How Joe Biden can recalibrate US China policy

For the past several years, the United States and China have been locked into a steadily worsening level of contention over a wide array of issues, from military activities, trade, and technology to human rights, political values, and influence peddling.

Although the origins of this largely destructive and dangerous dynamic predate the Trump administration, it has greatly worsened under Trump, often involving demonizing rhetoric toward Beijing, exaggerated and inaccurate assessments of the threat China poses to the United States and others, and an array of punitive, sledge-hammer-like actions designed to threaten and punish China. Make no mistake, Beijing has certainly undertaken actions in recent years that justify tougher U.S. policies in several areas. But the Trump response has by and large been excessive, feckless, and largely self-defeating.

Judging by the remarks and policy positions on China emanating from President-elect Biden, his associates, and the Democratic Party, a Biden presidency will likely correct many of Trump’s most egregious mistakes in handling Beijing while still supporting the bipartisan shift that has occurred toward intensified competition with China.

Hopefully gone will be the over-the-top ideological rhetoric, the hints at regime change, the total neglect of the obvious need for cooperation with Beijing in critical areas such as climate change and pandemics, the criticizing or ignoring views on China from allies and friends, and many of the crude policy excesses that have proven so ineffective and costly on such issues as trade relations, economic and technology decoupling, human and political rights, and military interactions.

And with a more professional and coordinated policy process and a president who actually reads and absorbs intelligence briefings and expert advice, gone will be the chaos of a president who conducts policy via tweets and gyrates between glowing admiration for Xi Jinping and vitriolic condemnation of China. In short, a Biden presidency will be more balanced and professional, less ideological, somewhat more restrained toward sanctions, tariffs, and decoupling, and overall more engaged with China.

All this sounds great. But the devil is in the details, and such clearly called-for corrections by the Biden administration to Washington’s China policy will likely not fully address some other more fundamental realities regarding bilateral power relations, U.S. leverage, and America’s position in Asia. In these areas, three questions need answering: First, will a Biden administration echo Trump in referring to China as an existential threat to the United States and the global order, thus continuing to justify worst case assumptions on virtually every policy issue?

This oft-used characterization is frequently employed by both Democrats and Republicans, apparently to scare the American people into supporting bigger defense budgets and more draconian policies toward Beijing. Yet this notion is almost entirely unjustified, given the fact that China has neither the ability to defeat the U.S. militarily in a war and thereby extinguish the U.S. political system, nor the capacity to eviscerate or impoverish the democratic world via the supposed control it will exercise over the global economic system, or as a result of the supposedly irresistible attraction of its system as a model for others. And while China will likely seek to weaken the importance of liberal democratic values within some global regimes, it largely supports many aspects of the global order.

In other words, all of these fears are grossly exaggerated and inaccurate, distorting the nature of the challenge China actually poses. Will a Biden presidency realize this and define more accurately where and how China does and does not threaten the United States, and thereby justify more clearly and persuasively the need for greater restraint and pragmatism in dealing with Beijing? Or will it retain the characterization to join with many on Capitol Hill to argue for a type of competition that still prioritizes zero-sum, containment approaches in many areas over more constructive forms of engagement? 

A second critical question is: will the Biden administration recognize that the era of clear American military dominance across maritime Asia has ended and will not return in any foreseeable time frame? Both Republicans and Democrats still reflexively tout America’s military dominance and the supposed need for the United States to retain an unchallengeable level of military “freedom of action” in the Asia-Pacific right up to China’s borders. This is naïve and foolish, reflecting hubris, the poorly conceived notion that only American military predominance can sustain order and prosperity, and the delusion that the United States is financially capable of retaining such military prowess so close to China.

Like it or not, we are moving into a kind of unstable de facto balance of power in the Western Pacific between China and the United States and its allies. Such balances are by nature precarious, tempting each side to test the leverage and resolve of the other on contentious issues, such as, in this case, Taiwan and Chinese maritime disputes with U.S. allies. This instability will increase greatly the possibility of future crises and even armed clashes, especially if the Sino-U.S. political relationship continues to decline in many ways.

The Biden administration and its Asian allies need to recognize this most fundamental strategic shift and the dangers it presents and resist trying to double down in response in a fruitless effort to retain American predominance. Instead, the new administration should work closely with its allies to transition to a more defensive, denial (not control)-oriented force structure. As part of this transition, it should also persuade Japan and other Asian allies and friends to take up more of their own defense responsibilities.

And Biden should initiate, in consultation with U.S. allies, a serious strategic civil-military dialogue with Beijing dedicated not only to the formulation of more expansive and effective crisis management mechanisms, but even more importantly, to the reaching of understandings on levels of military restraint regarding Taiwan and disputes in the East and South China Seas.

A final question, derived in part from the previous one, is: will the Biden administration take a closer look at the U.S.-led “hub-and-spokes” alliance structure in Asia and relations with Asian democracies? Again, the reflexive attitude of both political parties is to repeat the usual bromide about the need to strengthen alliances and relations with democratic friends in the region. And for both parties, these undertakings are now placed almost entirely in an anti-China context, as reflected in American interpretations of alliance purposes and concepts such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Virtually no attention is given to how such relationships should be adjusted to reflect the broader range of more positive-sum economic and security interests of America’s allies and friends, including their less adversarial stance toward China. The Biden administration should start thinking about how to adjust its alliance and political relationships to facilitate more positive-sum relationships across the region, including with Beijing, in support of overall economic growth and stability. A less military-driven, more cooperative U.S. stance, in support of the above outlined stable balance, will stand a much better chance of ensuring peace and prosperity not only in Asia but also beyond than the current sets of relationships.

Meanwhile, China’s repressive policies toward Hong Kong, and especially Xinjiang, justify strong, public censure. The United States should also work to preserve and protect Uyghur culture outside China and to provide a haven for those fleeing political persecution in Hong Kong. But a Biden administration should never let its justifiable indignation toward Beijing’s human rights abuses dictate its overall stance. One need not like a regime in order to engage it constructively.

And if the Biden administration addresses these aforementioned three questions positively, it will go much further in attaining American interests with regard to China than a mere correction of the obvious excesses and incompetence of the Trump administration.  

This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.