joe biden, xi jinping, john kerry, 2015 state luncheon
Biden will inherit a U.S.-China relationship at its lowest point in nearly five decades. Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP

Tough-on-China Joe? Why America’s Mistrust of Beijing Is Here To Stay

Biden will tone down Trump’s confrontational approach to China, but only to an extent.
January 15, 2021, 2:31am
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A series that explores what parts of Trump’s legacy will be lasting, and what parts can be quickly undone by a new administration.

A month before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Vice President Joe Biden left a word of advice for the next administration. “Sometimes,” the former vice president wrote in Foreign Affairs, “cooperation and competition with China will coexist. The notion that it will be all one or the other is shortsighted and self-defeating.”

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President Donald Trump didn’t exactly take his advice. When Biden moves into the White House on Wednesday, he will inherit from Trump a relationship with China at its lowest point since the Nixon administration, the result of an almost wholesale rejection of cooperation with a rising China. This is in addition to a raging coronavirus crisis, an economy in tatters, and a U.S. reputation that has been dragged through the mud, most recently by a rampage at the Capitol enabled by the president himself.

But while reputation can be repaired and a pandemic managed, Biden can’t solve America’s China challenge simply by undoing whatever Trump did. Nor can he return to his old self as President Barack Obama’s right-hand man.

This quandary was evident when Biden, having dismissed China as “not a competition for us” in 2019, changed his tone in February last year and called Chinese President Xi Jinping “a thug.” Growing mistrust of Beijing among American voters and U.S. allies, fueled in part by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric and Xi’s own aggressiveness, has forced Biden to tiptoe through the middle ground.

To walk this fine line, Biden has promised to replace Trump’s “America First” doctrine with his vision for keeping the world’s preeminent power ahead by retooling its workforce and reinforcing alliances.

Back to the Table

Trump’s America went it alone. He withdrew the U.S. from multilateral agreements and organizations including the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, calling them a “bad deal” that went against the interests of American people.

But this left a vacuum in international organizations that Beijing has conveniently filled.

Ali Wyne, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, said many U.S. allies had warmed up to China’s membership in these institutions despite having apprehensions and grievances about Beijing. 

“They do not want to be instrumentalized as part of a great-power competition that renders hopes for U.S.-China cooperation and coexistence ever more elusive,” he said. 

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The Trump administration’s unilateralism, tariffs and open hostility—against friends and foes alike—have also prevented collaborative efforts, Wyne said.

Biden has promised to rejoin some of those institutions. 

To aid the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden has vowed to return to the World Health Organization on “day one.” He has also promised to rejoin the Paris accord, re-committing the United States to mitigating the effects of climate change. 

Biden has framed multilateralism as not just a way to reassert U.S. moral leadership but also to counterbalance China’s growing influence and illiberal tendencies.

In a March article expressing skepticism of Beijing’s ambitions, Biden said he wants to build “a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.”

Similarly, Anthony Blinken, the incoming Secretary of State, has called for a “league of democracies” to address China’s security threats. 

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Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Asia tsar,” has argued for countering China’s regional influence by joining Britain’s D-10 summit and expanding the Quad, a regional partnership between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. 

This is where the administrations of Trump and Biden may overlap—Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has moved to strengthen the Quad to “protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion,” Pompeo said on a visit to Tokyo in October..

Biden’s reported appointments of China advisors have also reflected his assessment of the nature of the challenge that an increasingly powerful China poses to the U.S.

Biden is likely to pick Ely Ratner, a China hawk who previously advised him on national security, as the top Asia official at the Pentagon, the Financial Times has reported. And Rush Doshi, scholar and author of an upcoming book on China’s “grand strategy to displace American order,” will be a China director at the National Security Council, according to the newspaper.

But any hawkish approach to China under Biden could be undercut by unwilling partners, especially when U.S. allies have drifted closer to Beijing. In December, the European Union and China signed a major investment treaty, bringing the two economies closer. 

With China gaining more leverage in Europe, Biden’s commitment to U.S. allies may erode his ability to confront Beijing’s abuses.

The deal could “pre-empt policy coordination on China between the EU and the United States under the new Biden administration,” wrote Theresa Fallon, founder and director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, in The Diplomat. “Such coordination could result in a united front against China and would be more difficult to handle than dealing with each separately.”

Making America Great Again, Again

Trump has weakened one of America’s critical strengths with his war on immigration, citing the need to preserve jobs for American workers. But Trump’s policy has made the U.S. a less attractive destination for global talent, contradicting his goal of boosting U.S. competitiveness. 

