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Is Joe Biden in the grip of old, dangerous thinking?

The American century has passed. Its post-Cold War hegemony is gone and not retrievable. In Russia, an evil empire is reborn. There is no likelihood of a new Gorbachev, a new peace – maybe not for decades. Ending the old Cold War took four of them.

Economic giant China has pivoted toward authoritarian autocracy and is brandishing imperial designs. Russia has been able, even given its grotesque invasion of Ukraine, to forge strong ties with the regime of Xi Jinping.

Throughout the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations, the United States has done the opposite. Its hard line toward Beijing has led to increasingly strained and antagonistic relations. Vladimir Putin, no doubt, approves.

Where is the logic, it need be asked, in Washington proceeding with a policy track that loses China to Russia? That sees the two nuclear-armed, authoritarian powers in a strategic alliance? How senseless is that?

But the magnitude of this development isn’t even a prime topic of debate in Washington. Instead of doing everything in their power to find accommodations with China and offset any Moscow-Beijing bonding, Democrat and Republican lawmakers are in bipartisan agreement on a confrontational approach.

As Henry Kissinger has lamented, “Everyone wants to be a China hawk.” It’s now been 50 years since Richard Nixon and then-secretary of state Mr. Kissinger went to China to make a historic diplomatic breakthrough. In recent interviews, Mr. Kissinger has reminded everyone that American concessions had to be made in that instance, including the removal of U.S. military forces from the Taiwan Strait.

As for the Biden administration, it is soon slated to announce new rules imposing harsh restrictions on China’s advanced computing and chip production capacities. In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in a provocative show of support, prompting China to respond by upping the frequency of its military exercises around Taiwan for a week following the visit. On trade, the Democrats have held to the tough approach of the Trump administration.

The hardline approach is hardly without cause. There’s been the Xi regime’s clampdown on democratic freedoms and market reforms, the sabre-rattling on Taiwan, the appalling failure to condemn Mr. Putin over Ukraine, the handling of COVID-19, the suppression of the Uyghurs and other minority groups, the militarization of the South China Sea, the democracy movement crackdown in Hong Kong, and more. Public opinion in the U.S. has understandably hardened against China – just as it has in Canada over the incarceration (among other affronts) of the two Michaels.

But given Russia’s totalitarian turn, shouldn’t the priority with China be realpolitik, more than the pursuit of human rights priorities and democratic ideals (as if the U.S. is in any position to be touting such ideals)? To lose China for a second time (the revolution of 1949 being the first instance) increases the risks of global instability; of war, of nuclear stockpiling, of a worsening climate crisis, of declining economic prosperity.

In his book The Avoidable War, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a China expert who speaks Mandarin, calls for a rethinking, a resetting of the terms of the relationship. “Our best chance of avoiding war,” he writes, “is to better understand the other side’s strategic thinking and to conceptualize a world where both the U.S. and China are able to competitively co-exist, even if in a state of continuing rivalry reinforced by mutual deterrence.”

Different interpretations of each side’s thinking are at the root of the West’s conflicts with Russia and China. We say one thing, but the Russians and the Chinese hear another. (Philip Short’s biography, Putin, provides an in-depth analysis of his diametrically different train of thought.)

The ominous new circumstances demand new thinking, but too many American policy makers act as if their country still enjoys paramountcy and can set the terms. There is little sense of its great loss of leverage, a reality that calls for compromise and conciliation with China. Otherwise, what’s the end game?

Mr. Xi has said that “whatever the circumstances, there is always a need for political courage to create space and leave room for political settlement.” Does he mean it? Mr. Biden has met him several times over the last couple of decades. They even once played basketball together. As President, Mr. Biden has had extended telephone talks with Mr. Xi, but nothing much seems to have come of these conversations.

The two leaders are planning to meet in person this fall. There, Mr. Biden must break the impasse or face a world where Chinese and Russian oppressors, arms linked, hold sway.

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