Post #290: Biden’s Opportunity with China

The dominant view of China in both Washington and in American public opinion is that the United States faces an increasingly ruthless Chinese leadership, requiring that US policy restrain if not contain China’s malevolent influence.  Biden will have to craft a China policy that will convince Americans, and Chinese leaders, that he can both compete with and where necessary confront China, relying on diplomacy rather than on threats and bluster. China will be a severe test for a new administration whose highest priorities are the pandemic and the economy.  Yet Biden can neither put China on the back burner nor allow China policy to be determined by ideological China-bashing and Trump’s trade war, which caused major job losses and hurt farmers, consumers, universities, and overseas investors.

Seeking (actually, rediscovering) common ground with Beijing is urgent on pandemics, global warming, military deployments in the Asia-Pacific, maritime rules of the road, and nuclear weapons.  Except for the last item, Beijing has accepted the need for dialogue on those issues and others, such as trade, cyber security, and drug control. But so far, Biden’s position has been fairly hard-line: calling the Xinjiang repression of Uyghurs “genocide,” standing up for human rights in Hong Kong and Tibet; warning that China is “eating our lunch” on trade; signaling a technological decoupling to prevent China’s military exploitation, and taking a tough stance on protecting Taiwan. Indeed, his call for a Summit of Democracies (see Post #288) and his interest in strengthening the so-called “Quad” of the US, Japan, Australia, and India all are likely to look to Beijing like lines in the sand.

All these comments have merit, but where are the positive ideas for engagement to balance them?  The administration’s attraction to a summit of the democracies and to strengthening “the Quad,” an informal group that brings together the US, Japan, India, and Australia, look like lines being drawn in the sand.  China will be further alienated, making cooperative ventures less likely without yielding perceivable benefits to the US position in Asia.

What Biden must avoid is caving in to right-wing pressure by demonizing and baiting China, further decoupling trade and investment, engaging in needlessly provocative military maneuvers, or downgrading people-to-people exchanges with China—all actions that Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo carried out with religious zeal with the intent to spotlight China’s enemy status.  China is too important to be treated like the former Soviet Union, not to mention like Putin’s Russia.

What might well change China’s strategic calculus is an America that is back on its feet and ready to compete—contrary to the prevailing Chinese belief that the US is in irreversible decline.  As a former ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, recently wrote: “the single greatest challenge facing the United States this century is the rise of an emboldened China with the elements of power — economic, military and diplomatic — to shape a world that is antithetical to our values. We can neither disengage nor wish it away. Our best defense is to continuously improve our system at home that speaks to the American Dream, which still remains aspirational for many around the world — even in China.”

If the US responds to China as Trump did, disengaging from it and relying on threats, the possibility of war by miscalculation will increase.  Let’s be mindful of Xi Jinping’s reported statement that “we have a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it,” President Biden should match that comment, emphasizing (as Obama did) the unique importance of the US-China relationship and recognizing China’s accomplishments, for example on poverty alleviation and energy conservation.  But then he might challenge Xi to address US concerns, starting with repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, military maneuvers near Taiwan, and South China Sea patrols.  Biden might say he prefers “competitive coexistence” (my preferred term) to strategic competition, but it takes two to tango.  In Asia, from India to Japan, such an approach would surely bring a sigh of relief.

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  1. Dear Mel:
    As usual, you are preaching to the choir. Especially so with most things Chinese: You are a voice of common sense (Blog 290: Biden’s opportunity with China). Now, if only you had access to the halls of power or the ears of the mighty, things would be O.K..

    Why can’t those in those halls have a “lick of common sense?”

    1. Mike, there was a time long ago when I yearned to be in “the halls of power,” or at least nearby. But then I think about all the difficulties of dealing with political opponents and entrenched bureaucrats. Nasty business, as you know. Common sense in short supply. Thanks.

