Image for Biden Describes Existential Challenge between Democracies and Autocracies

Amid voicing a more ambitious goal for vaccinations and explanations of his border policy at his first presidential press conference this week, President Biden made a soberingly stark appraisal of US-China relations and, more broadly, of the existential challenge facing America.

“I predict to you that your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake,” Biden said. “Not just with China. Look around the world. We’re in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution of enormous consequence. Will there be a middle class? How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology? The environment. How will they do that?”

“It is clear, absolutely clear … this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” Biden added. “That’s what’s at stake here. We’ve got to prove democracy works.”

Presidential press conferences rarely produce such consequential observations. They more often are platforms to tout achievements or defend actions. At his first presidential press conference since taking office in January, Biden doubled down on his goal of vaccinations to 200 million in his first 100 days. He defended his administration’s actions in the face of a surge of immigrants from Central America. He even tossed in his intention to run for re-election in 2024.

However, the more lasting news out of his press conference came in Biden’s comments about the future of a democracy in a world witnessing increasing competition between democracies and “autocracies”, such as the state-directed economy in China.

President Biden revealed he and Chinese President Xi Jinping talked by phone for two hours to clear the air and stake out their relationship amid growing economic competition, heightened human rights tensions and an existential battle between democracy and autocracy.. Photo Credit: Lintao Zhang/AP

Referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden said, “[Xi] doesn’t have a democratic with a small ‘D’ bone in his body, but he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys, like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future.”

Biden revealed he and Xi held a two-hour phone call in which “we made several things clear to one another.” Biden said he told Xi, “We’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition” and “we’ll insist that China play by the international rules, fair competition, fair practices, fair trade.”

China’s emergence as a major global competitor and its growing dominance because of international investment through its “Belt and Road” initiative has prompted three major changes in US policy, Biden said.

“China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticize them for the goal,” Biden said. “They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.”

“First, we will invest in American workers and American science,” Biden said, in previewing his $3 trillion infrastructure investment plan. “The future lies in who can, in fact, own the future as it relates to technology, quantum computing, a whole range of things, including the medical fields. We’re going to make real investments. China is out-investing us by a long shot because their plan is to own that future.”

Biden’s second policy initiative will be to re-establish frayed international alliances. He said he will host “an alliance of democracies” in Washington to discuss the future and how to hold China accountable.

Biden’s third policy change centers on the United States speaking out against human rights abuses. “America values human rights. We don’t always live up to our expectations, but it’s a value system. We are founded on that principle. And as long as [Xi] and [China] continue to so blatantly violate human rights, we’re going to continue in an unrelenting way to call it to the attention of the world and make it clear, make it clear what’s happening.”

China has an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.

CNN reported comments in a similar vein earlier in the week by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken speaking in Brussels, “There’s no doubt that we’ve been experiencing in recent years what some call a democratic recession.” Citing a study by Freedom House, Blinken added, “We see countries falling back on some of the basic hallmarks of democracy.”

“We must demonstrate not only what our alliances defend against, but also what they stand for, like the right of all people everywhere to be treated with dignity and have their fundamental freedoms respected,” Blinken said. “This is where our interest in being trustworthy allies is bound up in fulfilling the needs of our citizens. We can’t build a foreign policy that delivers for the American people without maintaining effective alliances. And we can’t sustain effective alliances without showing how they deliver for the American people.” 

Blinken described the main challenge the US and its allies face is to demonstrate that “democracies are more adept at delivering what people need and what they want.”