That Was Fast: Blowups with China and Russia in Biden’s First 60 Days
By David E. Sanger* – The
New York Times
It may look like the bad old days of the Cold
War, but today’s bitter superpower competition is about technology,
cyberconflict and influence operations.
— Sixty days into his administration, President Biden got a taste this week of
what the next four years may look like: a new era of bitter superpower
competition, marked by perhaps the worst relationship Washington has had with
Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with China since it opened
diplomatic relations with the United States.
It has been
brewing for years, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Xi
Jinping of China took sharp turns toward authoritarianism. But it blew up in
open fashion this week, after Mr. Biden agreed with the proposition that Mr.
Putin is a “killer” and the Chinese, meeting with the United States for the
first time since the new administration took office, lectured Americans about
the error of their arrogant view that the world wants to replicate their
A lot of it
was for show, on both sides, with cameras whirring. All of the participants
were playing to their domestic audiences, the Biden team included. But it was
not entirely an act.
Cold War has not resumed — there is little of the nuclear menace of that era,
and the current competition is over technology, cyberconflict and influence
operations — the scenes playing out now have echoes of the bad old days. As a
moment in theatrical diplomacy, the meeting on Thursday and Friday in Anchorage
between the Americans and Chinese was reminiscent of when the Soviet premier,
Nikita S. Khrushchev, made headlines around the world 60 years ago by banging
his shoe on a desk of the United Nations and shouting about American
veterans of the old Cold War will suggest, the superpower rivalries today bear
little resemblance to the past. Mr. Putin himself has lamented that the Russia
of the early 21st century is a shadow of the Soviet Union that trained him to
be a K.G.B. agent. Russia’s economy is roughly the size of Italy’s. Its
greatest power now is to disrupt and instill fear, using nerve agents like
Novichok to silence dissenters around the world, or deploying its cyberability
to bore deeply into the networks that keep the United States humming.
Yet for all
his country’s economic weakness, Mr. Putin has proved highly resilient in the
face of escalating international sanctions imposed since he took over Crimea in
2014, and which accelerated after he turned to nerve agents and cyberattacks.
It is hard to argue they have curbed his behavior.
“are not going to do much good,” Robert M. Gates, a former C.I.A. director and
defense secretary, said recently in a public interview with David Ignatius of
The Washington Post. “Russia is going to be a challenge for the United States,
a national security challenge for the United States, and maybe, in some
respects, the most dangerous one, as long as Putin is there.”
Chinese, who were still coping with the failures of the Great Leap Forward when
Khrushchev was banging shoes and intimidating President John F. Kennedy in a
first meeting in Vienna, the story is drastically different.
to power is building new networks rather than disrupting old ones. Economists
debate when the Chinese will have the world’s largest gross domestic product —
perhaps toward the end of this decade — and whether they can meet their other
two big national goals: building the world’s most powerful military and
dominating the race for key technologies by 2049, the 100th anniversary of
arises not from their relatively small nuclear arsenal or their expanding
stockpile of conventional weapons. Instead, it arises from their expanding
economic might and how they use their government-subsidized technology to wire
nations be it Latin America or the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Europe, with
5G wireless networks intended to tie them ever closer to Beijing. It comes from
the undersea cables they are spooling around the world so that those networks
run on Chinese-owned circuits.
it will come from how they use those networks to make other nations dependent
on Chinese technology. Once that happens, the Chinese could export some of
their authoritarianism by, for example, selling other nations facial
recognition software that has enabled them to clamp down on dissent at home.
why Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, who was with
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken for the meeting with their Chinese
counterparts in Anchorage, warned in a series of writings in recent years that
it could be a mistake to assume that China plans to prevail by directly taking
on the United States military in the Pacific.
central premises of this alternative approach would be that economic and
technological power is fundamentally more important than traditional military
power in establishing global leadership,” he wrote, “and that a physical sphere
of influence in East Asia is not a necessary precondition for sustaining such
administration came to similar conclusions, though it did not publish a real
strategy for dealing with China until weeks before it left office. Its attempts
to strangle Huawei, China’s national champion in telecommunications, and wrest
control of social media apps like TikTok, ended up as a disorganized effort
that often involved threatening, and angering, allies who were thinking of
buying Chinese technology.
Part of the
goal of the Alaska meeting was to convince the Chinese that the Biden
administration is determined to compete with Beijing across the board to offer
competitive technology, like semiconductor manufacturing and artificial
intelligence, even if that means spending billions on government-led research
and development projects, and new industrial partnerships with Europe, India,
Japan and Australia.
alluded to this last month in his two-hour conversation with Mr. Xi, telling
him, aides said, that the Chinese narrative of American decline was badly
mistaken. But it will take months, at best, to publish a broad new strategy,
and it is unclear whether corporate America or major allies will get behind it.
“It’s not going play out in a day or a week or a month,” said Kurt M. Campbell,
the president’s top Asia adviser, who is leading the strategic review. “This is
probably a multi-administration effort.”
Campbell was at the table in Anchorage, sitting next to Mr. Sullivan and Mr.
Blinken, when the Chinese began their effort to put the American delegation on
the defensive. They accused the United States of a “condescending” approach and
argued that the country’s leaders had no right to lecture others on human
rights abuses or the preservation of democracy. They talked about Black Lives
Matter, and the contradictions in an American democratic system that leaves so
think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that
the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the
United States could represent international public opinion,” Yang Jiechi,
China’s most senior diplomat, said in a lengthy statement at the opening of the
“Those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of
people would serve as the basis for the international order.”
of his message was that China would speed up its effort to dominate the forums
that set the rules, whether that is the World Trade Organization, or
lesser-known groups that set technological standards.
In some of
those forums the Chinese have a new ally: the Russians, who are equally eager
to diminish American influence and bolster authoritarianism. Increasingly, the
two nations share an affinity for a short-of war weapon to which the United States
is particularly vulnerable, cyberintrusions into the complex networks that are
the lifeblood of American government and private industry.
The two big
breaches in recent months, one believed to be run by the Russians and the other
by the Chinese, are examples of how the two countries have grown far more
sophisticated over the past 10 years in making use of their digital skills for
learning to hack on an industrial scale, to prove they can insert malware into
systems on which the United States depends for day-to-day life. The Russian
intrusion into network management software made by a company called SolarWinds
got them into roughly 18,000 private and government networks, from which they
chose just a few hundred to extract data. Microsoft says it was a Chinese
state-sanctioned group that gained access to its Exchange servers, also used by
tens of thousands of companies and government entities.
question is whether the two countries were simply stealing secrets, or whether
they had another agenda: reminding American leaders of their power to bring down
these systems and paralyze the country.
It is a
mind game, much as moving missiles around the country during the Cold War was.
But it can also spin out of control.
the next few days to weeks, Mr. Biden’s aides say, the United States will
respond. Some of that response will involve more sanctions. But Mr. Gates said
recently, “I think we need to be more aggressive with our own
cybercapabilities,” and find creative ways to raise the cost for American
adversaries. Mr. Biden expressed similar sentiments during the transition.
of course, is one familiar from the Cold War: escalation.
* White House and national security correspondent,
and a senior writer. In a 38-year reporting career for The New York
Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently
in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book, “The Perfect Weapon: War,
Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age,’’ and an HBO documentary by the same title,
examine the emergence of cyberconflict and its role in changing the nature of