Biden Is Now a China Hawk—With Limits

The Democratic nominee is getting ready to confront Beijing—but he doesn’t want another Cold War.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping accompanies Joe Biden to view an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping accompanies Joe Biden to view an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Joe Biden seems to have concluded that China has become America’s sworn enemy. In April he ran on ad that depicted Donald Trump as a stooge who had “rolled over for the Chinese” in the midst of a pandemic for which the Chinese themselves may well have been responsible. In his one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders, Biden claimed that China’s communist regime had made only “marginal” improvements in national well-being over the previous 40 years, cutting short any further comment with a curt, “China is an authoritarian dictatorship.”

Biden sounds a lot like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in a speech earlier this mocked  what he called “the old paradigm of blind engagement” with China, accusing President Xi Jinping of seeking “global hegemony of Chinese communism.” I wrote earlier that a President Biden would rally the world’s democracies against a rising authoritarian threat. Does he, like Pompeo, foresee a new Cold War with China?

Actually, he doesn’t. Biden has simply learned that beating up on China has become a cost-free way to prove your toughness. That wasn’t true even when he left office; his new bellicosity demonstrates how very quickly the consensus on China has shifted both in the broad public and among policymakers.

In a series of articles in Foreign Affairs, Ely Ratner, who served as Biden’s deputy national security advisor and now heads the China team of his foreign policy advisors, accused a generation of officials in both parties—himself included—of indulging in “hopeful thinking” about China. China had spurned the American offer to take its place as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global order. In China the United States faced not merely a competitor, but a rival.

This conclusion is by no means universal. Fareed Zakaria has argued that China is behaving just as other rising powers have done in the past, including the United States, and that American policy-makers have come to regard that behavior as intolerable only because China is far more powerful than other rivals to American supremacy. But both Biden and his advisors are committed to the engagement-has-failed line of thinking. Many of them, including Ratner, praise the language of Donald Trump’s 2017 national security strategy, which states, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

Biden wants to stand up to China without provoking a new Cold War. He and his advisors recognize that they will not make progress on transnational issues like climate change or pandemics without the active engagement of the world’s biggest economy. For that reason, they deprecate Secretary Pompeo’s Cold War-era ideological diatribes as well as the fantasy of economic “decoupling” which Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, entertains. Washington will need to limit its vulnerability to China by, for example, replacing global supply chains of sensitive products with domestic ones even as the two countries remain intricately linked in the world’s economy.

Biden’s China policy would begin with domestic renewal. Biden insists that the United States can out-compete China if it makes strategic investments in infrastructure, research and development, health care, education and training. That may be another example of hopeful thinking. China’s growth rate, though slowing, remains about triple that of the United States. Several years ago, China became the world’s largest economy as measured by “purchasing power parity”; within a few years it is almost bound to be the largest by any measure.

But this may be the wrong metric. In a world governed by rules, supremacy is ultimately determined by who holds the pen. Perhaps, as Graham Allison concludes in Destined for War (2017), that power, too, will likely pass to China. But that is hardly a tolerable conclusion for those who, like Biden, believe devoutly in the “liberal world order” fashioned largely by Washington after World War II. That order was built on alliances, with the alliance of Western democracies at its core, and it is those institutions and networks that provide the counterweight to China. In an article last year, Julianne Smith, who preceded Ratner as Biden’s deputy national security advisor, and Torey Taussig, observed that Germany, France, and other European states, long more trusting of China that the United States, have been deeply disturbed by China’s cyber-espionage into their economies, its repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its crackdown in Hong Kong. French President Emmanuel Macron had used the occasion of a visit by Xi to declare an end to “European naiveté” about China.

Europe shares the American critique of China’s theft of intellectual property, its massive state support of export industries, its currency manipulation, its insistence on gaining access to the technological secrets of foreign investors—what I described in my previous article as the “geo-economic” agenda. Yet when he began his assault on China’s trade policies soon after taking office, Donald Trump attacked the Europeans in even harsher terms instead of making common case with them.

