its Exchange servers, also used by tens of thousands of companies and government entities.
The question is whether the two countries were simply stealing secrets or whether they had another agenda: reminding U.S. leaders of their power to bring down these systems and paralyze the country.
It is a mind game, much as moving missiles around the country during the Cold War was. But it can also spin out of control.
Sometime in the next few days to weeks, Biden’s aides say, the United States will respond. Some of that response will involve more sanctions. But Gates said recently, “I think we need to be more aggressive with our own cybercapabilities” and find creative ways to raise the cost for U.S. adversaries. Biden expressed similar sentiments during the transition.
The risk, of course, is one familiar from the Cold War: escalation.