What to expect from Biden on China
Foreign policy is not an immediate priority for the Biden administration, which is dedicating its initial days in office to tackling America’s pressing domestic challenges: The pandemic, the economy, and deep social and political divides. However, when it does turn to foreign policy in the coming weeks, China will be priority No. 1.
In their confirmation hearings, Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken, the presumptive secretaries of defense and state, respectively, described China — just as the Trump administration did — as America’s major strategic challenge. Tellingly, many of the first senior-level administration positions to be filled at the National Security Council and Department of Defense have been China-focused posts.
On a basic level, we can expect continuity on China policy. Joe Biden, like Donald Trump, will aim to push back against what it regards as threats to American interests — and especially China’s actions in the South China Sea, which deleteriously affect US treaty allies in East Asia. Biden and his top deputies have been critical of China’s human rights record: Blinken says he agrees with the judgment of his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, regarding Chinese actions against Uighur Muslims. They have also expressed concerns about the security and surveillance risks of Chinese telecommunications. The new administration, like its predecessor, will leverage ties with like-minded countries in Asia — especially its fellow “Quad” nations Australia, India, and Japan — to counterbalance Beijing.
However, there will be differences too. The Biden administration will use diplomacy to build a broader global coalition against China, capitalizing in particular on what promises to be an improved transatlantic relationship and appealing for more support from European allies. Additionally, the Biden administration will pursue its competition with Beijing with a somewhat softer touch. It will tone down the anti-China rhetoric of Trump and pursue cooperation in non-security spaces. Climate change will be one such space, though public health could be another area for collaboration.
If such non-security cooperation does emerge, the US-China relationship will enjoy fresh infusions of goodwill and trust that increase the chances of some limited cooperation in the geopolitical realm. The two strategic rivals do share some security interests, including concerns about Islamist terrorism and a desire to end the war in Afghanistan.
To be sure, the trajectory of US-China relations in the Biden era will be shaped to a great degree by Beijing’s behavior. If it views the Biden administration as an opportunity for a reset and scales down its provocations in the South China Sea and elsewhere, then that bodes well for the relationship. But if Beijing keeps up with its muscular moves, off ramps will be tough to find. At any rate, final-hour moves by the Trump administration have complicated, at least initially, any efforts to ease tensions. These include the elimination of restrictions on US relations with Taiwan, a self-governing entity claimed by Beijing as its own, and an executive order banning trade with nearly a dozen Chinese-connected apps.
The Biden administration’s focus on both countering and cooperating with China may pose a problem for US policy. John Kerry, the administration’s National Security Council-posted climate change czar, reportedly wants climate change to be the top priority of US-China relations and is seeking a cooperative relationship with Beijing to increase the likelihood that the Chinese will agree to climate mitigation measures. For Kerry, according to foreign policy analyst Thomas Wright, “geopolitical competition with China is of secondary importance.” Such sentiment won’t go down well with the broader administration, which views China as a strategic threat.
The first days of the Biden administration suggest that it won’t be a pushover when it comes to China.
Indeed, the first days of the Biden administration suggest that it won’t be a pushover when it comes to China. Strikingly, until Hsiao Bi-khim attended Biden’s swearing-in ceremony last week, no de facto Taiwan ambassador had ever attended a US presidential inauguration with an official invitation. Beijing likely was not pleased, especially after Emily Horne, the US National Security Council spokesperson, declared after the inauguration that: “President Biden will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Asia-Pacific region — and that includes Taiwan.”
Beijing, for its part, is unlikely to go easy on the new administration. Its nationalistic government has little incentive to rein in its “wolf warrior diplomacy” — a policy that entails aggressively pursuing Chinese interests abroad, including those that relate to both land and sea-based territorial disputes. This is especially the case given that Biden will pursue a deeper partnership with India and aim to reset damaged relationships with America’s Asian treaty allies, most of them bitter rivals of Beijing.
In sum, while the Biden administration will be at pains to avoid the full-throttle confrontation that characterized its predecessor’s stance toward Beijing, the harsh realities of geopolitics will impose limits on how much US-China relations can improve in the Biden era. The US-China rivalry is here to stay, and it will outlive leadership changes in either country.
- Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman