This piece was co-authored by Zachary Durkee (UCLA ’21) and Corrado Chirico (European University Viadrina ’20)
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, American perceptions of China have hit record lows. A recent pew research poll indicated that around 73 percent of Americans now view China unfavorably. Much of the current bitterness can be traced to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency during the early days and weeks of the outbreak in 2019. This discontent, of course, falls against the backdrop of widening concerns over China’s broader military, economic, and political rise, as well as international outrage over the government’s ruthless repression of the country’s Uighur Muslim population and crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Unsurprising, the China question became a potent topic throughout the 2020 Presidential campaign season, with both candidates making extensive effort in debates and ads to paint their opponent as being weak and incapable of effectively taking on China. President Trump sought to cast himself as a Washington outsider who broke up a decades-long “love affair” with the country, which he has consistently argued is an unequal relationship that has enriched the few at the cost of the many and left the United States weaker in the process. To Trump, “China took us for suckers.” While on the offensive, the Trump campaign unleashed a barrage of attacks on Joe Biden with the aim of painting him as the vanguard of this pro-China status quo. One such campaign ad captured the President’s approach perfectly: “For 40 years Joe Biden has been wrong about China.”
The statement implies that President Biden belongs to a generation of American leaders who have been guided by idealistic delusions of world politics and, as such, were naive about what the rise of China meant for the United States. In some cases, American politicians and policymakers deliberately assisted China’s economic rise throughout the late-20th and early 21st centuries. Trade barriers were broken down and American investment within the country flooded in. China’s swift integration into the global economy, coupled with various phases of economic and political reforms, resulted in an unprecedented economic boom that lasted decades. From 1980 to 2015, China’s GDP grew from $300 billion to over $11 trillion.
Much of the United States’ initial embrace of China’s rise can be traced to the dissolvement and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Autocracy appeared to be in retreat, democracy on the rise, and the United States was left standing in the prime strategic position of having no peer competitor capable of challenging the country’s global primacy. This “unipolar moment” left the United States unshackled from the rigid dogma of Cold War containment policy, leaving it free to pursue a new approach to global affairs. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that the world had reached the “end of history,” in which he asserted that economic and political liberalism had achieved an “unabashed victory” over all other relevant competing ideologies. One year later, President George H.W. Bush laid out his vision of a “new world order.” America would shape the era to be “freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace.”
With the Cold War over, reshaping the world in this image meant expanding the U.S.-led liberal international order to the fullest extent possible. Leaders such as Joe Biden stood as ardent supporters of strengthening international institutions, advancing the causes of globalization and interdependence, and working to spread democracy around the globe. The combination of these three, so the argument went, would enhance cooperation between states, vastly raise the cost of war, and limit the prospects of conflict as the world became increasingly populated with friendly, liberal democracies, which are theorized to never go to war against one another.
Another aspect of this school of thought rested on the notion that economic liberalism would catalyze democratic reform in authoritarian countries like China. It was believed that the forces of globalization, privatization, and the rise of a rights-demanding middle-class would eventually force the Chinese Communist Party to initiate substantive democratic reforms. These assumptions sharply contrasted with realist visions of power and world politics, which emphasizes the anarchic nature of the international system and argues that the size of a country’s population and economy serves as the foundation for military power. As such, it would be unsurprising to a realist that a country possessing such a high degree of latent power would not construct a world-class military and ultimately seek regional hegemony in a world deficient in trust. As world-renowned realist scholar John J. Mearsheimer wrote two decades ago, “If China becomes an economic powerhouse it will almost certainly translate its economic might into military might and make a run at dominating Northeast Asia.”
With the Cold War over and optimism running high, this more pessimistic take on international relations lost its ear in Washington. Rather than fear and attempt to constrain China’s rise, policymakers and politicians believed that building robust economic ties with the reform-oriented country would mitigate the danger of security competition and conflict, rather than compound it. The basic assumption was that enmeshing China in international institutions and opening up its market to global trade would eventually give rise to forces that would help liberalize its political system and eventually turn China into a cooperative, friendly democracy. With these positive developments, China would then become a responsible stakeholder and partner in the American-led international order.
This hope and belief (most fiercely championed by the Clinton administration) largely persisted through two successive administrations, albeit Obama began showing more wariness towards the country by his second term. Even in 2011, then Vice President Joe Biden was quoted saying:
“And on that trip when we met with then Vice Premier Deng and witnessed the changes that were being initiated, beginning to spark China’s remarkable — absolutely remarkable transformation, even back then it was clear that there was — that great things were happening. And there was also a debate — there was a debate here in the United States and quite frankly throughout most of the West as whether a rising China was in the interest of the United States and the wider world. As a young member of a Foreign Relations Committee, I wrote and I said and I believed then what I believe now: That a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”
It is safe to say that such optimism has faded away. Mearsheimer’s pessimistic prediction from two decades ago has become reality. The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS 2017) does not refer to China’s rise as a positive development, but instead frames it as a core threat to America’s national security and interest. It speaks less of pursuing any kind of “new world order” and more of a need to reposition American grand strategy for an era of “great power competition.” The growing challenge presented by China’s rise is a development that reached far beyond the Trump administration and is one of the few big issues in American politics that both parties seem to agree on.
Regardless of President Biden’s past assessments, he and his administration face a China that does not resemble a state moving towards democratic rule to the slightest degree. The country is instead an authoritarian revisionist power that champions its state-led capitalist system and exploits the power of advanced technologies to surveil its citizenry. These are the realities that President Biden will have to contend with, leaving fears of a return to any status quo largely misplaced.
So where does this leave US-China relations?
As if the public health, economic, and social crises weren’t daunting enough, President Biden will face the pivotal task of forging, or at least setting the groundwork for, a coherent and long term China policy that enables the United States to check China’s hegemonic ambitions while also pursuing cooperation on critical transnational issues like nuclear security and climate change.
Although the new administration will certainly seek to lower the temperature in its approach to Beijing and is expected to act in a diametrically opposed way to their predecessors on most issues, not every measure taken during the previous presidency will be discarded. In fact, there’s a number of dossiers which will most certainly continue to require a determined and persistent approach in order to be dealt with effectively.
Chief among this is the trade question. In an exhaustive piece published on Foreign Affairs earlier last year, then-candidate Joe Biden made the case for a renewed U.S. leadership on the World Stage, including “getting tougher” on China in reaction to its unfair trade practices whose impact on the American economy has been significant. While a candidate’s rhetoric and stances over the course of a presidential campaign eventually become milder once he or she takes office, the new administration may carry forward – mutatis mutandis – the course initiated under Trump’s tenure with regard to US-China trade.
Signs of continuity emerged during the confirmation hearings of some of Joe Biden´s nominees, most notably Secretary-designate Antony J. Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who both stressed the importance of a resolute approach to China, recognizing that the previous administration might have gotten this specific issue correct. Despite the damage inflicted by the trade war on the American economy (0.3% of its real GDP and 300,000 jobs lost), the tariffs imposed by the Trump Administration could prove to be useful leverage in further negotiations. Furthermore, given the significant impact of outsourcing on the so-called American rust-belt, trying to economically revitalize those regions will be fundamental in Biden’s effort to unite the country and offer an actual perspective to those who have seen their manufacturing jobs wander abroad.
The new administration will also face a similar task with regard to technology, more precisely the ongoing technological decoupling from China. As it touches core U.S. national interests, this matter constitutes one of the most pressing challenges President Biden will face. As he has stressed before, losing ground to China in terms of technological advancement could turn out to be lethal for the United States. Countering Beijing’s 5G “offensive” through the tech giant Huawei will logically rank very high in the new administration’s priorities.
Whereas the Biden Administration is likely to adopt some of Donald Trump’s policies in the fields mentioned above, the overall strategy and priorities will be noticeably different. The imperative for a more structured and credible policy towards China stems from the recognition that two core aspects of American foreign policy have been missing in the past four years: Multilateralism and the upkeep of the country’s critical web of global alliances. Just as these tools helped America successfully navigate the Cold War, they will be equally critical in the development of a robust approach to confronting and engaging China in a coherent, efficient, and resolute manner.
Challenging China through Multilateralism
The first element concerns America’s role within multilateral Institutions. It is no secret that enhancing multilateral cooperation was not former-President Donald Trump’s priority. Attempts to defund the United Nations along with the withdrawal announcement from the World Health Organization have only been the tip of a much broader campaign in favor of a more isolationist and transactional approach to international affairs. As the US gradually drifted away from multilateral forums under Trump, China slowly attempted to slip into Washington’s shoes as the principal defender of global cooperation. Whether through soft power or a more active role in the UN and similar institutions, Chinese leadership has made it clear that a new era of multilateralism is on the horizon and the People’s Republic, not the US, will be its major guarantor.
