Biden Thinks He’s Tough on China. He’s Just Complacent.
The United States—from a combination of arrogance and ignorance—is preparing to tie its own hands on China policy.
The conventional wisdom these days is that U.S. policy on China will not change when President-elect Joe Biden replaces President Donald Trump. The policy, it’s claimed, is bipartisan: Washington has woken up to the Chinese threat; a new Cold War may have already started and if not, one is inevitable sooner or later.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. There is a fundamental choice to be made on how to deal with China, and Biden is very close to picking one alternative. There’s good reason to fear it’s the wrong one.
In every China policy, two elements have to be distinguished. First, there’s the values question. There is not a lot of disagreement on this. Yes, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once said that China is a democracy or something close to a democracy, but most people know better. The regime in China is fundamentally opposed to Western values.
That Biden understands this better than Trump is not a surprise: Trump was never much interested in promoting human rights and democracy abroad, while Biden—the last of the Cold Warriors—invariably starts from there. At the tenth Democratic debate back in February, when asked if he would allow China to build critical infrastructure in the United States, Biden was much blunter on President Xi Jinping than Trump ever managed to be: “This is a guy who does not have a democratic bone in his body. This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in … concentration camps.”
That takes us to the second element: power or capacities. Here Trump had the sharper view. Perhaps as a result of his business encounters with Chinese partners and competitors, he knew more or less instinctively that China is a genuine peer competitor of the United States. Worse, he realized that China could soon leave America behind, particularly if the latter does not radically mend its ways.
For Trump, it was China’s clout in global trade and finance that impressed him most of all, but that clout has deeper roots. Whether the Chinese economy continues on the same path of fast growth or enters a period of malaise, few with knowledge of local realities will doubt its ability to master the sources of technological growth. It is precisely on this question that contemporary China has issued a serious challenge to liberal ideas. If China is able to demonstrate that Western society is not the only model capable of developing and controlling the key technologies of the future, global political competition will take place between different models and historical development will no longer follow a predetermined path.
Does Biden know this? He does not. At a campaign stop in Iowa in 2019 he famously mocked China’s power and capacities: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … They’re not competition for us.” When he later described Russia as an opponent of the United States while identifying China as a “serious competitor,” he seems to have meant that the confrontation with China happens under a framework of rules, while Russia operates outside it.
Some obvious prejudices blind him on just this point. First, the more you care about the values question, the less you are willing to accept that contemporary China can pose a genuine challenge to the American-led global order. The reasoning goes something like this: China is an evil dictatorship, and we know that only freedom can unleash the creative energies of individuals. Ergo China is backward, it may soon collapse, and we have nothing to worry about. In fact, if you think China can compete with us, there must be something wrong with you because you are in fact arguing that a dictatorship can produce positive outcomes.
One might have expected Washington to have been more aware of China’s ambitions, but so far the iron logic of great-power rivalry has been obscured by American triumphalism, itself a predictable consequence of the victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which bred the hope that the whole world might be unified under American leadership. Remember that when the Cold War started there was much doubt over whom the march of history would favor. Many prominent intellectuals regarded communism as inevitable, including some for whom this was not exactly desirable. The situation is very different today. Those who think that the West has been too soft on China do so, for the most part, because in their understanding Chinese authorities and Chinese companies have been given a free pass on whether they are subject to Western rules. That those rules must win in the end is taken as a truism.
I should add that this has been my experience every time I discuss China in Washington. People in think tanks and the State Department simply cannot accept that China is anything but an economic and political disaster waiting to happen. Some of my interlocutors get very annoyed if I suggest otherwise. Others look at me with thinly disguised suspicion. Biden and his team of advisors are part of this world. Trump was not.
What does this mean for the new China policy? Biden will quickly recover the language of human rights and numerous commentators will applaud it as a toughening up of the American policy on China. In practice, this toughening up will mean that Beijing will get a cold shoulder but little else. That seems to be the concept behind the so-called summit of democracies that Biden wants to organize—possibly in the first hundred days of his presidency. India, Japan, and South Korea would sit at the table. China would be the main topic of discussion. If you believe in the international liberal order, your tendency is to think that those not sharing the same values should be left out, isolated—not legitimized, as they say in the State Department.
As Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell put it in an essay published last year, the new policy will marshal the soft coercion of the global order: “If China hopes to enjoy equal access to this new economic community, its own economic and regulatory frameworks must meet the same standards. The combined gravitational pull of this community would present China with a choice: either curb its free-riding and start complying with trade rules, or accept less favorable terms from more than half of the global economy.” Similarly, China’s growing technological clout will require some enhanced restrictions on the flow of technology investment and trade in both directions, but these efforts should be carefully targeted to prevent permanent damage to the global liberal order. “Failing to do so,” Sullian and Campbell write, “could Balkanize the global technology ecosystem by impeding flows of knowledge and talent.”
In a second essay, this time co-authored with Hal Brands, Sullivan returns to the notion of the global order as the arena where the contest between China and the United States will be decided. Sullivan and Brands are less worried that the United States might have left its flank in the Pacific vulnerable than with the possibility that China could leap directly to the role of managing and leading the global order. Its efforts came at a time when the United States, during the Trump administration, stepped back from its traditional role as guarantor of the international order. Whoever occupies that role has the critical advantage.
But the critical point is that, according to the authors, China is not tailored for the role: “China may well be less capable of providing global public goods than the United States, both because it is less powerful and because its authoritarian political system makes it harder to exercise the comparatively enlightened, positive-sum leadership that has distinguished U.S. primacy.”
Biden will try to use the “global liberal order” against China. Trump always favored a direct clash, one taking place in a fundamentally anarchic or disordered world. For Biden, world politics still follows an organized set of values and rules. China will be asked to at least pay formal tribute to that order or then be sanctioned in accordance with the rules. Trump of course never cared much about rules. He saw them less as a tool than as an obstacle.
Biden’s approach has two obvious disadvantages. First, it is transformational rather than transactional. Its rationale is to bring about changes in either Chinese behaviour or even the Chinese regime itself. Such changes may be impossible to obtain and their pursuit utopian. Trump was more interested in bringing about changes in the relative balance of power. Despite the chaos and conflict inside the administration, the policy was able to produce some results, as evidenced by the growing difficulties of Huawei and other leading Chinese companies.
In an ideal world China would be subject to genuinely global norms. The question is what the enforcement mechanisms are. Do the United States and its allies still have the ability to bring about the necessary level of compliance with liberal norms? Indeed, the limits to American power have only grown since the Iraq invasion—the global financial crisis and the current pandemic continued the process—and seem increasingly connected to the worldwide diffusion of technological power and the growth of rival economic powers and ideological models. The age of global empires—even a liberal one—may turn out to have been strictly confined in time, dependent on imbalances of technology and knowledge of an inexorably transitory character.
Second, why should you want to tie your own hands? Yes, global liberal order can sometimes be used as a tool to project American power, but it does nonetheless impose constraints on the United States. For example, the outright ban on a Chinese company might be regarded as incompatible with the upholding of certain rules and principles. Forms of economic coercion against allies might be excluded, but without them the United States might not be able to force those allies to reduce economic links with China. Trump did not prima facie exclude any method or tactic, because the contest did not take place under a normative order.
In Beijing, the change will be very much welcome. In fact, it is already being enthused. Just as the new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan explained in his first public comments about how the new administration will reimagine national security—his list of threats included racial inequality and climate change but not China—an influential Chinese strategist took to the pages of the New York Times to argue that the two countries can both compete and cooperate. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment as climate envoy was especially applauded by the foreign-policy blob in Beijing. It shows that Washington will be desperate for China’s cooperation on the issue and less able to continue a strategy of active confrontation.
If there is something Chinese strategists regret it is the end of “hide your strength, bide your time,” the guiding philosophy of Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy. According to Deng, what China needed was to be left alone, as it grew stronger both politically and economically, in preparation of the time when it could actively challenge America in each and every dimension of global power. In his 2002 report to the National Congress, General Secretary Jiang Zemin foresaw a “20-year period of strategic opportunity,” during which China would benefit from good relations with the United States, allowing it to concentrate on economic growth and full-scale modernization.” The period was cut short by a few, critical years. Beijing will now be offered a reprieve. “Biden your time.” Not even Deng could have come up with that one.