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Feb 22, 2021

Biden’s China Challenge

The US president faces a number of interconnected challenges when it comes to developing US policy toward China. The big question, preying also on allies’ minds, is whether his approach will lead to a balanced, pragmatic relationship or drive zero-sum contestation?

Then US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013
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US President Joe Biden faces daunting challenges and unfortunately for him, they are all interconnected. Before Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, the United States was already reckoning with the after-effects of major policy and governance blunders. Because of divided government, inadequate oversight, and setbacks in the Middle East and elsewhere, these problems festered for eight years under President Barack Obama, and Trump made them much worse. When historians look back over the last few decades, the story and struggles of a US trying to adjust to a new power structure in the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world will emerge more clearly. But at this particular moment in that transition, the US is facing an identity crisis amid a cratered economy, ossified governing institutions, inadequate infrastructure, and shattered international credibility.

American Foreign Policy for the Middle Class

What does Biden need to do? He needs to redefine the United States’ purpose in the world. Americans on both the right and the left are unhappy with what they perceive to be a system that defaults to military intervention and over-securitization of foreign policy problems, that panders to large corporate interests as opposed to defending those of consumers, and that underprioritizes investment in its own citizens. As the last five years have made painfully clear, the post-World War II US foreign policy consensus has evaporated, and Biden has undertaken to remedy this with a “foreign policy for the middle class.”

A recent report co-edited by Biden’s new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan notes, “There is no evidence America’s middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring US primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments.” The same report goes on to state that a foreign policy for the middle class should “manage strategic competition with China to mitigate the risk of destabilizing conflict and counter its efforts toward economic and technological hegemony.” So the question for US policy toward China will be how to manage relations to (1) avoid war, (2) constrain Chinese dominance, and (3) transition to a stable, multipolar world, while (4) avoiding overextension and (5) increasing US competitiveness through governance reform and investment.

To tackle this not insignificant set of challenges, Biden is seeking first to shore up alliances in both Europe and Asia, in order to husband leverage and build coalitions. He has much work on the domestic front to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and then to strengthen the US economy. He has rejoined and signaled renewed activism in multilateral institutions—the WHO, the Paris Climate Accord, the UN Human Rights Council—and made clear his administration will defend human rights and democratic values. Resources and reforms for improving US competitiveness will need to come from Congress, and Biden hopes he can secure its cooperation, but the recent track record does not bode well. At the same time, Biden needs to continue efforts incipient in the Bush administration and amplified under Obama and Trump of dispersing America’s disproportionate burden in resourcing the international system and getting other players to contribute more.

Pressing Pause on China?

This puts the Biden administration in a precarious position on China policy. While the Biden team can hit “pause” on relations with Beijing to try to keep them from deteriorating further, they cannot hit “reset.” Any moves toward China will be fodder for a skeptical Washington commentariat and Capitol Hill, where reflexive anti-China views are dug-in. Many decisions of the Trump administration are under review, which is a convenient place to leave them for now, while personnel get into positions and domestic issues top the agenda. Biden no doubt remembers that Obama was not rewarded by Beijing for his early focus on China policy and so feels no obligation to rush. On Biden’s recent visit to the Pentagon, he heralded the creation of a task force to review China strategy that will make recommendations “within several months,” and again mentioned the need to join with allies to meet Beijing from a position of strength. All this means that it will be some time before the administration’s China approach is clear.

China and the rest of the world, meanwhile, are of course not standing still. China is moving ahead on trade deals with other parties, including with Asian and European partners. It is forging new economic and diplomatic plans and even posing as a cheerleader for multilateralism, as in President Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos, for example. Xi also surprisingly announced a new net-zero CO2 emissions target for 2060 at the UN General Assembly in 2020. Amid the global pandemic-induced recession, China has recovered quickly, its exports are up, and it is distributing vaccines in the developing world. Issues causing concern in other countries, such as China’s border clashes with India, tensions over Taiwan, arrests in Hong Kong, and atrocities against Uighurs in Xinjiang, are explained in Beijing in terms of maintaining stability. This will be particularly important in the run up to the 20th Party Congress in fall 2022, where Xi is expected to be given a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing is also concerned about the US trade war and the trajectory of perceived containment efforts, but is working hard to make sure it has options.

One question is whether normal US-China diplomatic communications can be restored, so that the two can discuss differences rather than resorting to military signaling. This should be doable over time. In its bilateral ties, the first thing the US will need to address with China is Taiwan, which goes back to the framework for establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. This has always been at the heart of US-China diplomatic set-tos, and if there is not a reaffirmation of common understandings on this point, things will deteriorate quickly. Given, however, that the US, Taiwan, and China would all presumably like to stabilize the cross-Strait situation and are loathe to see a crisis, this should not be too difficult. We can expect the Biden administration to reiterate the US “One China” policy, for Beijing to affirm its approach of peaceful reunification, and for all three sides to reference the desirability of reduction of military tensions in the Taiwan Strait. This won’t change or solve any larger issues, but it should allow for further diplomatic discussions and take the temperature of this “hot spot” down a bit. The issue will not go away, however.

Once diplomatic communications are reestablished, the two sides will have to address the Phase One trade deal and the intention to work further on economic issues. The Chinese want US tariffs rolled back and Biden is not a “tariff man,” but he is unlikely to act quickly. The Chinese can afford to be patient on the tariffs (they are hurting the US economy more than China’s), provided Beijing believes that the Biden administration will engage proactively to continue working on problems in the trade and investment relationship. These include de-listing of Chinese companies, divestiture requirements, and other late Trump administration measures that the Biden team has indicated are under review. China will watch to see whether Biden seeks to impose sweeping measures targeting China’s development or more targeted measures.

While the subject of continuing debate, it seems likely that Biden’s measures will give greater weight to legal principles and potential negative effects on the US economy, and be more narrowly targeted. Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo, for example, has affirmed a tough approach to China export controls, but did not commit to maintaining Huawei on the Department’s entity list, noting that the decision was under review. We can expect the Biden team to spend time and energy in coordination with allies on these very tough issues and to try to promote multilateral, as opposed to unilateral, measures in this area.

The Biden team has not said much about cooperation, but it is clear that two of its top priorities, COVID-19 recovery and climate change mitigation, will require working with China. Such cooperation might be accelerated by two recent developments. First, Biden plans to host world leaders for a virtual climate summit on April 22, and it seems likely that US-China conversations would occur before and in the context of that meeting. China has reappointed veteran climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua to the role and he is well-known to current Biden players. Second, the WHO fact-finding mission in China to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has made their initial report. Between this mission’s successful completion and the US rejoining multilateral recovery efforts through the WHO, there may be scope to restart infectious disease collaboration with China, something the Biden administration has indicated it would like to resuscitate.

Questions surrounding human rights will also be hanging over any engagement of the Biden administration with China. In its waning days the Trump administration declared that Chinese actions against Uighurs in Xinjiang constitute genocide, a claim that was repeated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his Senate confirmation hearing. Other governments are likely to be reluctant to join the US in this assessment, which will have economic and diplomatic implications. For example, it is difficult to conceive of the US Olympic Committee being able to resist calls for boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics against the backdrop of a US government declaration of genocide. Another pressing concern in this category is Hong Kong and its recently imposed national security law. China and the UK are in a tit-for-tat escalation regarding Hong Kong asylum seekers and the US may face similar issues in the future. China will almost certainly not make any concessions on these or other sovereignty issues, which the Biden team knows. They must find a way to, as Blinken tweeted after speaking to his Chinese counterpart in their initial exchange, “hold China accountable” for human rights abuses together with the international community and in a way that incentivizes, not discourages, changes in behavior. This worked to some extent in the 1990s, but has since been increasingly difficult.

Extreme Competition?

Beyond the handling of individual difficult issues, the bigger question is whether the “extreme competition” that President Biden and the US have unilaterally declared, will allow for a balanced and pragmatic relationship or drive toward zero-sum contestation. While China’s continued rapid rise is not assured and it faces myriad challenges, it is nevertheless likely that its growth will continue to outstrip the West’s. The last four years have left a zero-sum imprint on the minds of many Americans that will be difficult to ameliorate. China’s aggressive behavior in regional and territorial disputes, increased internal repression, and questionable trade and technology practices provide plenty of ammunition for this view. Some maintain that the US and China could construct a similar kind of détente as that between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War by coming up with arms control agreements. But this is not the Cold War and China is not the Soviet Union.

As was recently noted in a Mercator Institute for China Studies report, “the principal question is whether [we] will have to live in a world in which China and the United States are in a confrontational, zero-sum relationship.” This would be a very uncomfortable place for all and would divert enormous resources from tackling the world’s most pressing challenges. For now, it appears that the Biden team will try to organize its China policy by working around China, as it looks to assemble allies for a joint approach. It is likely to find, however, that other players are less ardent and more pragmatic when it comes to China’s rise. They certainly see the urgency in shoring up and reforming the international system, but they also want to work with China to do so. Provided those partners are forthright with the US about how they see it, joint progress will be possible, and could come quicker and easier than we think.

Susan A. Thornton is a retired senior US diplomat with almost 30 years of experience with the US State Department in Eurasia and East Asia. She is currently a senior fellow and research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale University Law School; director of the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy; and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.