Review

Cleaning Up the Mess of Post-Trump China Strategy

A new book points to how best to handle alienated allies in a growing struggle.

By , the China affairs analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (left) and then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (left) and then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at a meeting in Los Angeles on Feb. 16, 2012. Jay L. Clendenin-Pool/Getty Images

In late 2017, I studied abroad at a Chinese think tank, the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), while enrolled as a master’s candidate at Texas A&M University. At SIIS, Chinese professors often reiterated talking points that the Chinese Communist Party held as dogma.

Midway through my time at SIIS, U.S. President Donald Trump visited Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. During that visit, Trump showed Xi a video of his granddaughter Arabella Kushner singing a song in Mandarin to signify a new U.S.-China relationship. The professor for my “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” class declared this meeting and Arabella’s performance to be a fine example of how promising U.S.-China relations would be during the Trump presidency.

The subtext was that Trump and his administration would provide China the strategic opening it needed to make headway on core interests like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and others without interference from a turbulent U.S. administration. Even though I tried to explain to my professor that the Trump administration had many hawks who dominated its China policies, he and my Chinese classmates seemed to believe that the administration would provide China with the strategic opportunity it has long wanted. It was a common view among the Chinese elite, who knew little of Trump or American politics. They were soon to be disappointed.

In late 2017, I studied abroad at a Chinese think tank, the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), while enrolled as a master’s candidate at Texas A&M University. At SIIS, Chinese professors often reiterated talking points that the Chinese Communist Party held as dogma.

Midway through my time at SIIS, U.S. President Donald Trump visited Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. During that visit, Trump showed Xi a video of his granddaughter Arabella Kushner singing a song in Mandarin to signify a new U.S.-China relationship. The professor for my “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” class declared this meeting and Arabella’s performance to be a fine example of how promising U.S.-China relations would be during the Trump presidency.

From Trump to Biden and Beyond: Reimagining US-China Relations, Earl A. Carr Jr. (editor), Palgrave Macmillan, 187 pp., .99, September 2021

From Trump to Biden and Beyond: Reimagining US-China Relations, Earl A. Carr Jr. (editor), Palgrave Macmillan, 187 pp., $59.99, September 2021

The subtext was that Trump and his administration would provide China the strategic opening it needed to make headway on core interests like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and others without interference from a turbulent U.S. administration. Even though I tried to explain to my professor that the Trump administration had many hawks who dominated its China policies, he and my Chinese classmates seemed to believe that the administration would provide China with the strategic opportunity it has long wanted. It was a common view among the Chinese elite, who knew little of Trump or American politics. They were soon to be disappointed.

The turbulence of the Trump administration’s China policies is captured in From Trump to Biden and Beyond: Reimagining US-China Relations. This new book contains insights from more than a dozen scholars and practitioners, including Ricardo Barrios, Winslow Robertson, Owakhela Kankhwende, Yaser Faheem, Asad Hussaini, Jeeho Bae, Junya Ishii, and many more.

They address how relations between the two countries changed drastically under Trump’s tenure, setting the stage for a new normal under the administration of his successor. For example, the Biden administration has continued the deepening of ties between the United States and Taiwan as well as hawkish trade policies toward China. The key difference between the two administrations is President Joe Biden’s willingness to bring allies along.

At its core, this book lays out dozens of recommendations on how the United States can overcome problems at home by utilizing strategic advantages—the same idea promoted in the Biden administration’s recent shift from the Trump-era term of “great-power competition” with China to “strategic competition.” (The language, as with many Washington policy debates, is not particularly transparent, but the administration’s priorities have been laid out in documents.)

The overarching theme of these recommendations is how the new administration can build relations with other countries and regions to serve U.S. interests better—and compete with China where necessary. There are increasing tensions, which have come to the fore in countries such as Portugal that are caught between the United States as a security guarantor or partner of choice and China’s growing role as an economic opportunity for U.S. allies and partners alike. Expounding on this tension is makes From Trump to Biden and Beyond a timely read for policymakers who want to confront China through working with like-minded partners and allies.

The first regional relationship addressed is Latin America and the Caribbean, which under the Trump administration started playing a more prominent role in Chinese overseas economic investment. According to Barrios, Chinese flagship investment vehicles such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank gained traction in the region due to their ability to address Latin American and Caribbean countries’ leading sectors and necessities such as extractives and agriculture. Conversely, the Trump administration failed to provide proper incentives to these countries to curb growing Chinese influence.

