Beware the China Reset

Biden shouldn’t be tempted by business as usual with Beijing.

Joe Biden and his granddaughter in Beijing
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden, center, share a light moment in a tea house in Beijing on Dec. 5, 2013. Andy Wong/Pool/Getty Images

If he is elected as U.S. president in November, Joe Biden will come under intense pressure to seek a reset in relations with China, of the kind that President Barack Obama once sought to extend to Russia. Yielding to this pressure would be a serious mistake. Despite its excesses and omissions, the Trump administration has done the right thing by beginning to push back against Beijing. Biden should build on what he inherits, keeping the good policies, discarding the bad, and eliminating the ugliness that has marred Donald Trump’s presidency and damaged the nation’s ability to meet its greatest strategic challenge.

The list of those lobbying for an easing of tensions will be long. In the business world it will likely include U.S. semiconductor manufacturers anxious about the impact of new export controls, financial firms hoping to manage the money of millions of new Chinese investors if Beijing continues to open its market, farmers looking to resume sales of soybeans, and manufacturers whose costs have risen due to Trump’s tariffs on imported materials and components. Professional China watchers, largely ignored by the Trump administration, will be eager to make their voices heard again, especially those who already blame the White House for causing the sharp downturn in relations by “treat[ing] China as an enemy.”

When last in power, the Democrats failed to respond effectively to China’s mounting aggression in the South China Sea, its efforts to extend its influence in the developing world via the Belt and Road Initiative, or its plans to dominate the world’s next-generation 5G telecommunications networks. Some members of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment are now talking tough on China, and they may be prepared to follow through. But they will face opposition from progressives who want to cut defense spending and prioritize cooperation with China on climate change and other global issues

For its part, Beijing would be smart to extend an initial olive branch to a new administration, perhaps offering to work together to achieve what Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to in a recent speech as a “green recovery” from the global economic crisis prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Xi and his colleagues clearly believe that a corner has been turned and a new era of increasingly intense and open rivalry is already underway. Still, a temporary relaxation in tensions could help to lull the United States and its allies into a false sense of security, giving Beijing more time to tilt the Asian military balance in its favor, build positions of strength in the developing world, and reduce its dependence on Western markets and technology. Beijing’s unceasing efforts to gain economic, diplomatic, and military advantage would likely eventually force a Biden administration to face reality and respond—but valuable time will have been lost.

Instead of giving Beijing the breathing space it seeks, a new administration—if elected—should press ahead on three fronts opened by its predecessor:

Trump’s strategists correctly identified China as the No. 1 threat to the nation’s security, and started to shift the primary focus of the armed forces and the intelligence community away from counterinsurgency and terrorism back toward the more strenuous demands of great-power competition. The next administration needs to double down on this effort, funding it properly despite post-pandemic budget constraints.

The last four years have seen a series of belated but much-needed initiatives designed to constrict China’s access to U.S. technology and data, including tighter export controls and procurement regulations, closer scrutiny of foreign investment and talent recruitment programs, and a crackdown on scientific and industrial espionage.

The Trump administration has also broken important ground by calling out Beijing’s pervasive political influence operations, namely its use of money, front organizations, and other intermediaries to try to exploit the openness of American society, exercise coercive power over the Chinese diaspora, and shape the perceptions and policy preferences of the nation’s political and business elites.

Taking these sound policies as a foundation, a Biden presidency would also have the opportunity to correct some of its predecessor’s most egregious errors. 

While it did help heighten awareness of the problems posed by China’s market-distorting trade and industrial policies, Trump’s trade war ultimately failed to compel Beijing to abandon them. In order to sustain domestic support for a continued pressure campaign, the next administration needs to negotiate at least a partial cease-fire, one that would cut tariffs on agricultural goods and some consumer products.

A new president will find it easier to mobilize collective action against China on trade, technology, and other issues if he can refrain from insulting America’s democratic allies, openly disrespecting their elected leaders, threatening them with tariffs, accusing them of free-riding, and raising doubts about the long-term reliability of American security guarantees. A president free from the ugly taint of racism can confront the Chinese Communist Party without being accused of harboring animus against the Chinese people. And a president who does not feel moved to sing the praises of autocratic rulers but can instead speak credibly about the superior virtues of liberal democracy will also be better able to mobilize the American people, rally a coalition of like-minded states, and put Beijing on the ideological defensive.

Trump deserves credit for presiding over an administration that finally, fully accepted the reality of the challenge posed by China and began to implement some of the policies that will be needed in order to meet it. But Trump’s protectionist, isolationist impulses, corrosive and divisive leadership, and contempt for democratic principles have weakened the nation from within and render him uniquely ill-suited to lead it forward. If he wins, Joe Biden should reject the idea of a reset and pick up where Trump left off.

Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987, and co-director of the School of Public and International Affairs' Center for International Security Studies.

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