Argument

Trump Got China All Wrong. Now Biden Is Too.

Confrontation may be popular at home, but it won’t make the United States more prosperous or secure.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a meeting with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping at Beijing Hotel in Beijing, on Aug. 19, 2011.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a meeting with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping at Beijing Hotel in Beijing, on Aug. 19, 2011. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Of all the Trump administration’s many foreign-policy missteps, its confrontational stance on China was perhaps the most ungainly. Spurts of negotiation on trade and intellectual property were followed by escalating tariffs on Chinese imports that were paid by U.S. companies. These provoked retaliatory Chinese actions that necessitated tens of billions of dollars of aid to U.S farmers decimated by the collapse of Chinese agricultural purchases. Tough talk by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, about Chinese human rights transgressions fell with a thud because of Trump’s inability to muster international support. His threats were made even more toothless by the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Even if one agreed that the United States needed to stand up to China on some issues, Trump’s approach only succeeded in increasing animosity and reducing Chinese investment and purchases from the United States. It changed the basic parameters of the two countries’ relationship not a whit. The trade deficit remained astronomical (not necessarily a bad thing but which Trump cited as a reason for his policies), factories remained offshore, there was no end to China’s human rights violations, and China’s influence increased globally.

Now, U.S. President Joe Biden appears to be adopting large swaths of Trump’s policies and even many of the former president’s basic presumptions, namely that China is the United States’ main adversary and that even though there are many areas of mutual interest and cooperation between the two, competition is the hallmark of an increasingly tense relationship.

Those ideas were wrong under Trump. They remain so under Biden.

The tense meeting last week between senior U.S. and Chinese foreign-policy officials in Anchorage, Alaska, made for a juicy news story. Headlines ranged from “‘Tough’ U.S.-China talks signal rocky start to relations under Biden” to “Bitter Alaska Meeting Complicates Already Shaky U.S.-China Ties.” And the public and apparently impromptu back-and-forth between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi was indeed notably candid. Blinken said China’s actions on multiple fronts, from treatment of the Uyghurs to suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” Yang shot back that the U.S. government “abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges and incite some countries to attack China.” It reeks of hypocrisy, he continued, for the United States to criticize China on human rights given U.S. racism against Black and Asian Americans.

In the rest of the talks, the newly minted Biden administration reaffirmed the Trump administration’s aggressive policies of treating China as the main adversary of the United States. Hostility was evident, and there was little mention of a next round of trade deals or lifting the tariffs currently placed on Chinese imports by the U.S. government. In fact, the meeting was both preceded and followed by announcements of more U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights violations in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

To be fair to the Biden team, a confrontational stance toward China enjoys broad public support. The idea that China is a rising adversary that threatens the long-term position of the United States and potentially the global order is widespread. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly half of all U.S. citizens see China as their country’s greatest enemy, nearly double the rate of last year’s. What’s more, a majority of people believe China is an economic threat to the United States and to the future well-being of individual Americans. Although good polling data is hard to come by in China, social media posts and assorted other ways of gauging opinion make it fair to say that many in China share similarly hostile views of the United States.

The fact, however, that popular opinion sees China as a threat does not mean that policy should be determined on that basis. Public opinion is notably fickle and variable on foreign-policy issues, and it depends greatly on how officials and the media frame them. Most Americans in 1959 were convinced there was a missile gap with the Soviet Union that imperiled the United States because that’s what they heard every day. But there wasn’t one, and public opinion was a derivative of public messaging, not vice versa. Today, the sense that China represents a threat is deep but also inchoate.

During the heat of the Cold War, there was a legitimate—albeit overblown—fear that a world of communist states would hobble the United States economically. Today, a parallel fear of a rising power with a domestic ideology at odds with Western liberal democracy makes far less sense: China is a capitalist autocracy that has shown no interest in globalizing its particular form of communism. Its domestic market has vastly enriched U.S. and multinational companies. That is even with its rampant intellectual property violations, much of which is in the past now that Chinese companies have their own domestic intellectual property in 5G and artificial intelligence. The rise of China has created an economic boom for the United States and other more developed economies, ranging from Japan to Thailand to Germany, even if its rise has accelerated the transition of the United States away from being a lower-end manufacturing powerhouse.

It’s also not clear if China’s aggression in East Asia “threatens the rules-based global order” or if it simply threatens the U.S. position as hegemon of global order. Those may be one and the same from a traditional Washington-strategic perspective, but that doesn’t mean that they are, in fact, identical

Even if one believes that China is a profound threat, the tactics deployed by Trump and now the Biden administration are woefully not up to the task of forcing Beijing to reconsider its behavior. China is sufficiently powerful that tactics, which once might have had teeth, are now ineffective. Sanctioning a few dozen Chinese officials for human rights abuses will do nothing to alter Beijing’s behavior in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, and tariffs have caused sufficient pain to be effectively coercive. Lecturing will be met by lecturing. The United States has never had to confront an economic and military power that it cannot coerce easily nor confront directly; the sheer economic interdependence of today’s world makes a Cold War-era showdown an almost unusable two-edged sword.

The result is that by continuing a domestically popular aggressive stance, the Biden administration has squandered a chance to map out a realistic strategy for a completely new competitor in a post-pandemic world. Toughness in the face of China may be good domestic politics, but it is still bad policy if the goal is enhancing U.S. economic power and global security. The Trump administration failed to achieve any of its goals; the sooner the Biden administration charts a new course, the better.

Correction, March 25, 2021: Yang Jiechi is a top diplomat in China. A previous version misstated his current title.

Zachary Karabell is the author of Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power.

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