America is on edge, and understandably so given the crises in Europe and the Middle East. If not for Wednesday’s Biden-Xi meeting, it would almost be easy to forget that China was named the top foreign policy priority in the 2022 National Defense Strategy.
The Biden administration is right to maintain communication with Beijing, but it would be ill-advised to soften America’s stance against the Chinese Communist Party amid different crises.
Policymaking, as Henry Kissinger once said, is “to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstance.” In this way, it has much in common with economics, the coolheaded study of allocating scarce means across competing ends. Because Washington deems China a high and long-term security threat, its grand strategy and defense spending should reflect that.
Moreover, the U.S.-China meeting feels even more complicated than usual this time around. Xi, of course, came to the summit with demands, including on issues like China’s claim to Taiwan and U.S. export controls on advanced semiconductors. Biden wants Beijing’s influence to prevent Iran from jumping into the Israel-Hamas war. It won’t be easy, but this is not the time to give in to the CCP on any front.
Unfortunately, coolheaded thinking is unpopular. Leaders fixate on their preferred take on the crisis of the day as if tradeoffs don’t exist and resources are unlimited.
The State Department previously pledged “unwavering support” for Ukraine, but that may have started to waver when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to do “everything we can” to support Israel. The promises are admirable, but we simply don’t have unlimited resources to keep them all. Surely not if Taiwan becomes the next theatre, or if China’s effort to militarize the South China Sea goes any further.
Competing priorities are the reality, but we cannot lose focus on the big picture and fall victim to the so-called scarcity mindset. In a groundbreaking 2013 book, “Scarcity,” economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir explained why having less than we think we need keeps us from choosing wisely, just when we need to do so the most.
For example, the poor in underdeveloped countries tend not to take up health insurance; they claim they can’t afford it and need to minimize daily expenses. But what they really can’t afford is to be uninsured and then get sick. During lean times, companies tend to reduce marketing, research and development, or other activities that help them in the long term but don’t bring in revenues right away. Often, these decisions are made without carefully weighing tradeoffs. They’re driven by tunnel vision regarding one priority and a knee-jerk exclusion of all others.
Nations also can have a scarcity mindset. The Biden administration was initially clear about America’s foreign policy priorities, placing China, the “pacing challenge,” in the number one ranking above others. But the execution of this vision quickly succumbed to the tunnel vision of partisans and ideologues. Those who have doubts about “unlimited” support for Kyiv, for example, are quickly labeled pro-Kremlin. Some people most definitely deserve the moniker, but that’s no excuse for unclear thinking when the stakes are high.
The rational approach would be to not only remember that China was named the number one priority, but also keep our eyes on the long run. Besides Taiwan and the South China Sea, China’s influence operations have permeated America’s democratic institutions — in education, the media and other ways. Many of these operations have been carried out ostensibly legally in the U.S., making it harder to undo the damage. Tackling deep-rooted problems is like investing in research and development for companies; it doesn’t pay off immediately, but things would get worse without it.
Being coolheaded doesn’t mean being coldhearted about present threats, and it doesn’t mean we should focus only on China and forget all else. The world is increasingly dangerous, and the American people are understandably anxious. But it’s ever more important that Washington policymakers stay focused on the present and think long-term at the same time.
Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a core developer of the open-source Policy Change Index project, which uses machine learning algorithms to predict authoritarian regimes’ major policy moves by “reading” their propaganda. He’s also the curator of the Wei To Think Again newsletter on U.S.-China relations.
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Author: Weifeng Zhong, opinion contributor