With Beijing now being the second largest contributor to the UN and 15 UN special agencies headed by Chinese nationals, there are numerous signs indicating that China’s intentions of spearheading a new way of working within multilateral frameworks are concrete and could in the long run undermine US authority in these bodies. And while until recently the PRC´s main focus has been primarily on development-related initiatives and programs, the political and security aspects of multilateral cooperation have begun to gradually gain more and more weight in Beijing´s contemporary foreign policy.
With this growing quest to revise the global order America constructed, the new administration has already signaled a strong will to strengthen and claim back, where needed, America´s status within international forums and initiatives, for this will constitute a crucial tool in Washington’s effort to prevent Beijing from becoming the “pace and agenda-setter.”
Despite the very short time Biden has been in office as President, significant steps toward a renewed US engagement have already been taken. Within hours of taking the Oath of Office, President Biden recommitted America to the Paris Climate Accord and rescinded his predecessor’s intent to withdraw from the WHO. The Administration´s intention to fully rejoin the UN’s work however, had already been underscored last November by UN Ambassador nominee Linda-Thomas Greenfield, who right after the election bluntly claimed that “America is back. Multilateralism is back.”
Through a wide-reaching reorientation of its policy toward international cooperation, the US will have a useful instrument to effectively counter China’s ambitions. By signaling its “return” on the global stage as a democratic force, Washington has the chance to “steal the show” vis-à-vis Beijing by reemerging as a partner and guarantor of peace and liberal values as well as a provider of economic assistance where US interests lie.
To many, this may sound like the old liberal internationalist doctrine that former-President Trump ran and railed against, but a foreign policy grounded on such principles will be critical in a renewed era of Great Power competition; a time that is also coming to be defined by an ever-growing list of transnational problems that are indifferent to sovereignty or borders. This restoration of American engagement will be equally important in preventing crucial actors from turning eastward. In order for this new effort to succeed, the new administration has to effectively build a counter-narrative to Beijing’s with respect to the definition of “multilateralism” and global cooperation. By carefully analyzing the Chinese leadership’s approach, it becomes clear that rather than championing a traditional form of international cooperation, the PRC is pursuing a sort of “multilateralism a la carte” by adhering to cherry-picked aspects of multilateral cooperation, while deliberately leaving out other principles that have defined the liberal international order, notably human rights, transparency, and good governance.
One of the things that immediately catches the attention of those closely monitoring China’s ambitions across Asia is the definitive role that many East and Southeast Asian countries will play in the advancement or hindrance of China’s quest for hegemony. A common critique even transcending the Trump administration has been a lackluster US commitment to the highly-touted “Pivot to Asia.” Federal funding and diplomatic capital, so the argument goes, should match and reflect the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific to the US. President Biden has heard these critiques and his administration appears ready to respond accordingly.
As far back as November, the newly elected President swiftly reached out to several Asian partners, including India, South Korea and Japan. And although congratulatory calls are a long-standing tradition, the promptness with which a new President speaks to foreign leaders is highly indicative of his priorities. As Secretary-designate Blinken underscored this past week at his confirmation hearings, the Biden administration intends to put Asia front-and-center on the foreign policy agenda and will seek to “strengthen regional alliances to stand up to China.” Perhaps nothing highlights this new investment more than the establishment of an “Asia czar” position that will report directly to the National Security Council. Such a move will undoubtedly help reassure wary allies who have had to painstakingly navigate the erratic nature of the past administration and face an increasing barrage of destabilizing threats posed by a more aggressive, powerful, and assertive China.
In fact, the situation in the region has vastly changed since Joe Biden left the White House in 2017. Several projects within the Belt and Road Initiative have become tangible realities in many regions of the Asian continent, political and economic cooperation between Beijing and various ASEAN states has increased, and China’s expanding assertiveness in the region has been captured through its economic-coercion campaign against Australia, as well as its ever-expanding dubious territorial claims. A milestone in inter-Asian cooperation was recently laid with the so-called RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), spearheaded by China and signed by 15 Asian countries, including indispensable US allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. In a recent Foreign Affairs piece, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell, who will serve as the administration’s new Asia czar, stressed the importance of “forging coalitions” for various scopes, from technology to security, in order to strengthen America’s position in the region.
