Biden’s China Policy Can’t Help but Be Incoherent

Liberal internationalism is full of contradictions on how to handle Beijing.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L), chats with his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L), chats with his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao before heading to their luncheon at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Dec. 5, 2013. Andy Wong/Pool-Getty Images

It’s clash-of-civilizations stuff that rivals even the scaremongering of the early Cold War. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given multiple speeches in recent months that actively promote a narrative not just of competition with China, but of a totalizing ideological threat that must be stopped at any cost. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. And yet, U.S. policy toward China has already been a train wreck of pathos, lies, and contradictions for several years running.

In word and deed, the United States’ response to China has been at best ham-fisted. The tariff war is an avoidable self-inflicted wound. The ongoing process of economic decoupling is happening without any real debate about its strategic merits. President Trump tried to parlay his perceived personal chemistry with President Xi Jinping into China colluding with him to get reelected, until Beijing turned him down and he decided instead to go all out with a series of unprecedented sanctions in the span of only a few weeks. And lest we forget, Trump gave Xi a green light both to crack down on Hong Kong’s political autonomy and continue with internment camps for Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang—two issues that catalyzed the recent sanctions and that the administration routinely advertises as proof of China’s villainy.

Enter the anti-Trump, former vice president Joe Biden. One of Biden’s virtues is the promise of consistency and prudence where Trump delivers mainly chaos and incompetence. But despite his deserved reputation as a rational statesman, Biden is set to pursue a China policy full of contradictions, just not in the uniquely self-serving and incoherent way that Trump has. That’s not just because politics surrounding China issues today all but ensures strategic inconsistency. The problem is intrinsic to the ideological core evident in Biden’s understanding of how to deal with China and everything else in foreign policy—liberal internationalism. China’s assertive, anti-democratic conduct at home and abroad is throwing the political and economic aspects of Biden’s restorationist worldview into sharp relief, and when it comes to China, the biggest strategic issue in a generation, those conflicts are going to be particularly painful.

Liberalism, though a capacious concept, implies a Lockean commitment to individual rights and the ability to make credible contracts. Translating this philosophy into foreign policy yields a basket of familiar political and economic priorities. As an ideal, the political dimension of liberal internationalism concerns human rights protections, democracy promotion, and the sovereign equality of states. The economic dimension emphasizes free trade and unfettered capital movement across borders. This is an uneasy combination, but one that’s defined the United States’ global action for decades.

International institutions also feature prominently in liberal internationalism because, in theory, not only do they peacefully regulate relations among states and promote liberal norms; they protect transnational capital from governments that would impede free trade in the name of sovereignty. And the distinctly American variant of liberal internationalism fuses these liberal values with a commitment to military power, forward troop presence, and alliances on the belief that the latter hard-power calculations make the former values possible.

The results of this fusion can be paradoxically anti-liberal. For instance, Dan Nexon and Paul Musgrave have explained how a broadly liberal U.S. foreign policy has nevertheless nurtured within itself relations of an imperial character, such as the structure of U.S. ties to Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush era or America’s control of Guam, a territory denied incorporation into the U.S. federal system. Neoconservatism, largely in disrepute today, is arguably so liberal that it’s willing to use force to make the world more so, which highlights another tension in liberal internationalism—it can give rise to manifestly illiberal actions in practice when one aspect of the liberal tradition ends up in tension with another.

Decisions to use military force for regime change assault liberal values in all sorts of ways, yet are sometimes motivated by the liberal impulse to spread, ironically enough, liberal values. And of course progressives have always decried privileging economic liberalism over political liberalism, as with the “Washington consensus” policies that for decades used international financial institutions to impose sovereignty-violating fiscal austerity reforms on developing countries.

These contradictions were always there. But they’re set to be harshly manifest in China policy under a Biden administration because China’s more assertive behavior makes it impossible for Washington to simultaneously optimize for both political and economic liberal values in Sino-US relations.

As a young senator, Biden was part of the first U.S. delegation to visit Beijing following diplomatic normalization in 1979. After the Cold War, he made the same wager as most of Washington—a liberal internationalist wager—that exploiting the China market and forging economic interdependence would liberalize the Middle Kingdom. As part of that premise, he supported China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And as vice president, he echoed the then-common refrain that “a rising China is a positive, positive development.”

Of course, times have changed. The new conventional wisdom in Washington—that we lost the China wager—has spawned a corresponding belief in the need for a way of life based not on détente or compromise, but competition. Anti-China sentiment in Congress has become bipartisan. For the first time this century, there appears to be a popular stigma against doing business with China. The Republican National Senatorial Committee has issued guidance for candidates to aggressively go after China in GOP political campaigns rather than bother defending a president who does outlandish shit almost as often as he changes his mind. Even the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which strikes a less strident tone than the establishment on Sino-US relations, recognizes that China poses a political threat, if not a military one.

