Biden Defines His Underlying Challenge With China: ‘Prove Democracy Works’

No matter how that plays out, Mr. Biden is casting the United States’ current competition in very different terms than his predecessors did. “Look, I predict to you,” he said, “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, not just China.”

Most notable was what was missing. There was no talk of American “exceptionalism,” just a shorter-term assurance that “on my watch,” China would not reach its overall goal “to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.”

Mr. Biden was also careful not to make Cold War analogies; in fact, he noted that what was missing now was much of an ideological contest. (“You don’t have Russia talking about Communism anymore,” he noted.) He has always said he would cooperate with adversaries, and on Friday he invited Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin to a virtual climate summit meeting he is hosting in April. He speaks of competition, not containment.

“I see stiff competition with China,” Mr. Biden said, over everything from chips to national values, which he added was the key to his two-hour conversation with Mr. Xi. And that, he said, meant pushing back on China’s stripping of rights in Hong Kong or on its harsh repression of Muslim minorities.

“The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did,” he said, taking a dig at former President Donald J. Trump, “is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world.”

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