Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Biden’s Dangerous Doctrine

The administration’s core foreign policy is all about confronting China—and far riskier than Washington seems to realize.

By , a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden views an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing.
Joe Biden views an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Six months into U.S. President Joe Biden’s term, the race is already on to identify a Biden Doctrine: an organizing principle that can explain the president’s overarching foreign policy. In the last few weeks, several pundits have zeroed in on the global contest between democracies and autocracies—and, more specifically, on America’s intensifying showdown with China. As Hal Brands, Thomas Wright, and others have rightly pointed out, only that struggle can explain and link together the administration’s various foreign-policy moves and pronouncements: its emphasis on serving the U.S. middle class, on cooperation among democracies, on defending human rights, on boosting U.S. competitiveness through investment in infrastructure and research and development, and on trade protectionism and industrial policy.

Biden’s choice of target is no surprise. China is the closest thing to a peer competitor the United States has faced in 30 years. It’s led by an increasingly abusive, aggressive, and tyrannical regime. China’s actions, in manufacturing, technology, trade, or cybersecurity, directly affect millions of Americans every day, in a way you can’t say about Russia or any other country. So Biden’s decision to confront Beijing and make that confrontation central to his foreign policy makes political sense.

Whether it makes strategic sense, however—especially given the provocative way he’s going about it—is far less clear. U.S.-China relations are already at their worst point in decades, and the administration’s strikingly confrontational approach is likely to make things worse, while damaging other U.S. interests in the process. As it reveals itself, the nascent Biden Doctrine is turning out to be far more dangerous than most analysts—or the administration—seem to appreciate.

Six months into U.S. President Joe Biden’s term, the race is already on to identify a Biden Doctrine: an organizing principle that can explain the president’s overarching foreign policy. In the last few weeks, several pundits have zeroed in on the global contest between democracies and autocracies—and, more specifically, on America’s intensifying showdown with China. As Hal Brands, Thomas Wright, and others have rightly pointed out, only that struggle can explain and link together the administration’s various foreign-policy moves and pronouncements: its emphasis on serving the U.S. middle class, on cooperation among democracies, on defending human rights, on boosting U.S. competitiveness through investment in infrastructure and research and development, and on trade protectionism and industrial policy.

Biden’s choice of target is no surprise. China is the closest thing to a peer competitor the United States has faced in 30 years. It’s led by an increasingly abusive, aggressive, and tyrannical regime. China’s actions, in manufacturing, technology, trade, or cybersecurity, directly affect millions of Americans every day, in a way you can’t say about Russia or any other country. So Biden’s decision to confront Beijing and make that confrontation central to his foreign policy makes political sense.

Whether it makes strategic sense, however—especially given the provocative way he’s going about it—is far less clear. U.S.-China relations are already at their worst point in decades, and the administration’s strikingly confrontational approach is likely to make things worse, while damaging other U.S. interests in the process. As it reveals itself, the nascent Biden Doctrine is turning out to be far more dangerous than most analysts—or the administration—seem to appreciate.


One of the most interesting things about Biden’s tough stance toward China is how few experts anticipated it. Just as most analysts expected his domestic policies to be modest—to gently steer the country back to fact-based, civil-minded normalcy—they also predicted that his stance toward China would be similarly mild and pragmatic. Biden has never been a foreign-policy ideologue or a hawk, and as a candidate, he emphasized the need for cooperation between the two states while scoffing at the idea that, unless the United States acted fast, China was going to “eat our lunch.”

It therefore came as a shock when, soon after taking office, his administration launched an aggressive, full-spectrum face-off with Beijing. What exactly changed Biden’s mind—why he went from favoring cooperation to confrontation—remains unknown. (White House reporters take note.) Whatever the answer, though, President Biden clearly views China differently than candidate—or Vice President, or Senator—Biden did.

For evidence, consider how his language has shifted since taking office. In March, the man who only two years ago was playing down the threat posed by China pledged that on his watch, China would never “become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Such combative language has been echoed by key members of his administration: In May, for example, Kurt Campbell (the top China official on the National Security Council) declared that the period of “engagement [with Beijing] has come to an end.”

The administration has backed up its tough talk with action. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan flew to Alaska for the administration’s first high-level meeting with China. And they went loaded for bear. When the meeting opened, rather than trade empty statements or diplomatic niceties, the two openly rebuked their Chinese counterparts, accusing Beijing of “threaten[ing] the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” That same month, in its annual human rights report, the State Department for the first time formally charged China with committing genocide in its Xinjiang region.

Throughout the first half of the year, the Biden administration has also used every opportunity—such as the G-7 summit and meetings of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—to press its allies to rally around it in the struggle. Such efforts have led, among other things, to the announcement of a developing-world infrastructure investment program meant to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a plan to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy by distributing nearly 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, and, on Monday, to NATO’s denunciation of China’s cybercrimes.

Biden’s anti-China moves in the economic sphere have been even more aggressive. Since taking office, his administration has maintained former President Donald Trump’s trade sanctions against Beijing. It has worked with the Senate to pass a massive, quarter-trillion-dollar industrial policy bill aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness. It has launched a Buy American campaign that cuts foreign firms out of the extremely lucrative U.S. government procurement market. It has worked to block Chinese acquisitions and investments inside the United States and to keep Chinese students and researchers out of the country. And on June 17, Biden signed an executive order banning Americans from investing in Chinese companies linked to the military or to surveillance technology.


