Chief among President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy problems as he prepares to take office in January is China, widely considered America’s number one strategic challenge for the next generation.
Biden will be the next president of the U.S., having defeated incumbent President Donald Trump in last week’s election after a days-long wait for a record number of votes to be counted.
While the Trump Campaign litigates to undermine the result and the president continues his frantic Twitter offensive, Biden and his team are turning their minds to uniting a polarized nation and taking on the many challenges of the White House.
The world looked on as voters battled for their America, and governments will now consider how best to navigate four years of a Biden administration. The Chinese regime may have keener eyes on Biden’s moves than most.
There was little difference between Trump and Biden’s plans for China.
Both condemned Beijing’s authoritarianism, malign trade practices, and regional expansionism. Both promised voters they would address the threat, though Biden said he would do so alongside America’s allies—a departure from Trump’s unilateral style.
Being tough on China was an important part of both campaigns, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic ran rampant through the U.S. Trump’s administration has taken the fight to Beijing, though many disagree with its methods.
Biden, on the other hand, is part of a political establishment that for years allowed China to amass wealth and power, hoping that a globalized capitalist economy would prompt liberalizing political reforms.
Commercialist Western politicians were happy to reap the economic rewards of engaging with China, but failed to foresee—or happily ignored—the end result.
Beijing has used its wealth to wield ever-greater power, funding a rapidly modernizing armed forces, cutting edge technological research, and entrenching the CCP’s authoritarian rule.
Now, there is bipartisan recognition in Washington, D.C. that China is a challenge to be addressed as well as an opportunity to be exploited.
China will be America’s strategic challenge for the coming decades, and 2020 has seen this belief—long-held behind the scenes among lawmakers, intelligence, and military officials—crystalize in public.
A Biden win may bring some stability to the confrontation, but every American president for the foreseeable future will have to push back on Beijing one way or another.
Jacques DeLisle, an expert in Chinese law and politics at the University of Pennsylvania, told Newsweek that the era of “constructive engagement” is over, but “only part of that is Trump.”
By the turn of the millennium, cracks were already starting to show in the Western policy of “constructive engagement,” whether it was the ambitious hope that China would liberalize or the modest idea it would engage in and respect the U.S.-led rules-based international order.
DeLisle said: “The roots were China’s lack of progress in playing by the rules—at the World Trade Organization, for example—by China’s growing economic clout, including in sectors that mattered for the U.S. economy like technology, and signs that China was moving beyond the old ‘hide and bide’ approach to international security and politics to press a more assertive foreign policy.”
“By about a decade ago, this had become clear and the relationship was beginning to head south,” deLisle said, pointing to Obama’s advocacy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which supporters said would help contain China and maintain U.S. world leadership.
“To be sure, the Trump Administration has made the relationship much worse.
“Some of this can be clawed back by a return to ‘normal’ U.S. foreign policy under a Biden administration, but the world and the relationship have changed since circa 2000; there is no going fully back.”
For all the criticism of Trump’s China strategy, few in Washington would argue that Beijing is not a problem for the U.S.
“I give Trump credit for facing up to the reality of China, which has been radicalized under Xi since 2012, recognizing it as a strategic competitor,” said Robert Manning, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“But it is less that Trump changed the nature of U.S.-China relations than a reckoning was overdue.
“Xi vastly overplaying his hand on all levels–predatory industrial policies, aggressive military policies globally–the Himalayas, East and South China Seas, obnoxious influence operations; that forced the issue.
“But Trump has overcorrected the policy, oversimplifying a very complex relationship. His trade policies have led to larger U.S. trade deficits, no increase in manufacturing jobs, hurting farmers, hurting the U.S. more than China.”
Manning said the “U.S. politicization of China’s unforgivable mistakes early on in the coronavirus pandemic, and crusade bashing the Communist Party which has been the government since 1949, has inflamed nationalism in China and made it harder to rationally conduct business.”
He warned: “The risks of military confrontation are higher than ever.”
China was facing an uncertain election either way. It is not yet clear exactly how Biden will address the rivalry, and Trump’s erratic foreign policy means much in the relationship it still up in the air.
“Trump term one has been all over the map on China—from praising Xi Jinping’s authoritarian style of rule, acquiescing on Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but going after China on the ‘Wuhan flu’ and ‘very unfair’ trade practices and so on,” deLisle said.
“His administration has been an unholy mix of economic policy views that range from pro-decoupling to much more conventional, and political/security views that mostly border on a new Cold War.”
For Manning, the China resentment fostered by Trump and key allies like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be difficult to suppress. “There is no question our approach to China has become infused with campaign politics,” he said.
“I think Trump-Pompeo China policy has its own momentum. And is less coherent than is appreciated.
“I suspect it will continue, changing depending upon the circumstances–how our allies and partners act, how the business community pushes back against excessive ‘decoupling’ that is going against their interests, as with semiconductors.”
From January, Biden will face a tough task. “We have opened a new chapter in U.S.-China relations, we know what it is not, but have yet to forge consensus on what comes next,” Manning said.
“The current fevered tit-for-tat unraveling of the U.S.-China relations is not sustainable. It may take a Cuban Missile-type crisis or worse before reaching a more sober approach.
“There is no sign that the CCP is disappearing anytime soon. China is the number two economy in the world, and the number one trading power, capital exporter and climate polluter—the U.S. has to deal with.”
He concluded: “The challenge now is to define the terms, bounds and limits of competition. Where are the redlines? Where are the overlapping interests on which we can cooperate?”
Biden promised to revitalize America’s traditional alliances and build a coalition to address the China problem. Manning said this might be what is needed to push back on Beijing in the long term.
“There is a global backlash against China’s imperiousness,” Manning told Newsweek.
“Xi’s politics are not set in stone. A coalition of U.S.-EU-Japan-Australia can push back and impact Xi’s decision-making. Eventually, we have to evolve toward a framework for competitive coexistence. That will involve testing Xi, trial and error.”
Meanwhile, Biden will have to deal with Trump’s messy legacy.
“Trump has so diminished U.S. standing in the world and credibility with many allies that there is a risk that Beijing will see the U.S. as more diminished and checked out than it is,” deLisle said.
“A miscalculation on that front is not good for international stability.”