How Long Can Biden Muddle Through on China?
President Joe Biden doesn’t have a plan for China. Or, more precisely, the Biden administration has failed to articulate its approach to grand strategy in East Asia. Before taking office, Biden emphasized the centrality of the China in U.S. national security policy, and at the start of his term he predicted a period of “extreme competition.” The White House may describe its approach later this spring, perhaps after releasing its National Security Strategy. But so far it has not described how the United States will compete, or exactly what it is competing for.
Critics from across the grand strategy spectrum have made the same complaint. They are all puzzled that the administration has not declared its objectives or its approach, given the stakes involved. As Richard Fontaine recently put it, “The absence of a clear goal for its self-proclaimed top priority is a liability for the Biden administration, and one that it should urgently work to address.” Advocates of restraint, liberal internationalism, and primacy all agree: Team Biden needs to define its objective for China. Grand strategy is impossible without one.
Part of the issue stems from Biden’s view of America’s role in the world. Although the president has expressed support for democracy and international institutions, he has proven reluctant about the use of force, given the pain and frustration of Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden clearly desires a U.S.-led international order, based on liberal political principles. But it is not clear that he wants to fight for it.
Critics say this is problematic when it comes to China, a rising military competitor with outsize political ambitions. The administration has not issued a clear statement of purpose, or a bold vision about how to use American power to deal with China. Instead, it has muddled through. U.S. military forces have continued to patrol the region. U.S. diplomats have remained in communication with their counterparts. And the White House has continued to offer platitudes about the importance of East Asia and about the enduring U.S. commitment to regional security and prosperity. The administration did announce an agreement to share nuclear submarine technologies with Australia, though making good on the deal will require overcoming serious political and engineering hurdles. It has not done anything particularly noteworthy beyond that, either in terms of its military or economic approach.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Searching for a unified and coherent grand strategy may seem pointless, because the China problem is brutally complex. Erring on the side of boring continuity, rather than bold initiative, is a reasonable approach — at least as long as the balance of power is manageable. Sometimes muddling through has a lot going for it.
The Merits of Muddling Through
There is an inverse relationship between complexity and rationality. The more complex the problem, the harder it becomes to impose strict linear logic upon it. Well-structured problems lend themselves to clear policy objectives and choreographed action plans. Complex problems are characterized by values in conflict and uncertain effects. Policymakers face overlapping problems in these cases. One is determining how their decisions will produce better results. Another is that their goals work at cross-purposes: Progress in one area will undermine progress in others. Figuring out how to assign relative values is difficult when the costs of action are not apparent.
Complex problems, then, require adaptable solutions. They call for an approach to grand strategy that allows for flexibility and improvisation, and the ability to prioritize different values as circumstances allow. Doing so allows policymakers to assess not only the merits of different objectives, but to figure out what they value most.
The outlines of grand strategy might emerge after a period of trial and error, or they might not. A comprehensive rational strategy is possible when the objective is clear and uncontroversial, but this is not the case when multiple conflicting values are in play. This was the heart of what the scholar Charles Lindblom called muddling through. “By the impossibility of doing otherwise,” he wrote, “administrators are often reduced to deciding policy without clarifying objectives first.”
Muddling through also makes sense when pressing domestic issues demand immediate policy attention. Policymakers focused on crises at home may not have the time to execute a novel grand strategy abroad. Better to let inertia rule. Kicking the can is sensible when time and focus are limited. Rather than setting a bold new course, policymakers can default to the status quo and respond to new events as they arise. This may not be optimal, but it is certainly practical.
Muddling through is especially appealing after periods of intense organizational turmoil. Absent clear policy guidance, organizations revert to standard operating procedures. This is not cost-free, of course — innovation suffers when bureaucracy does its thing. But a stretch of stability might be welcome after a long period of institutional trauma. Repeated crises abroad, and political controversies at home, are exhausting for those who scramble to meet them. Falling back on bureaucratic routine gives them a chance to recover, to refocus their efforts and slowly rebuild morale.
Finally, muddling through is reasonable when power balances are favorable. It is a luxury for states who face no imminent security threats, and who enjoy a strong position against their adversaries. In these cases, leaders do not have to strongarm the bureaucracy to concentrate on a single problem at the expense of other priorities, nor do they have to mobilize public opinion to prepare for some shared sacrifice. They can reserve their political capital for other issues, while keeping an eye out for long-term dangers.
Stuck In the Mud?
Muddling through makes sense when values are in conflict, when pressing domestic issues demand policy attention, when domestic institutions need a breather, and when power balances are favorable.
The first three conditions are clearly present today. The Biden administration is trying to uphold conflicting values in its approach to great-power competition. It wants to deter military aggression by issuing credible threats, and it wants to rally the world’s democracies against America’s authoritarian rivals. Yet it also wants to encourage cooperation with those same rivals, given the urgent need to make progress on climate change and other transnational threats. So far it has not hinted that it is ready to seek any of these values and the expense of another. In the meantime, the administration is understandably focused on managing the ongoing pandemic, stabilizing the economy, and wrestling with deep social fissures at a time of extreme polarization and declining public faith in government. Biden is also presiding over a national bureaucracy that has been buffeted by continuous armed conflict abroad and partisan wrangling at home. Given the experience of the Trump years, in which an erratic president was openly hostile to his own government, some predictability is surely in order. A period of quiet routine might be exactly what the national security establishment needs. All these factors help explain why the president continues to muddle through, much to the chagrin of his critics.