These diplomatic and economic moves all share same the objective: to counter China’s growing international influence, bolster America’s standing and resilience, and prevent Beijing from taking advantage of U.S. trade policy, as it purportedly has in the past. The White House is also betting that its pushback will help it politically, inoculating it against Republican attacks and currying favor with American voters. That bet may well pay off; as Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, “60 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the People’s Republic, a record high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 2005.”

Even if it does score him points at the polls, however, Biden’s confrontational approach toward China seems unlikely to accomplish its other goals; indeed, short-term politics aside, much of the administration’s anti-China campaign could easily fail or backfire.

The problems start with the fact that many of the initiatives will require support from allies at home and abroad—support that will be hard to muster. Progressives within the Democratic Party already oppose many of Biden’s confrontational tactics. In June, for example, Sen. Bernie Sanders published an essay warning of the perils of a new Cold War; a few weeks later, more than 40 progressive organizations urged the president to drop his “antagonistic posture” toward China. European governments, meanwhile, are also unenthusiastic about Washington’s attempts to hem in Beijing; both France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, to name two skeptics, recently voiced their support for a new European Union-China investment deal the United States opposes. While the United States did secure rhetorical commitments to get tough from NATO, the G-7, and the Quad, collective language is relatively easy to obtain; getting collective action is much, much harder.

Even if the administration can keep its allies on board, meanwhile, many of its recent moves risk making the world more, not less, dangerous for the United States. Start with Biden’s economic policies. His administration assumes that cutting China off from U.S. markets will weaken the country and curb its bad behavior. But severing America’s economic ties to China is more likely to reduce U.S. influence over the country, as an isolated Beijing will have less to lose by acting out.

As Adam Posen, the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argues, this dynamic is easiest to see in the financial sphere. “Right now, almost everything in the world runs through U.S. financial systems,” he said. “This gives the United States enormous power to impose sanctions. But if you abuse that power, you increase the incentive for people to go around it. If the Chinese are thrown out of U.S. systems—and this also applies to IT and trade in certain commodities and goods—you ensure that when there’s a crunch, you can’t clamp down on them.” Meanwhile, “as long as China had economic interests in the United States, they had strong incentives not to anger us. But by reducing those incentives, we’ve diminished our control over their behavior.”

The dangers are even greater on the strategic side. While Biden has pledged to keep cooperating with China where useful, the administration’s combative stance has alienated Beijing—thereby lowering its already limited willingness to collaborate on key global issues such as climate, arms control, and preventing future pandemics.

Building up bad blood between the two sides also makes armed conflict harder to avoid. Perhaps the greatest danger is that an accidental clash—over Taiwan (where increasing naval and air activity by both sides has already inflamed tensions) or anywhere else that Chinese and U.S. forces come into proximity—could spiral out of control. In 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and was forced to land on Hainan Island, the George W. Bush administration was able to negotiate the safe return of its crew and, eventually, of the plane itself (albeit in pieces). Managing something similar today, while avoiding a military escalation, would be much more difficult.

The academics Thomas Pepinsky and Jessica Chen Weiss point out another risk with the highly normative way the Biden administration has framed its approach to China. By encouraging Beijing to see the conflict in ideological terms, as a clash between democratic and autocratic systems, the United States is encouraging China to try to weaken the other side—including through Russia-style election interference, something Beijing has largely refrained from thus far. Framing U.S.-China relations as an ideological conflict may also encourage Beijing to opt out of the Western-led international system; as Zakaria argues, unless China is “given a place at the table and genuinely integrated into the structures of decision-making … it will freelance and unilaterally create its own new structures and systems.”

Finally, Washington’s intense hyping of the threat Beijing poses risks obscuring incipient signs of its adversary’s weakness. In recent years, China has suffered an erosion of its meritocratic government under the loyalty-obsessed leadership of Xi Jinping, experienced an increase of factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party, suffered a sharp rise in inequality, and been forced to confront increasingly dire demographic and financial difficulties. These will all likely produce major problems for China in the near future—problems the Biden administration could fail to notice (and capitalize on) if it remains fixated on China as an all-powerful civilizational antagonist.

Besides that, if the United States really sees its struggle against China as a fundamental contest between two warring systems, the best way to win that war would be by increasing U.S. competitiveness and ensuring the American model can deliver at home. As Sanders put it in his June essay, “if democracy is going to win out, it will do so not on a traditional battlefield but by demonstrating that democracy can actually deliver a better quality of life for people than authoritarianism can.”

All signs suggest that the administration—which has made remarkable efforts to reform American society and the economy since taking office—gets this. While it can and should continue to push back against China’s bad behavior abroad, however, it would be better served by doing so less loudly and by toning down its ideological rhetoric—as well as by abandoning its attempts to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies.

Making such changes might mean giving up on some of the short-term political gains Biden could earn through his current, red-toothed approach. But if, in the process, those changes also lower the risk of a disastrous armed conflict, avoid undermining U.S. economic influence over China, and reassure U.S. allies by allowing them to avoid having to openly choose sides—something countries from Germany to Japan are determined to evade—the trade-off will be worth it.

Of course, this more nuanced approach would also make life harder for pundits, as defining a clear Biden Doctrine would get a lot more challenging. But the world is a messy, complicated place—and so good policy should be too. Even if that makes it harder for analysts to neatly parse.

Jonathan Tepperman is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy and the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

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