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On China, Biden should stop following in Trump’s footsteps

In remarks this week the president proclaimed Washington’s objective is “winning” its competition with Beijing.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Biden administration has been in office for less than a month, but already its China policy is following in the footsteps of the Trump administration’s. The administration is communicating its uncompromising intent to contain the rise of China, with little thought to either the costs and or the likelihood of success.

According to the new administration, Trump’s foreign policy was misguided on nearly every issue in U.S. foreign policy, including but not limited to climate change, global health cooperation, relations with allies in Europe and Asia, policy toward Iran, policy toward Mexico and immigration, and participation in multilateral organizations. But the administration seems to believe that Trump got it right on strategic and economic competition with China. Trump, however, did not luck into an effective China policy; his China policy was just as misguided as every other Trump foreign policy. Without a correction, Biden’s China policy is doomed to failure, just as Trump’s did.

It did not take long for the Biden administration to signal uncompromising security competition with China. Two weeks into his presidency, Biden vowed to counter Beijing’s “aggressive” actions. In his remarks at the Pentagon on Wednesday, he proclaimed that Washington’s objective is “winning” its competition with China, and, in language echoing the previous administration’s talking points, he said that “winning” would require a “whole-of-government approach.” And it is not reassuring that Biden’s government-wide review of China policy will begin at the Pentagon, rather than a civilian agency.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the administration would “impose costs” on China for the “bellicosity of threats that it is projecting towards Taiwan.” Secretary of State Blinken told Beijing’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi that the United States will work with its allies to counter Chinese “efforts to threaten stability” in Asia, including in the Taiwan Strait. Lest anyone think that the administration’s interest in cooperation on climate change might weaken its pursuit of containment, John Kerry insisted that the United States would not compromise its resistance to Chinese “aggression in the South China Sea.” And the administration has indicated that it is content to allow the trade war to continue indefinitely.

The Biden administration has thus signaled that Trump policy is Biden policy. But there can be no doubt that that Trump policy failed, and that there is no prospect that it will fare any better under the Biden administration. Despite four years of Cold War policies, including the trade war, the technology war, and the escalation of U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, China is now in a more competitive position vis-à-vis the United States than ever before. The gap in naval capabilities has continued to narrow and U.S. security partners in East Asia, including South Korea and the littoral countries of the South China Sea, have resisted Washington’s efforts to participate in a containment coalition. Instead, they improved their respective political and economic ties with Beijing. As Trump doubled down on his containment policy, China withheld any cooperation on nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and both countries expanded their nuclear capabilities. Equally important, the Chinese economy grew faster than the U.S. economy during Trump’s trade war, and the U.S. trade deficit with China actually widened.

Biden’s containment policy will fail just as spectacularly as Trump’s policy failed. Diplomatic posturing with aggressive policy statements and up-tempo naval operations in East Asia waters will not slow China’s naval build-up; over the next decade, the military balance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait will continue to tip in China’s favor. And American security partners will continue to resist expanded security cooperation with the United States against China. In the past few weeks, key American allies in European and East Asia have made it clear that they will not get caught up in the U.S.-China competition; on the contrary, they seek greater political and economic cooperation with China. And U.S. policy continuity with the Trump administration will constrain China’s incentive to reach a new trade agreement to reduce tariffs. China is winning the trade war; it is in no hurry to accommodate U.S. interests.

Not only will Biden’s Trump policy fail, but it will also incur costs. The Chinese foreign ministry has made clear that the United States cannot expect Chinese cooperation on climate change or pandemics if the Biden administration treats China as a strategic adversary. But in Wednesday’s conversation with President Xi Jinping, Biden essentially said that Washington will actively resist China on all fronts, except when it needs Beijing’s cooperation. This is not a promising strategy for achieving a wide range of U.S. security interests, including on nuclear proliferation. On the contrary, Biden’s continuity with Trump’s China policy will elicit Chinese continuity regarding North Korea and Iran, assuring failure in constraining nuclear proliferation.

U.S. continuity in Taiwan policy will be especially destabilizing. It will signal Washington’s long-term support for Taiwan’s independence, whatever Biden the administration’s intentions, and inevitably provoke more Chinese coercive diplomacy, leading to heightened U.S.-China tensions and a greater likelihood of war.

But rather than signal U.S. interest in tension reduction, Biden administration policy, including Taiwan’s representation at the Biden inauguration, the transit of the Taiwan Strait by the USS John S. McCain, and the meeting Wednesday between Taiwan’s representative in Washington Hsiao Bi-khim and U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary Sung Kim at the State Department all in the first three weeks of the administration — will simply exacerbate Chinese concern about Taiwanese independence and heighten cross-strait instability.

And a perpetual trade war will continue to undermine U.S. economic competitiveness. It will also slow the recovery from the COVID recession, at the expense of the American worker, as China maintains its own restrictions on U.S. imports.

Missing from the Biden administration’s signaling is any suggestion of diplomacy or negotiation. It is all containment all the time. But it is in the American interest to reduce U.S.-China security tension in East Asia. U.S. naval challenges to Chinese policy in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait have neither constrained Chinese activities nor improved U.S. security. On the contrary, the only result has been heightened tension.

Reduced frequency of U.S. naval presence in disputed areas in the South China Sea, of freedom of navigation operations, and of naval transits of the Taiwan Strait will not alter the political trajectory in East Asian diplomacy. The shifting balance of power is driving regional diplomacy. But a less contentious policy will reduce U.S.-China maritime tension and increase the likelihood of Chinese cooperation with U.S. global and regional security initiatives. A new U.S.-China trade agreement that ends the trade war will not achieve all U.S. objectives regarding reform of Chinese trade and investment policies, but it will contribute to U.S. economic and employment growth.

Perhaps the administration’s statements to date are simply an effort to signal U.S. resolve before reaching out to Beijing to reduce tensions and pursue greater cooperation. This may be the lesson Biden learned from the failed effort of the early Obama administration to signal its interest in cooperation before tackling difficult issues. But twelve years ago, Washington was in a better position to contend with China than it is today. Or perhaps Biden’s policy is an effort to consolidate the administration’s hardline credentials in domestic politics before moderating U.S. policy and pursuing U.S.-China cooperation. In either case, time to moderate the administration’s policy and reduce the potential costs to both U.S. diplomacy and the welfare of the American people is running out.

Chinese leaders well understand the constraints that American domestic politics impose on U.S. policy toward China. But sooner rather than later, they will decide that the trend in Biden policy does not reflect American politics so much as the preferences of the president and his aides. At that point, China’s resolve to resist U.S. containment will stiffen, and a spiral of hostility will ensue that will benefit no one, least of all the United States and the American people.

The United States must compete with rising China. It cannot concede to Chinese hegemony in East Asia. But competition does not require unmitigated rivalry in the quest for victory. There will be no “winner” in such a competition. Before Washington and Beijing become locked in cold war conflict, the Biden administration must signal its interest not only in competition, but also in cooperating with a peer competitor in bipolar East Asia to advance mutual U.S.-China interests and security cooperation and tension reduction.

President Joe Biden signs one of the 17 Executive Orders he signed on Inauguration Day Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
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