WASHINGTON — At the end of a winding answer on Thursday about competing with China and about his relationship with Xi Jinping, a man he said does not have a democratic “bone in his body,” President Biden offered up a revealing assessment of one of America’s most pressing challenges.
“This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” he told reporters at his first news conference as president. “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
China’s president, Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden said bluntly, was “a smart, smart guy” who shared with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a belief that “autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can’t function” in the complexities of the modern world.
Among the biggest tasks of his presidency, Mr. Biden seemed to be arguing, is to prove anew to a skeptical world that both American democracy and its model of democratic capitalism still works — and that it is superior to the very different system Mr. Xi is ruthlessly enforcing at home as he tries to extend China’s influence around the world.
For a president barely 10 weeks into office, casting the United States as confronting a global struggle with the Chinese model has some clear political benefits. One of the few issues that unites Democrats and Republicans is the need to compete head-on with Beijing. Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, said on Monday that the Chinese have already taken notice.
“They recognize in many ways that we are now finally awakened to the challenge,” he said this week at the Atlantic Council. “And I would call it a bipartisan awakening.”
Mr. Biden’s aides say his view of the Chinese challenge is not solely one of foreign policy. He plans to make full use of the fear of Beijing’s ambitions as he introduces his infrastructure initiative next week.
There will be hundreds of billions of dollars for technologies and projects that the Chinese are also pouring cash into, including semiconductors, artificial intelligence and 5G networks, as well as big breakthroughs in electric cars and synthetic biotechnology.
On Friday, Mr. Biden said he suggested to Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain that the big Western democracies work together to counter China’s ambitious efforts to build better trade routes around the world, a project called the Belt and Road Initiative. The project is one of China’s main instruments for influencing nations in its economic orbit by investing in ports, rail lines, roads and other infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Europe.
“We talked about China and the competition they’re engaging in in the Belt and Road Initiative,” Mr. Biden said. “And I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative coming from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world.”
There is a striking similarity between Mr. Biden’s list and Mr. Xi’s “Made in China 2025” initiative — which was first announced six years ago as an effort to make China largely independent of Western suppliers for critical technology.
At the core of Mr. Biden’s infrastructure and supply-chain initiatives is an effort — parts of which began in the Trump years — to ensure the West is not dependent on Chinese technology. It is a battle that blossomed over Huawei, the maker of next-generation communications networks, but has now spread to fears that Chinese apps like TikTok could be a pathway for attacks on American infrastructure.
“China is outinvesting us by a long shot,” Mr. Biden said, previewing his argument, “because their plan is to own that future.”
It is a time-tested approach: President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, to spur a military and civilian space race, and President John F. Kennedy picked up on the theme in setting the goal for landing a man on the moon.
A decade ago, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to call for a “Sputnik moment” of public investment, also using China as a spur, but the effort fell flat.
Yet for all the unanimity around the China challenge, it is far from clear whether Mr. Biden’s political strategy will work.
Republicans object to both the huge government spending in the Biden plan and to the overhang of debt it would create. And there seems bound to be a rerun of the arguments, dating to the 1980s, over whether a federal “industrial policy” — where taxpayer dollars are poured directly into technologies in which the United States judges it must stay ahead — that creates a competitive advantage for America makes sense or just squelches the innovations of Silicon Valley.
No matter how that plays out, Mr. Biden is casting the United States’ current competition in very different terms than his predecessors did. “Look, I predict to you,” he said, “your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake, not just China.”
Most notable was what was missing. There was no talk of American “exceptionalism,” just a shorter-term assurance that “on my watch,” China would not reach its overall goal “to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.”
Mr. Biden was also careful not to make Cold War analogies; in fact, he noted that what was missing now was much of an ideological contest. (“You don’t have Russia talking about Communism anymore,” he noted.) He has always said he would cooperate with adversaries, and on Friday he invited Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin to a virtual climate summit meeting he is hosting in April. He speaks of competition, not containment.
“I see stiff competition with China,” Mr. Biden said, over everything from chips to national values, which he added was the key to his two-hour conversation with Mr. Xi. And that, he said, meant pushing back on China’s stripping of rights in Hong Kong or on its harsh repression of Muslim minorities.
“The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did,” he said, taking a dig at former President Donald J. Trump, “is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world.”
Still, Mr. Biden’s discussion of an open contest between two similarly sized superpowers was a significant change for American presidents.
A quarter-century ago, President Bill Clinton would make the case — oftentimes, during visits to Beijing — that the arrival of the internet would force China to embrace an more American-style democracy. Clearly, that did not work out.
President George W. Bush stressed areas where Chinese and American interests overlapped — counterterrorism and North Korea were the two he mentioned the most — but never cast China as a technological equal. Mr. Obama would always say the United States “welcomes the rise of China” and recognized that it could not contain the country if it wanted to, so it would be foolish to try.
And Mr. Trump spent three years imposing tariffs and insisting he would cut the deal of the century with China, and one year castigating it as the exporter of the coronavirus, while his secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, insisted that over time, the Communist Party would collapse.
Now, Mr. Biden’s team says it is assembling a strategy built more around competition than containment.
“I don’t think China is on a mission to export its model abroad and undermine democracy abroad,” said Thomas J. Christensen, a Columbia professor and former State Department official dealing with China during the Bush administration. “But I do think they are on a mission to defend their model from criticism and defend single-party authoritarian rule.”
Mr. Christensen published an essay this week in Foreign Affairs titled, “There Will Not Be a New Cold War,” arguing that American allies were “too economically dependent on China to adopt entirely hostile policies,” and that the United States’ advantage was that it had allies and partners who ranked among the greatest technological powers in the world.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken seemed to acknowledge that this week when, on a visit to Brussels, he assured the Europeans that he would not force them to make an “us or them choice.”
The Biden camp’s calculation seems to be that it is more important to hold allies together than to ensure that each one cuts off its dependency on Chinese technology or investment.
The problem will come, as Mr. Blinken notes, as China’s lashes out at those who criticize its actions at home, in the South China Sea, or against Taiwan. “When one of us is coerced,” he said, “we should respond as allies and work together to reduce our vulnerability by ensuring our economies are more integrated with each other.” Which sounds a lot like creating opposing camps.