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Two of the first maxims of strategy in world affairs (and probably in some other realms, too) are that (a) intentions and capabilities are fundamentally different and that (b) the former are much harder to gauge than the latter. These rules of the road in turn lead promptly to a key lesson: The greater the extent to which plans are based on intentions, the likelier they are to produce failure.  

The difference between measuring intentions and capabilities and the resulting policy implications matters crucially these days. For the evidence keeps mounting that the Biden administration is relying more on gauging China’s intentions in formulating its approach to the People’s Republic (PRC) and less on the much sounder foundations of assessing Beijing’s wherewithal and, most important, how this capacity’s dangers to specific U.S. interests are evolving – including over Taiwan, the newest and scariest bilateral flashpoint.  . 

The reason for focusing on capabilities is no great mystery. Figuring out how strong or weak a country’s military and economy are entails dealing with matters that are readily measurable to begin with. Although dictatorships like China’s in particular often go to great lengths to present misleading economic data, and misinformation about the state of their armed forces, the PRC’s competitiveness can be judged pretty dependably by tracking its interactions with other economies – e.g., its export performance, its attractiveness as a magnet for foreign investment. And U.S. intelligence is good enough to determine roughly how many soldiers and weapons, and the quality of the latter, that China could bring to bear in various contingencies.

Even more obvious – and important – is the case for deciding on U.S. interests. For whatever a potential adversary’s overall capabilities, why should Americans care about those that can’t plausibly affect whatever goals and missions that the United States decides it values?

Identifying what China’s leaders want is a qualitatively different and more formidable challenge. Good intelligence can provide some valuable information, as can face-to-face dealings with Beijing’s representatives. But ultimately, measuring intentions is an exercise in mind-reading, and it’s rendered all the tougher because of the secretiveness of China’s political system and the cultural gaps dividing East Asian countries like China’s and their western counterparts like the United States.

Which is exactly why the Biden administration’s strategy toward the PRC is so troubling. A heavy emphasis on intentions is clear from at least two of its features.

The first is its obsession with playing word games to define how it wants the relationship with China to develop, which in turn faithfully reflects the globalist position that achieving various types of relationships with allies, adversaries, and countries in between should be a high foreign policy priority. As I’ve written previously, that’s a great way to substitute form for substance, and to rationalize failure to achieve or preserve particular valued objectives in the here and now for the sake of payoffs stemming from a sense of mutual obligation that could be entirely unilateral and imaginary, over a time frame that tends to keep lengthening. Think of it this way – it’s easy to avoid rocking the boat if you don’t care who owns or controls the vessel.

The Biden administration, however, has taken relationship fetishizing to a whole new level. How else could one reasonably characterize all the time and effort it’s devoted to terming U.S. dealings with Beijing as a “competition,” or an “extreme competition,” or “a steep competition,” or a “stiff competition” (see here for the last two) or a relationship that will be, in Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s words, “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, adversarial when it must be.”

Why do the Biden-ites think anyone cares or should care? In particular, why do they think China cares or should care? Do they have any evidence of much thinking in Beijing along these lines? Or that any Chinese definition of a desirable relationship relationship would be remotely acceptable to the United States?

If anything, the President’s declaration that Chinese dictator Xi Jinping “is deadly earnest on [China] becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others, autocrats, think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century” can only mean he thinks that win-win ties are the last things on Beijing’s mind. Unless Mr. Biden believes that Xi is just interested in purely verbal bragging rights?

The second feature of Biden foreign policy that reveals a potentially dangerous emphasis on intentions is the refusal of the President and his top aides to define U.S. interests with any specificity – or even to speak concretely about the very idea of purely U.S. interests.

Their rhetoric is peppered with phrases like Mr. Biden’s claim that during his first phone call with Xi, “I made absolutely clear that I will defend American interests across the board.” But you’ll search in vain for meaningful elaborations beyond “I also told President Xi that we’ll maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, just as we do with NATO in Europe — not to start a conflict, but to prevent one” – which of course refers to American commitments that have been in place for decades, not to anything new, much less that reflects concerns heightened for any reason.

What you will find – ad nauseam – are statements like Blinken’s declaration that the United States is “committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order. “That system is not an abstraction. It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively, and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules. The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”

Blinken of course might be entirely right on the merits. But it was more than a little interesting that the Chinese response to his remarks – which took place at that confrontational bilateral March meeting in Anchorage, Alaska – emphasized that the rules-based order is nothing more than a system selfishly “advocated by a small number of countries”; that “The United States itself does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world;” and no doubt most important, “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”

In other words, as the Chinese see it, whatever Washington’s view of “right,” what matters is that it lacks the might to create or maintain it over China’s objections – which evidently are legion.

None of this is to say that specifying concrete interests is a guarantee of foreign policy success. But how else can that goal be achieved without setting out objectives considered vital to the nation’s security and prosperity, communicating them abroad in no uncertain terms, and ensuring that enough power is available to prevail when they’re threatened whether Americans guess correctly about potential adversaries’ intentions or not?

And these questions have moved to the forefront lately because Sino-American tensions are rising steadily over Taiwan – the world’s new leader in semiconductor manufacturing technology, which near neighbor China views as a renegade province. Worries are understandably rising that Washington and Beijing might stumble into a conflict that neither truly seeks. If the Biden administration could straighten out its own thinking about Taiwan and other U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region, the odds of such an unnecessary catastrophe could at least be considerably reduced.