This was—assuming that Trump actually cared about the opportunity—a wasted opportunity. What would have been obvious to almost any president save Trump is that Western democracies are bound together not only by their geo-economic interests but by their values—and that China threatens those values. Biden is eager to join that contest, and he would do so from within a revitalized liberal order. He has called on “the Free World”—a favorite phrase—”to come together to compete with China’s efforts to proliferate its model of high-tech authoritarianism.”

Relations with China would rank near the top of the agenda of the “Summit of Democracies” that Biden plans to convene. This would be a matter of pragmatic calculation as well as ideological solidarity. As Julianne Smith notes, “Australia didn’t suffer from serious consequences by saying they wouldn’t take Huawei,” China’s 5G giant. “Japan has been dealing with China from the beginning of time.” The world’s major democracies would also have the credibility to decry China’s growing repression in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, and at home—even if they could do very little to change it.

Biden will not lose his party’s left by standing up to China on human rights or even on trade; he may, however, do so by seeking to block China’s regional expansion in the South China Seas and elsewhere. “We are a Pacific power,” says Jeffrey Prescott, one of the four or five figures (along with Smith) who serve on the inner circle of Biden’s outside foreign policy advisors. The United States, Prescott says, will need to bolster its advanced radar technology and missile-defense capacity to deal with threats from North Korea as well as China. Biden, he says, will not shy away from confrontations. When China tried to stop the United States from flying through self-described “air-defense zones” in international waters, Biden told Xi, “We’re going to fly right though them.” Since then, Prescott says, China hasn’t added any new zones.

Russia, the other great authoritarian rival, poses almost no such problem. “It’s a very, very narrow list of operations where there’s scope for cooperation,” says Michael Carpenter, another former Biden national security aide who now serves on the innermost of the concentric rings— “mitigating the consequences of climate change in the Arctic, combating infectious diseases, risk reduction between our armed forces, and arms control.” That is a much shorter list than Obama Administration officials imagined for the 2009 “reset” of relations with Russia. Almost everything lies on the other side of the ledger. President Vladimir Putin’s war-by-proxy in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, his threatening posture towards Baltic and eastern European neighbors, and of course his hacking of the 2016 American presidential election make Russia an outright enemy, as it has not been since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Putin’s conviction that Western democracy poses a threat to the survival of his regime makes Russia, despite its sharply diminished capacities, more dangerous than China, at least in the short term. In a 2018 article, Biden and Carpenter wrote—as many others have—that Russia had turned corruption into a weapon of statecraft. The foremost example, of course, is the scheme hatched by Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs close to Putin to pay vast sums to Paul Manafort, Rudy Giuliani, and other Trump intimates both to destabilize Ukraine and to gain access to Trump’s inner circle. Trump, of course, gave them only encouragement.

Here, as elsewhere, both the threat and the necessary response blur the distinction between foreign and domestic policy. Biden would—who wouldn’t?—prosecute those at home who were betraying America to its enemy. Beyond that, says Carpenter, he would “root out Russia’s networks of malign influence using law enforcement and intelligence tools, strengthen cyber defenses and electoral infrastructure, pass laws to ban anonymous shell companies and provide more transparency about beneficial ownership in real-estate transactions, and work with NATO allies to build stronger deterrence and defense capabilities.” He would issue an unmistakable warning warn to Putin. “The cost-benefit calculus has to be changed,” as Carpenter puts it. In the case of Ukraine, that might include additional sanctions and stepped-up military assistance to Ukraine, including weapons.

Donald Trump’s policy towards China has been so incoherent, and his policy towards Russia so—it’s hard to avoid the word—treasonous, that almost any imaginable alternative would be preferable. Yet Biden’s plan to turn up the dial of confrontation with both, even if done ever so carefully and with the company of democratic allies, carries the very real risk of a brinksmanship that sends everyone over the brink. In the actual Cold War, both parties kept a hand on the dial steady enough—sometimes just barely—to ward off direct confrontation. In retrospect, that seems slightly miraculous. A President Biden would need to strike a delicate balance between prudence and nerve.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.