Back in 2008, when Joe Biden was on the campaign trail running for vice president, the Democratic senator from Delaware once told fundraisers that the world will “test the mettle” of Barack Obama.
Now that Biden has been inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, it’s his turn to be tested.
Biden faces a host of daunting foreign policy challenges, from repairing fractured alliances to recommitting to global responsibilities.
Chief among the many conundrums is the growing China challenge. As the world’s second largest economy continues to challenge American power on the global stage, Biden inherits a massive trust deficit from Trump, and a U.S.-China relationship that has deteriorated because of an increasingly assertive China, but also by an ill-defined and inconsistently executed China policy.
Biden may be able to reverse many of his predecessor’s policies with the wave of a wand — in the form of executive orders as he has done in returning to the Paris climate accord on his first day in office — but dealing with China is an entirely different matter. It’s a Herculean headache for leaders around the world, as it involves a delicate balancing act of upholding democratic values and competing economically and geopolitically, all the while seeking a path for cooperation on existential issues such as climate change and the pandemic.
If a quick thaw in relations is unlikely in the short term, how should Biden deal with China? Any successful strategy begins with defining the challenge, and how the Biden administration defines it will shape its approach to China and the Indo-Pacific region.
On the domestic front, China faces tremendous downward pressure on its economy. Part of this is structural. The adoption of the one-child policy in the late 1970s accrued benefits during the first stage of reform, but now it is the cause of labor shortages and underdeveloped domestic consumption as ordinary citizens save for their future.
“All the easy reforms were made during the first period of reform (1978 until the mid-1980s),” an expert at the China Institute of International Studies said on my last visit to the Chinese capital, referring to the time Beijing unveiled its first state-led reform policies to open up the economy.
“The second period of reform will be much more difficult to achieve without substantial pain to the powerful and powerless,” the expert said, pointing to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more recent efforts at transitioning to a more stable and secure society while also opening up certain parts of the economy.
Together with the downward pressure on the economy and growing inequality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s prospects for sustainable economic growth remain tenuous. We are already seeing trading partners proactively reshaping their trade portfolios with Beijing to counter economic coercion.
A weaker Chinese economy has repercussions for stability in the world’s most populous state. As unemployment rises and inequality increases, there is the real danger that the Chinese Communist Party will use assertive regional behavior to distract its population from domestic economic challenges.
How well China manages its painful second stage of reform will be critical to how the Biden administration approaches Beijing. A well-managed second stage of reform will strengthen China internally at the institutional and economic levels. It will make China a more formidable competitor across the spectrum of comprehensive national power.
In contrast, a poorly managed second stage of reform could substantially destabilize the Chinese economy and the one-party system. This would have negative repercussions throughout the Indo-Pacific region’s economy and institutions. Growing unemployment, debt and a graying population could result in stagnation, which would substantially slow the region’s economic dynamism.
This may make China a less formidable competitor for the Biden administration, but it could also unleash social and political pressure on the Chinese Communist Party. That pressure could make the party more oppressive at home and assertive in China’s neighborhood. The party could use populist policies such as the forceful reunification of Taiwan, an even harder line in Hong Kong or the seizing of the Senkaku Islands as initiatives to rally public support for longstanding nationalist objectives.
With the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party coming up on July 23, the chances that a faltering China may lash out will increase.
Biden will also need to address the international dimension of the China challenge. This includes China’s long-term strategy to reshape the Indo-Pacific region’s politico-economic architecture through its Belt and Road initiative. Beijing would like to create dependent economic relationships with all participating states.
Attempts to reshape the region’s geopolitics is further enhanced by Beijing’s attempts to dominate technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G, and to engage in economic statecraft to bind and bend neighbors into a deferential relationship with Beijing.
Assertive behavior in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Himalayas, pervasive political influence campaigns, and an established track record of economic coercion and hostage diplomacy meant to peel away allies and friends of the United States will test the Biden administration as well.
Lastly, the China challenge is also linked to weakening global institutions. Beijing’s insistence of a sovereignty-first and noninterference agenda weakens norms on human rights, interferes with the transparent decision-making of international institutions and makes the world safer for authoritarian regimes.
Learning from Trump’s record
A successful Biden administration will need to learn and adapt from former President Donald Trump’s successes and failures. That point is evident with secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken explicitly acknowledging at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “he also believed that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China.”
On former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assessment that China was committing genocide, Blinken responded, “the forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps — trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party — all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
Trump’s volatility, his willingness to no longer be sensitive to China’s requests for deference on Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and stronger Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in terms of Japan and Indian partnerships are all policies that, while needing some tweaks, should be continued.
The Biden administration also needs to approach the restructuring of its alliances through greater burden sharing by diplomatic consultation instead of extortion, as we saw with Trump’s approach toward South Korea and Japan.
In contrast, Trump’s unilateralism, his ideological and sometimes discriminatory approach to China, his lack of consistency and follow through should be eschewed vigorously. Trump disenfranchised allies and potential partners with a lack of nuance, chaos within the White House and ad hoc pronouncements that left allies out in the cold.
Taking a realistic approach
So how will Biden deal with the China challenge? So far, his tack consists of a more level-headed assessment of what the China challenge is and what it is not. Through critical appointments and a return to diplomatic relations and international commitments, Biden aims to re-calibrate the U.S.-China relationship into three areas: competition, cooperation and “red lines,” or rivalry.