While European and Indo-Pacific leaders have often looked to the United States as an alternative to China, despite sometimes rocky relations, Latin American and Caribbean countries, targeted by Trumpian rhetoric and wary of the U.S. history in the region, have been far more reluctant to engage with Washington. China has thus been able to create a significant presence, especially in the telecommunications sector. To counteract this, Barrios recommends that the Biden administration foster the growth of China specialists in the Americas and work in concert with extraregional allies and partners on humanitarian aid, infrastructure, and other issues.

Africa has similar problems. Robertson and Kankhwende recommend that the Biden administration reimagine the partnership framework and go beyond simply reversing Trump’s actions such as barely engaging with the continent at all. As China has made inroads with African countries via the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and Xi’s direct engagement with his regional counterparts, the United States must also signal the importance of African countries.

This can be quickly done by Biden himself reaching out to African leaders one on one, as Xi and other Chinese leaders have done, and especially by offering the kind of personal meetings in Washington that African heads of state and government receive in Beijing. Sending U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior officials is good, but African leaders can also feel fobbed off if they don’t get to see Biden himself. Another recommendation is meeting COVID-19 vaccination donation commitments and encouraging allies to do the same—which would offer a significant return for a small investment.

Similarly, Faheem and Hussaini argue that more Belt and Road projects across the Middle East illustrate growing Chinese influence by relying on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s two most prominent members, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For China, this requires a delicate balancing act. Since Washington is their primary security guarantor, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have leaned on the United States to counter Iran—and, while they’re keen to work economically with Beijing, they see little prospect of similar Chinese military aid.

Chinese investment is also making U.S. relationships tougher. For example, the Trump administration openly criticized Israel for receiving investment from China in the port of Haifa, threatening to block future U.S. Navy port calls. The tension between the United States’ role as a security guarantor and China’s as an economic opportunity is a familiar one—especially in East Asia itself. There, according to Bae, South Korea is a bellwether for the broader Indo-Pacific region, as it is deeply dependent on China for its economic prosperity—but at the same time has a public increasingly hostile to China and has committed to U.S. projects such as missile defense systems despite Beijing’s threats and retaliatory moves. This unfolded against the backdrop of the Trump administration demanding more funding for the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. The Biden administration can build on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement by seeking more cooperation in technology, especially as semiconductors become more critical to the global economy.

Finally, Ishii argues that East Asia’s key role in technology and supply chains is another theme of the recommendations. The utility of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Japan, India, Australia, and the United States, known as the Quad, can be expanded by the United States encouraging and allowing Japan to play a leading role in Indo-Pacific cooperation. Japan taking on a more significant role in the region is fitting given that one of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign-policy pillars was the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, which the Trump administration adopted. However, the Biden administration will need to navigate increased tensions between Japan and South Korea over Japan’s leadership role as a democracy in the Indo-Pacific, especially considering the Quad, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Japan’s desire to join the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.

Though this book provides a good overview of the transition from the Trump to Biden administrations on China policy, it lacks many voices from Chinese international relations academics and practitioners themselves when discussing China’s relationships with the regions and countries mentioned. By not including more Chinese voices and perspectives, much of the book’s discussion on China’s perceptions and goals toward the United States seems indirect and assumed. Finding common ground with China on key issues is important, but more discussions on the Chinese perspectives of this and how they interpret the nuts and bolts of finding common ground would provide more understanding as to where this is feasible.

In conclusion, From Trump to Biden and Beyond shows how deep the breach in U.S.-China relations has become since 2016. Whatever role Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies played, the structural issues pushing the United States and China to a more competitive relationship are shifting the relationship regardless of the White House occupant. This book provides policymakers with a hefty list of recommendations by framing the U.S.-China relationship and its effects on other world regions through the tension between the U.S. security guarantor role and China’s economic opportunity. From Trump to Biden and Beyond seeks to find common ground with China while pushing back against Beijing when and where necessary.

Bryce C. Barros is the China affairs analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United StatesAlliance for Securing Democracy and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Truman National Security Project, Alliance for Securing Democracy, or the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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