China poses 'biggest geopolitical test' for the U.S., Secretary of State Blinken says

Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams
·4 min read

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday China represented America's "biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century," saying the Asian nation was the only country with enough power to jeopardize the current international order.

"Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. And we will engage China from a position of strength," Blinken said in a speech laying out the Biden administration's foreign policy vision.

"China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to," said Blinken, who delivered his address at the State Department.

Seeking to draw a contrast with the previous administration, which had a skeptical view of multilateral organizations and clashed with a number of allies, Blinken said tackling the challenge posed by China would require cooperating with international organizations and working with allies and partners, "not denigrating them."

He also said the Biden administration would call out China for human rights abuses, including a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and against Uighurs in Xinjiang.

On trade, the administration will invest in American workers and companies and insist on a "level playing field," because "when we do, we can out-compete anyone," Blinken said.

Related: Analysis: The appointments and nominations will bolster the surge in optimism and relief that coursed through allies when Biden became the president-elect.

At a congressional hearing later Wednesday, President Joe Biden's nominee for deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, reinforced Blinken's language on China, saying the United States had to safeguard its trade secrets.

"We have to compete and win. That includes ensuring that China cannot hack our networks, cannot steal our trade secrets, cannot steal our corporate secrets," she said.

But despite the implied criticism of former President Donald Trump's approach to allies and global organizations, Blinken's portrayal of China as America's most powerful adversary and competitor resembled the view often articulated by officials in the previous administration. His language also reflected a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington about the threat posed by China.

China was the only country Blinken singled out as a focus in a speech that listed eight priorities for U.S. diplomacy, including battling the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting a more stable and inclusive global economy, confronting climate change, securing U.S. leadership in technology, reforming the immigration system, bolstering alliances and renewing democratic values.

Blinken said democracy was "under threat" and that the U.S. needed to lead by example and bolster democratic values around the world.

"The more we and all democracies can show the world that we can deliver — not only for our people, but also for each other — the more we can refute the lie that authoritarian countries love to tell – that theirs is the better way to meet people's fundamental needs and hopes," he said.

But he said the administration would not seek "to promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force."

He added, "We have tried these tactics in the past. However well intentioned, they haven't worked."

As an official during the Obama administration, Blinken himself supported the NATO military intervention in Libya, as well as policies supporting the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. He has since expressed regrets for some decisions during that time.

The U.S. will resort to taking military action "only when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable, consistent with our values and laws and with the informed consent of the American people," he said. And the move would be coupled with diplomacy, he added.

Related: The secretary of state told NBC's Andrea Mitchell he's also reviewing Russian hacking, election interference, and allegations of bounties on U.S. troops.

Blinken's remarks came only days after Biden approved the first use of military force since he entered office, ordering airstrikes against a logistics hub in eastern Syria that the Pentagon said was used by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias.

Blinken's speech was titled "A Foreign Policy for the American People," and he stressed that the administration's policies would be designed always with American workers in mind. He acknowledged that past efforts to promote free trade sometimes overlooked the cost for some workers.

"Our approach now will be different. We will fight for every American job, and for the rights, protections and interests of all American workers," he said.