What is clear from Biden’s appointments is that he values institutional experience, multilateralism and a foreign policy that puts alliances front and center.
Most indicative of that approach is the appointment of Kurt Campbell as the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs. His experience in formulating the initial “pivot to Asia,” deep experience in dealing with a host of challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including North Korea and China, and his extensive networks domestically and internationally demonstrate that the Biden administration will be placing the Indo-Pacific at the core of its foreign policy.
The selection of Antony Blinken as secretary of state nominee and Lauren Rosenburger, former National Security Council director for China and Korea in the Obama White House and former chief of staff for Blinken as then-deputy secretary of state, are equally important to Biden’s message that his administration prioritizes alliances, multilateralism and expertise.
The nominations of Shanthi Kalathil as democracy and human rights coordinator and Tarun Chhabra as senior director for technology and national security are critical in understanding how the Biden administration views China. It is one that will be increasingly focused on technological competition, democracy promotion and human rights.
Biden has also spoken on clear terms about alliances, commitments and China. Last November, Biden spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stating without prompting that the Senkaku Islands fall under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan alliance. He also stressed the importance of a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region” in congratulatory calls with Australian, Japanese and South Korean leaders — both statements welcomed by Japan.
With the Biden administration returning to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, not rescinding tariffs on China and an inclination to return to a modified Iran nuclear agreement, the 46th president’s initial actions are sending a signal to allies and competitors that America was an aberration under Trump.
The problem is that simply rejoining international institutions will not be enough to restore confidence. In the eyes of friends and allies of America, Trump 2.0 or his successor could return in 2024 brandishing a re-invigorated “America First” call to arms. Furthermore, allies see international institutions as another sphere of competition between the United States and China. Washington wants transparency, accountability and rules-based behavior, while Beijing seeks to weaken international institutions in areas that threaten its authoritarian regime.
U.S.-China relations under Biden will shift from a zero-sum approach to one that has competitive, cooperative and contested arenas.
Competitive areas will include technology, diplomatic influence and rule-setting. In these areas, Biden will inherit several of Trump’s initiatives, such as the Bureau of Industry and Security, adding the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. of China to the list of Chinese firms blocked from access to semiconductors and dual use technology. The goal is clear — to prevent the People’s Liberation Army from using sensitive technology for their modernization and maintaining a qualitative edge on China’s military.
With fears that China is gaining momentum in AI, 5G and other next-generation technologies, the Biden administration is expected to work with like-minded states and regions such as Japan and the European Union to synergize their research and investment, but also collaborate on creating new regulatory frameworks to outmuscle China in competition.
The same will be true with diplomatic influence and rule-setting. Beijing has made inroads into strengthening and weakening international institutions through blocking or making appointments, or through committee participation.
An example of the former is the appointment of WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. His deference toward Beijing at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been described as foot-dragging in declaring the virus a “public health emergency of international concern.” In the case of the latter, China’s election to the U.N. Human Rights Council is dubious in light of its well-documented mass incarceration of Uighurs in so-called re-education camps.
Biden will have to work with like-minded countries to compete within international institutions so they remain committed to human rights protection, transparency and the rule of law. This means collectively calling out egregious violations in human rights, the rollback of rule of law as seen in Hong Kong, and collective action on hostage diplomacy and economic coercion. It also means forming new institutions, which aim to replace institutions that have been co-opted by China.
For all the rivalry with China in the areas of technology, diplomacy and rule-setting, Biden is likely to push for cooperation with Beijing in some areas. Climate change, a lasting solution to the COVID-19 pandemic and North Korea are several areas where cooperation may be possible.
Climate change is an existential threat to the world. Rising sea levels, desertification, and an increasing number and intensity of climate related weather events can only be mitigated through cooperation of the two largest economies in the world.
With shared concerns about extremism and underdevelopment, both the United States and China can also work together to provide vaccinations to emerging economies. They are the least able to secure safe and affordable vaccines and therapeutics. Critically, their economies have been asymmetrically negatively affected by the pandemic because of the level of development and sizes of their informal economies. Without the provision of vaccines and therapeutics, emerging states’ development could be stunted leading to impoverishment and radicalization.
North Korea also remains a shared concern on which to cooperate, as nuclear proliferation and missile development are in neither state’s interests.
Competition and cooperation are critical to inject stability into U.S.-China relations. Notwithstanding, Biden must be clear about Washington’s red lines, such as a clear rejection of a forceful reunification with Taiwan. China’s assertive behavior in sea lanes of communication in the East and South China Seas, its growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and its rejection of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific need to be fiercely resisted. So does any attempt to reunify Taiwan by force.
This resistance will require multilateral and multilayered approaches to the Indo-Pacific region and China. Core pillars to that approach must be a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that enhances the region’s economic integration through robust trade and diplomatic engagement. Part and parcel of that approach must include infrastructure and digital connectivity initiatives to compete with China’s Belt and Road initiative and checkbook diplomacy.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and multilateral diplomacy with allies and friends of the United States, such as Japan, Australia, Canada and the EU, will also need to be mobilized. They will need to leverage their diplomatic, developmental, security and network comparative advantages to send the strongest signal to Beijing that its re-emergence as the most powerful state in the region will not come at the expense of others.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.