The US–China Confrontation: Perception Is Power

October 19, 2021 Updated: October 27, 2021


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in the delicate throes of a major internal party power competition, has begun throwing everything into a bid to blunt an outright expression of anti-Beijing hostility from the Biden administration.

It’s succeeding.

For the regime in Beijing, this is the payoff for having supported the collapse of the Trump administration, which was well on its way to isolating the CCP and “calling its bluff” as a rival strategic power to the United States. Instead, the Biden administration has refrained from confirming the reality that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had already embarked on a strategic war with the United States, merely calling the situation “extreme competition.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan and CCP Politburo member Yang Jiechi held a six-hour meeting in Zurich on Oct. 6 that was designed—from Beijing’s standpoint—to ensure that the “competition” remained in the realm of ambiguity, rather than deeds, on the part of the United States. The last thing the CCP wanted was for the United States to unequivocally give assurances of support to Taiwan in its defense against a military takeover by the PRC.

Sullivan gave Yang that victory.

“My basic bottom line on this is that intense competition requires intense diplomacy,” Sullivan said at the talks. “So we need more of this, not less of this.”

The question was whether Sullivan understood that he handed the CCP that temporary victory and that this was likely to be followed by a further victory for Beijing: a talk “to ease tensions” between CCP leader Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden before the end of 2021.

The difference between the United States and the CCP on the perception of the Zurich talks is this: It’s really about perception at this point. For Sullivan, the importance of dampening the bilateral conflict is important in that it showed the U.S. public that the Biden administration is statesmanlike.

Jake Sullivan
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan leaves from the Hyatt Regency Zurich Airport hotel following a meeting with CCP Politburo member Yang Jiechi in Zurich, on Oct. 6, 2021. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

For the CCP, a U.S. gesture of conciliation acknowledged the legitimacy of the CCP, Xi, and China’s strategic posture. It implied U.S. acceptance of Beijing’s right to threaten the takeover of Taiwan, even if that isn’t the message that Washington wished to convey. So the Sullivan–Yang talk and the promised Biden–Xi talk later in 2021 have enabled the restoration of Xi’s position and legitimacy.

Xi can now proceed toward the 20th Party Congress of the CCP in October 2022 as the PRC leader who had gained the measure of the new U.S. president and could deal with him, not just as an equal, but as someone who could contain Biden and the United States. This is critical in Xi’s attempt to be reelected by China’s rubber-stamp legislature—for an unprecedented third term—as head of the CCP.

This is critical if Xi is to stave off criticism as he presides over the deliberate implosion of the Chinese economy back into an era of total state control along Maoist lines.

The CCP is aware that the United States has been bolstering the improved readiness of the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces in Taiwan, providing them with a consistent flow of new weapons, as well as elevated levels of military training. But Washington has kept this fairly low-key, and this is the critical element for Beijing.

Public expressions of confrontation are dangerous for Xi at the moment. If Xi is perceived to be weak or to have been wrong in his guidance of China and the CCP, he could lose power by the end of 2022, if not sooner. It would be easy to paint his leadership as a failure. He assumed office in 2012, at the height of China’s real economic wealth and power, and then presided over its subsequent decline.

Some of that decline—which has led to the “inevitability” of choosing to transform China back into a Maoist state, with overwhelming controls placed on the private sector—wasn’t of Xi’s doing. China, with almost 20 percent of the world’s population and only 7 percent of its potable water (and with most of that water being polluted), was existentially dependent on food imports from the rest of the world, particularly the United States.

Xi “kicked the can” of food vulnerability further down the road, as his predecessors had done. He knew that solving the food problem was critical for the PRC to project unchallengeable power, yet he did nothing about it, preferring first to conquer the world through the Belt and Road Initiative. Then, as former President Donald Trump showed him, a sudden cutoff of agricultural exports from the United States would send China into starvation and into an immediate collapse as a strategic power.

The Biden approach has saved Xi from that prospect, for the time being.

The United States has far more leverage to contain the PRC and the CCP than the Biden administration appears to understand. The last thing that Xi wants at this stage is a military confrontation that could draw in the United States. A Chinese military attack on Taiwan—which Xi’s bluster consistently promises—wouldn’t only do that, but it would also engage India, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and other countries in wars on all of China’s borders.

Xi wants to engender doubt that the United States would support Taiwan’s defense, but that ship has already sailed. The Biden administration would be hard-pressed to undo the multiple alliances that would make such support inevitable, from the Quad to AUKUS to the U.S.–Japan accords.

Xi would be happy to be allowed a peaceful path to the 20th Party Congress and to continue his “managed implosion” of the Chinese economy and polity back into a Maoist turtle shell, biding its time until the West has collapsed of its own weight and folly.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gregory Copley is president of the International Strategic Studies Association based in Washington. Born in Australia, Copley is a Member of the Order of Australia, entrepreneur, writer, government adviser, and defense publication editor. His latest book is The New Total War of the 21st Century and the Trigger of the Fear Pandemic.