More than half of all workers in artificial intelligence in the U.S. was born overseas, and a quarter of researchers in the field are from China. Increased immigration obstacles could hurt the U.S.’ ability to retain students, according to a 2019 report by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. 

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Trump has also risked undermining the U.S.’ leading position in science by cutting personnel and budgets for scientific research, a decision that has been blamed for worsening the country’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ronald A. Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said that Trump’s “worst instincts on pandemic prevention” could be catastrophic. That warning was sounded in 2018.

Biden has promised to reinvest in America’s core competitive strengths. “There is no reason we should be falling behind China or anyone else when it comes to clean energy, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G, high-speed rail, or the race to end cancer as we know it,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs

The new administration has presented itself as the antithesis of Trump, vowing to look inward and strengthen America’s political institutions, innovation ecosystem, infrastructure, and higher education. 

“Perhaps Washington’s foremost imperative will be to counter the increasingly widespread conviction of Beijing’s leadership that it is in systemic decline,” Eurasia Group’s Wyne said. 

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Biden could reverse some of Trump’s visa restrictions that are turning away international students, including Chinese nationals, from U.S. universities and corporations. Biden has said he favors issuing more visas to PhD graduates in STEM fields and has proposed offering green cards to international students as soon as they obtain their doctoral degree. 

Bipartisan support for massive government investments in key industries could help the Biden administration implement policies to boost U.S. competitiveness, said Elsa B. Kania, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

“There is starting to be a consensus that the government can play a productive and consequential role in spurring innovation and technological development through pursuing measures that have a long history in the United States,” she said.

Confronting Human Rights Abuses

Trump’s confrontational approach has largely failed to curb China’s rights violations and suppression of dissent.

If anything, China has tightened its grip at home during the past four years, cracking down on its critics in Hong Kong with an expansive new security law, increasing aggression toward Taiwan, and doubling down on a program to detain and indoctrinate an estimated one million Uighurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region. 

Behind closed doors, Trump was said to have even backed Chinese President Xi’s internment campaign, according to his former national security adviser John Bolton. Trump also considered vetoing bipartisan legislation concerning human rights in Hong Kong in order to make a trade deal with Beijing. “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi,” Trump said on a Fox program in November 2019.

Biden has promised to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” During his campaign, Biden sought to present himself as being “strong on values,” as opposed to Trump’s transactional diplomacy.

While Biden’s approach might differ, a reset in U.S.-China relations is unlikely, said Dali L. Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

“China is hoping that there will be greater predictability in a way. But at the same time, I don’t think there is any illusion that things will be easier,” Yang said.

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Congress has backed bills in support of anti-Beijing dissidents, passing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act despite Beijing’s protest. 

Biden will unlikely reverse these actions. And Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor, hinted that the Democratic administration may push for immigration legislation to help activists and dissidents seek asylum in America.

Keeping the Change

Trump’s supporters have accused Biden of being weak on Beijing, pointing to his record as vice president under the Obama administration. When Biden visited Beijing in 2011, Biden emphasized the need for the U.S. and China to “hold the key together to not only our own prosperity, but to generating growth and jobs worldwide.”

Those days of camaraderie may be over.

It will be challenging for Biden to put an end to Trump’s tariffs without appearing “soft on China,” said Jack Zhang, assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “This is doable because the top Biden priority will be to get COVID-19 under control and the US economy back to full strength, [and] protectionism cuts against both of these goals.”

Wyne of the Eurasia Group said, “There is stronger, more widespread support in Washington than there was four years ago for adopting a more assertive policy toward Beijing, even as lawmakers disagree over what that policy should entail.”

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In his trade war against China, Trump imposed 25% punitive tariffs on about half of Chinese exports to the U.S. And in a Phase 1 trade deal, the U.S. requires China to purchase $200 billion in additional U.S. goods between 2020 and 2021, obligations that have not been fulfilled. 

Biden has been long critical of using tariffs due to the harm inflicted upon American farmers, businesses, workers, and consumers. But Biden has said he will not immediately undo these actions, which he can potentially use as a leverage to get meaningful concessions from Beijing.

His pick for the next U.S. Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, has extensive experience dealing with China-related trade issues. Biden said she will be the “chief trade enforcer against unfair trade practices by China.”

Zhang said Biden would adopt a mixed approach, setting narrower policy goals—such as fine-tuning export control and investment screening—while avoiding efforts that could decouple the interlinked U.S. and Chinese economies. 

In his 2016 parting memo, Biden said the U.S. needed to balance cooperation and competition with China. With Trump having set the stage for intensified rivalry between the superpowers, Biden’s four years in the Oval Office will be judged by how he tips the scales.

Follow Tianyu M. Fang on Twitter.