The fourth condition may still obtain, though this is less clear. China has made remarkable military progress over the last 20 years, developing a suite of technologies and tactics that complicate U.S. operations in East Asia. These so-called “anti-access/area denial” weapons may deter American entry in a regional conflict. Even if U.S. leaders are confident in the ultimate outcome, they may not be willing to pay the costs. And recent Pentagon assessments are more alarming. Last year’s annual Department of Defense report on Chinese capabilities suggests that its anti-access/area denial arsenal is just the start. Beyond strengthening its offshore position, Beijing is already “fielding significant capabilities capable of conducting operations out to the Second Island Chain and seeks to strengthen its capabilities to reach farther into the Pacific Ocean and throughout the globe.”
China’s increasing military capabilities and geopolitical ambitions have led to calls for a bolder U.S. response. Because the balance of power is changing, critics want the administration to stop muddling through and take a clear stand. Biden might ultimately do that, though troubles at home and events in Europe continue to dominate his attention. It is noteworthy that last week’s presidential press conference focused on domestic controversies (COVID-19, inflation, voting rights) and Russia’s threat to Ukraine. Over the course of two hours, China was barely mentioned.
Domestic fights may ease somewhat after the midterm elections, and negotiators may find some way out of the Ukraine crisis. If so, it is likely that China will come back to the fore and calls to take a stand against Beijing will get louder. The nature of that stand will be up for debate. A very aggressive U.S. posture might seek fundamental changes to the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, much as late Cold War hawks sought fundamental changes in the Soviet Union. A more modest proposal would call on Biden to solidify his commitment to defending Taiwan and other regional partners, while setting aside efforts to compel China to move toward democracy. Alternatively, if the most pressing problems are climate change and global health, then the administration might quietly concede to Chinese maritime claims and emphasize cooperation on shared transnational threats.
These options recognize the need for value trade-offs. Most people find such trade-offs psychologically difficult and morally unsettling. Muddling through is appealing because it allows policymakers to avoid them. But this is only possible if U.S. leaders are confident in the regional balance of power, and growing concern about China’s military modernization has thrown this into doubt. This has raised questions about the president’s approach to China, and his broader theory of American national security.
Internationalism Without the Wars
Biden’s grand strategy is straightforward, at least in principle. The president campaigned as a mainstream liberal internationalist, a fervent supporter of alliances and institutions, and a dedicated believer in democracy and trade. His approach to Asian affairs broadly reflects these instincts, especially in his efforts to strengthen ties with Australia, Japan, and India, though his trade policy remains unsettled. Biden also believes in U.S. leadership. “The world doesn’t organize itself,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs before the election.
Yet there are limits. The last 20 years have made Biden much more reluctant about the use of force. He opposed the Iraq surge in 2007 and the Afghanistan surge in 2009. As vice president he also opposed air strikes in Libya, arming rebels in Syria, and sending military aid to Ukraine. He tends to support the use of force in small doses. Intelligence and special forces can operate against terrorist groups, for instance, in ways that do not require a large ground occupation. Ideally, U.S. forces can achieve their missions without being overly provocative, and without plunging the nation into open-ended conflicts against well-resourced and highly motivated enemies.
One way to avoid fighting is to discourage friendly states from provoking foreign crises. Muddling through avoids giving false hope to those who seek firm U.S. commitments to their defense. Overpromising U.S. support can lead to recklessness from those who are convinced that American forces will come their aid. Muddling through sends a different message: Washington has many goals, and not all of them are achievable. It also serves as a reminder that commitments are always subject to change. International politics is a fluid business and changing circumstances may render today’s promises irrelevant in the future.
At the same time, muddling through also presents an opportunity for allies and partners. U.S. policymakers who have not yet settled on a clear course of action are more open-minded. They pay no penalty for listening to the concerns and ideas of regional partners, because they are not forced to act upon them. On the other hand, leaders tend to talk more and listen less after bold declarations of some ambitious new grand strategy. (Recall the first term of the George W. Bush administration, when a confident White House dismissed longstanding allies in favor of coalitions willing to do what it wanted.) In this sense, muddling through satisfies Biden’s promise to be respectful of foreign partners, and to repair the diplomatic damage wrought by Trump. Absent clear direction, American diplomats are free to sit and listen, instead of dictating terms.
Taking a bold stand against China will complicate this effort, forcing the United States and its partners to make hard choices about what they value most, and about what they are willing to risk. The Biden administration might prefer to approach these talks with care, given the lingering diplomatic effects of the Trump years. Not everyone in the region has the same perspective on China, or the same ideas about managing specific policy dilemmas. Muddling through creates diplomatic space for airing these perspectives, and for testing different responses.
All of this helps explain Biden’s uncertain approach to China, a complex policy challenge for which U.S. values are in conflict. The fact that the administration is moving slowly is not a sign of presidential indecisiveness — it more likely reflects ongoing debate among officials who disagree on which values matter most. Absent a pressing need for action, the president has good reasons to let the debate play out and muddle through. How long he continues this approach depends on two questions. One has to do with the balance of power. As described above, the United States continues to enjoy important advantages in the region, but China has made important gains. It has done what Thomas Christensen warned about 20 years ago, posing problems without catching up. At some point the cumulative effect of those problems may force the administration’s hand.
The other question has to do with China’s diplomatic calculus. The Biden administration clearly wants to maintain the regional status quo, and to prevent Beijing from coercing its neighbors. Yet it also seeks to cooperate on critical nonmilitary issues like climate change and global health. If China is frustrated because the United States is blocking its political ambitions, it may simply refuse to cooperate. Chinese leaders may not accept permanent military inferiority while continuing to participate in joint endeavors with the United States.
How long will the balance of power favor the United States? How long will Chinese leaders cooperate with Washington from a position of relative weakness? If the answer to either question is “not very long,” then the administration will have to take a clearer stand.
Joshua Rovner is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.