This is the new Washington, a place whose politics on China leave Biden trapped between Trump and a hard place. Decisions made in the Trump era have been locking in a confrontational imperative—premised primarily on the threat China poses to political liberalism—that will constrain Biden’s choices should he become president. Whether a $680 billion defense budget with its sights firmly fixed on China, or the global effort to neuter Chinese tech firms like Huawei, the legislative and bureaucratic institutionalization of Sino-US rivalry will be hard to reverse regardless of whether China changes.

The zeitgeist has already made it difficult to level even valid critiques against Trump without generating hollow accusations of being “weak” or “soft” on Beijing. Progressive groups have worried aloud that Biden’s campaign will fall for this “China hawk trap.” Biden, as well as some of his advisors, have accommodated the new tough-on-China moment by opting to somewhat prioritize political liberalism over economic liberalism. Senior advisor Jake Sullivan, for instance, suggested Biden would effectively unwind great-power interdependence by helping “reshore supply chains so we are never again dependent on China in a crisis.” Striking a different tone than in the past, Biden called Xi a “thug” during a Democratic Primary debate earlier this year. And Tony Blinken, another Biden senior advisor, said Biden would “fully enforce” the sanctions regime introduced as part of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

But the economic side of liberal internationalism promises to exert a significant gravitational pull in the opposing direction. Wall Street thinks China will be open for business in a Biden presidency. At a minimum, the financial class expects that “a Biden victory ends tariffs on China.” With some 70 percent of Chinese imports now subject to tariffs, there will be corporate pressure for at least a partial rollback of the trade war. And his pro-business track record as a senator and vice president makes this a reasonable bet. After all, would a Biden administration have tried to ban immensely popular Chinese-linked apps like TikTok? Maybe, but in 2019, Biden indicated on the campaign trail that his view of trade with China hasn’t adjusted, dismissing China’s economic threat with the comment, “China’s going to eat our lunch? Come on, man… They’re not bad folks … they’re not competition for us.”

International institutions, meanwhile, are uniquely positioned to encourage Biden to strategically dither. For a Biden presidency to diminish, defund, contain, or subvert international institutions would be to cut one of the arms off of liberal internationalism by ceding the architectures of global governance to China by default. China has increasingly rendered institutions, which would otherwise be amplifiers of liberal values or at least of U.S. influence, into places where it can steer agendas and secure influence at America’s (and liberalism’s) expense. Yet to compete for influence with China within international institutions simply renders them into venues of great-power jockeying. That may be necessary, and one should not be naïve about power politics, but it brings with it both the risk of diminishing their legitimacy as stewards of process and a liberal internationalism that looks a lot like neoconservatism’s ethos of muscular liberalism unhindered by institutional checks.

Yet even if Biden does not succumb to the lobbying pressures of moneyed interests and crafts a Goldilocks solution to competitive institutionalism, any rational approach to China will have to dial back the emotionalism of the Trump era in both rhetoric and substance. Unless Biden’s staffers agree that China is a totalizing threat to humanity unrivaled in American history, his administration’s position on China will be more restrained than what we’ve seen from Washington the past three years. Just adopting minimally responsible language, such as dropping the use of racially tinged pejoratives like “Kung Flu,” will appear measured and muted.

Competing political demands are pulling Biden in opposing directions on China and they will continue to do so, because liberal internationalism is of two minds about China. The United States must get tough on China but not resign itself to an existential rivalry. It must improve Taiwan’s defenses without increasing the risks of war. It must sanction China but ease tariffs. It must not inhibit free trade but pursue aspects of decoupling all the same.

If this seems like a series of contradictions, that’s the point. It’s all compatible with liberal internationalism and yet it’s all strategically Janus-faced. A crucial criterion of competent statecraft is the harmonization of elements in pursuit of a goal. Your actions should not be self-undermining and ideally should achieve a degree of synergy with one another—an impossibly tall order for a rational China policy that seeks to both protect democracy and the right to make a buck off Beijing while managing risks of conflict.

Biden has made a successful career out of rational mainstream calculations. That may be just what the country needs to nurse a post-Trump hangover. But it accentuates the conflicts within U.S. policy on China. A vanguard politician might drag the country to clearly prioritize political or economic liberalism. A pragmatic politician will try to satisfice among competing interests.

The tensions in Biden’s China choice represent a distinctly liberal dilemma that does not lend itself to clear thinking or easy solutions. The form that U.S. liberal internationalism ends up taking won’t be because of a single doctrine or strategy, but the result of an accumulation of decisions and improvisations.


Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.