The growing prospect of Asian countries being pulled into China’s orbit and Beijing’s expanding soft and hard power warrants an active and sustainable US presence in the region. This will mean the materialization of former President Obama’s long-delayed “pivot to Asia” his administration outlined nearly a decade ago. Given President Biden’s favorable view of alliances and cooperation, as well as the backgrounds of his appointees, it remains highly likely that the current administration will invest significant resources and efforts in a solid and durable net of partnerships across East and Southeast Asia and therefore take back control of one of the elements that have helped America become the leading power in the international system.
An Uneasy Path
However, these paths certainly will not be free of hurdles. The most significant challenge for the Biden administration with regard to a new China policy could indeed stem from Europe.
As it has often been the case during the past years, some European countries – and at times the EU as a whole – have made clear that on the China dossier their priorities and goals differ from Washington´s. With China being Germany’s largest trading partner and several EU member states gradually expanding their relations with Beijing, the current US Administration will find itself on a completely different trajectory. And recent developments in EU-China relations haven’t quite contributed to a realignment.
On December 30th of last year, the European Commission along with the European Council announced the conclusion of a new investment deal with the People’s Republic of China entailing market openings, fairer treatment of EU companies in China and several other provisions concerning labor, sustainable development, etc… It is no secret that the aforementioned deal has met profound skepticism in Washington. Little hints at the EU having acted in mala fide toward the United States when signing the agreement, but it wasn’t an isolated case. A trend that has seen a number of European countries deepening their ties with China has emerged over the past years and in certain cases the cooperation has gone well beyond the initial stages, as it is the case with Greece, Portugal and Italy. These countries have been steadily intensifying their relations with Beijing and undertaking significant infrastructure projects. Greece for instance, is letting China play a major role in the management and expansion of Athens’ Pyraeus Port and has attracted massive investments from Chinese companies, including the large shipping company COSCO.
But these states have not been the only ones to slowly “open up” to China. Germany, mainly for economic reasons, has also been extremely careful in its rhetoric toward China and, at least from Washington´s perspective, not vocal enough about the human rights violations perpetrated in Xinjiang, where the German automobile giant VW has a significant presence. Along with other situations in which China has gained great influence over critical infrastructure and trade, this shows how European countries are not particularly eager to swiftly renounce their good relations with Beijing just to appease the new US administration. However, on the national level politicians have already been stressing the need for a coordinated transatlantic China policy, as the Chair of the German Parliament´s Foreign Relations Committee and prominent CDU politician Norbert Röttgen underscored last September in an interview with the news magazine POLITICO.
Hence, trying to get the bulk of European countries on board in a new comprehensive China strategy will without any doubt be one of the most pressing challenges the current administration will have to deal with.
The second major obstacle the new President will have to overcome in order for a new policy to succeed is the mixed approach of several Asian countries in their relationship to Beijing and the inevitability of some degree of regional hegemony. Through close cooperation within the Belt and Road Initiative for example, many Southeast Asian states have greatly benefitted from new infrastructure projects and other growth-stimulating initiatives. Additionally, due to significant cultural, social and political similarities, Asian countries are becoming ever more integrated with each other, as political analyst Parag Khanna argues. This certainly does not mean that China will dominate the entire continent, but the rise of an “Asian order” should raise questions in Washington. Especially because various countries in the region have been pursuing a “double-faced” course in their relations both with China and the US.
While welcoming Chinese investment, they have not shunned US presence in the region. One blatant example is the Philippine´s behavior. The Southeast Asian nation and historic American ally, has on the one hand given the US navy access to some of its military bases, but at the same time continued to entertain friendly relations with Beijing, even renouncing to asserting its rights in the South China Sea, as ruled by the ICJ, in order not to poke its mighty neighbor. Similar conditions apply to a majority of countries in the region. Confronted with the need for good relations with both superpowers, economic growth and an effort to keep their sovereignty intact, these nations have been trying to establish a so-called “third way” through a hybrid path. The question is, however, how effective these states can be as a “containing presence” vis-à-vis China within a broader US strategy.
Solving this conundrum will be the key for the successful implementation of a new “pivot to Asia” by the new Administration.