  2. This is really hard with the concentration camps in Xinjiang. Now Canada joins us in calling it genocide. Already cultural genocide in Tibet and violation of major agreements on HK. I’m worried about Taiwan.

    We have fewer and fewer tools to bring other nations to our side. It would be helpful, as a real foreign policy and China expert, to outline more about how we might engage them.

    Thanks. I follow the declining power argument with Rs following the “repeat the lie” for three months and it becomes wide-spread belief.

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thanks, Bob. There is certainly plenty of reason for concern about China’s behavior. But we mustn’t exaggerate their capabilities while neglecting our own. Military power aside, the US has assets China doesn’t: a worldwide network of allies, greater economic reach, and a multifaceted contemporary culture. If we can only get our act together and demonstrate leadership in social justice, environmental protection, democratic governance, and other areas that folks in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere value, we will be able to offset China’s economic diplomacy (Belt & Road, etc.). These days the Chinese don’t really have all that much that is attractive to the outside world beyond money.

  3. Thank you for a clear, balanced, and nuanced statement of how to deal with the multi-dimensional challenges that China poses. While the US must re-engage with its allies and with China, now more than ever, it is essential that the US economy and democratic institutions must be nurtured and strengthened.

  4. Today’s NY Times has an article alleging that Xi is advancing his personal agenda rather than the welfare of China. I remember reading an account of how Xi was developing a personality cult to replace loyalty to party or country with loyalty to him. In other words he is acting like the other would-be autocrats, such as Erdogan, Putin, and, of course our own Donald Trump. If that is a correct reading of Xi, how does it affect how we should negotiate with him?

    1. I think the author of that article (on the crackdown in Hong Kong) is no doubt at least partly correct about Xi’s motives. Xi certainly has cultivated a Mao-like personality cult, and his fondest dream–which would be true of any Chinese leader today–is to finally bring Hong Kong and Taiwan firmly into the national fold. That “China dream” should always be in the back of the minds of negotiators, since “interfering in China’s internal affairs” is a red line for Chinese leaders. The US should be firm in support of human rights but recognize that nothing is going to shake Xi’s ambitions, including sanctions. We need to focus on finding common ground without feeding those ambitions.

  5. Before any nation might effectively challenge the abysmal human right record of China — a mighty military nation with almost 1.5 billion consumers — the former first must have a significant trade-export/import bargaining chip.

    I can imagine that a large enough number of world nations securely allied, however, likely could combine their resources and go without the usual China bully-nation trade/investment connection they’d all prefer to abandon, instead trading necessary goods and services between themselves (and perhaps other, non-allied countries not beholden to China).

    Yet, maybe such an alliance has already been proposed and discussed but rejected (behind closed doors) due to Chinese government strategists knowing how to ‘divide and conquer’ potential alliance nations by using door-wedge economic/political leverage custom-made for each nation.

    Each nation placing its own unbending bottom-line interests first may always be its, and therefore collectively our, Achilles’ heel to be exploited by huge-market countries like China.

    1. Interesting comment; thanks. The alliance you have in mind has probably been on various wish lists, but the obstacles to forming one are formidable. In today’s global economy, China wields enormous power not only in trade and investment but also via loans under the Belt & Road Initiative. Too many countries are beholden to China, as once was the case with the US. Over time, however, I’m betting that dependence on China will create political problems for Beijing–charges of “neocolonialism” and debt traps, for example–as well as Chinese overextension. That marketplace power will weaken.

  6. I said it before and I’ll say it again: The governments of Britain, the U.S. (and Australia?) ought to offer shelter to those emigres from Hong Kong— and now, Taiwan— as well as paths to citizenship of those countries.

    Together with the “huachiaoren (overseas Chinese)” — the families: the Wangs, the Li’s, the Wu’s etc., etc.; ought to fund their re-settlement in those countries, as well as other countries.

    I agree that it’s asking a lot; but I feel that “one country, two systems” is D.O.A.

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