U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has been wrong on China almost his entire career. Will he finally get it right after being sworn in as president? Biden’s policy will help shape security across the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s behavior.
It is no exaggeration to say that international policy toward China has for decades been shaped largely by one power — the United States. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. presidents aided China’s rise, including its integration in international institutions — from the United Nations Security Council to the World Trade Organization. And other countries followed the American lead in outsourcing manufacturing to China and building closer bonds with that communist giant.
It is Donald Trump’s presidency that began a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party” (CCP). Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. “created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable competitor in what will be remembered as a historically unprecedented act.
The U.S., however, is separated from China by a vast ocean — the Pacific — and does not have the same immediate and potent security concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness that Japan and many other Asian states have. The security costs of America’s purported China blunder are being borne essentially by Asians.
The year 2020 will be remembered for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock, with the dictatorship in Beijing allegedly seeking to capitalize on the pandemic. Consequently, negative views of China have reached historic highs in many countries, according to a recent survey.
Biden is assuming office at a time when an international pushback against China is clearly emerging. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. But if Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will ease — and the decoupling will slow.
Could Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”
Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on aggressive expansionism, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model Xi is now seeking to replicate in the East China Sea and the Himalayas, where China remains locked in a military standoff with India since May after encroaching on some Indian border areas.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive, values-centered and “re-engage China and work with China” from a position of strength. Finding ways to cooperate with Beijing would mark a break with the Trump administration’s approach, which sees the U.S. in a deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the dictatorship there.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a co-authored essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, argued for “managed coexistence” with China, saying it is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential U.S. partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China is no different than “cooperative competition” that some prominent Chinese are promoting. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium.
But make no mistake: A U.S. policy of “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the Chinese Communist Party internally and externally. China is already the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the CCP’s primacy.
In 2000, Biden, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supported establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Beijing on grounds that it would yield “economic benefits to the U.S.,” “political reform in China” and a positive “impact on our national security.” More than a decade later, in a 2011 op-ed, Biden declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his continuing strategic naivete by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
After Biden’s election win over Trump, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the president-elect during a congratulatory call that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance.
In another worrying sign, Steve Ricchetti, who led the effort 21 years ago to get China into the WTO (an entry that has come back to haunt the U.S.), was named as the White House senior adviser to Biden — or, as one American newspaper put it, “tapped for the West Wing’s wise-man role.”
In an interview this month, Biden surprisingly claimed that the U.S. doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. While promising not to immediately lift Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, Biden said he plans to get allies on the same page and have a robust U.S. industrial policy in place before finalizing a China strategy. Such delay in crafting a strategy could help relieve pressure on Beijing.
In fact, even before taking office, Biden has signaled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept originally authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements, while the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific.”
China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. In recent days, Chinese state media have been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden has started referring to “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to “free and open.” Instead, Biden has coined a new phrase — “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different. The likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy will spur concern in the region about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. policy.
Biden’s statement this week nominating Lloyd J. Austin as his secretary of defense made no reference to the Indo-Pacific or to America’s alleged biggest challenge, China. Austin’s counterinsurgency experience in the Middle East scarcely equips him to deal with China’s expansionism.
Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, but it will be a major surprise if “managed coexistence” (aka “cooperative competition”) comes to define Biden’s China policy.
Such an approach will militate against the current U.S. bipartisan consensus on China. Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s unstoppable decline.
There is an additional factor that could constrain Biden from going soft on China — a lingering scandal involving his controversial son, Hunter. As vice president, Biden took Hunter aboard Air Force Two to Beijing in 2013. Within days, Hunter’s firm became a partner in a new Bank of China-backed investment company that raised more than $1.5 billion. Hunter personally made millions of dollars from the deal. Republicans could resurrect that scandal to embarrass Biden.
China has long been accused of using U.S. corporate greed to get American businesses to do its bidding. Wall Street appears to remain a powerful ally.
China also has another ally in Washington — those who remain mired in Cold War thinking and see Russia as the main foe. Biden’s national security team isn’t free of that mindset, which is why the outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has urged Biden to acknowledge that China is the “greatest national security threat that we face.”
Without U.S. leadership, vision and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism will never be convincing. This is why Biden must at the earliest provide strategic clarity to his China approach.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.”
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