◎ The Biden administration should be judged by its actions, not only its diction.
In a Feb. 7 interview, U.S. President Joe Biden hinted at the direction he would take in handling Communist China, saying that his administration plans for “extreme competition” with Beijing, but “we need not have a conflict.”
“I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road,” Biden told CBS.
Biden and his team have pledged to retain the tough China policy of the Trump administration, with marked adjustments in their specific approach. In a foreign policy speech given on Feb. 4, Biden labeled China as America’s “most serious competitor,” but added that his administration is “ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” On Feb. 10, Biden had a phone call with Xi Jinping, saying of the conversation that he would “work with China when it benefits the American people.”
With Biden mere weeks into his term, just how much the two administrations will differ remains unclear. After all, it was only in December 2017 that the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy and declared China a “strategic competitor,” nearly a year after Trump had taken office. However, a shift in rhetoric from Biden’s White House and other cues provide some insight into how the new president is likely to deal with China, the ruling communist regime, and its leader Xi Jinping.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has stressed the need for competition with China, while also engaging in cooperation on issues where it believes America’s interests would stand to benefit, such as climate change. This stands in contrast with the Trump administration, which has pressed for sharper confrontation with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on a range of issues.
In 2018, Washington launched a trade war targeting China’s export-heavy economy in a bid to get Beijing to end illicit business practices such as industrial espionage. Starting in 2019, the Department of State under former CIA head Mike Pompeo focused on a “China Challenge” that explicitly questioned the CCP’s fitness to lead the Chinese people, while taking the position of “distrust and verify’ when it comes to any promises made by Beijing.
Competition and engagement
Following the Trump era, Biden and his cabinet have continued to broadly condemn Beijing on sensitive issues like its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, domination of Hong Kong, and international aggression.
But the president’s advisers have warned against taking a Cold War-style “zero-sum” approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a view that seems to be manifesting in the Biden administration’s abandonment of the “China Challenge” as envisioned by Pompeo. Biden officials have not distinguished between the CCP and the Chinese nation in their wording, and neither have they kept up some of the previous administration’s policy issues, such as defense of religious freedom (the CCP is an atheist regime that directs its worst abuses against people of faith).
Vague rhetoric about China aside, Biden’s personal situation and the team he has assembled do not inspire confidence that the United States will be able to maintain the same tough stance on China developed in the Trump era. A review of the CCP’s official statements and media reports also indicates that the Party expects a softer tone from the Biden administration.
Reports have also noted that the background of many Biden picks shows them to be products of the “engagement era,” when U.S. administrations favored increased economic activity and other exchanges with the PRC, letting matters such as human rights take a back seat. Some, like Hunter Biden, also have potential conflicts of interest. On Feb. 5, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that Biden’s son, Hunter, has yet to divest from his controversial Chinese holdings.
Biden’s incoming Asia policy czar Kurt Campbell had a top leadership role in the pro-CCP U.S.-China Strong Foundation, being listed as a board vice-chairman of the non-profit until August 2020. The president’s CIA pick William Burns leads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which received $2 million from a PRC businessman over the last four years.
The finer aspects of Biden’s China strategy may not become apparent for months or years, because he and his vice president Kamala Harris can be expected to have their hands full with domestic policy.
One of the Biden administration’s stated priorities will be combatting “domestic terrorism,” as described in his inaugural address, where the president spoke of a “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
Taken to the fullest extent, such efforts implicate the more than 70 million Americans who voted for former President Trump of aiding and abetting “domestic terrorism.” Following the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, leftist politicians and major media outlets have attempted to paint both Trump and all the roughly half a million people who attended the rally to support him that day as participants in an “insurrection.” This and similar narratives stand to throw the United States into greater division, leaving the government less capable of immediately rolling out a new foreign policy.
‘The Longer Telegram’
As is the case with all governments, the Biden administration should be judged by its actions, not only its diction. Given the reasons why foreign policy may not change immediately, it is important that China-watchers and other observers allow time in assessing Biden’s stance on Beijing. It is worth scrutinizing Biden’s promise to work better with allies to contain the CCPs ambitions.
Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, condemned the regime in a phone call with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, saying the United States would “work together with its allies and partners in defense of our shared values and interests to hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system.”
While China officials in the Biden-Harris administration have pro-China backgrounds, they also have an interest in preserving America’s global advantage and interests, particularly in the fields of technology, finance, currency, and military affairs.
Days after Biden’s inauguration, the Atlantic Council published “The Longer Telegram” a strategy proposal that calls for a China policy aiming at marginalizing or ousting Xi Jinping in hopes of helping the CCP “revert” to its “traditional” collective leadership—opening the door to re-engagement. The 85-page report contains many similarities to the rhetoric of Biden and his foreign policy team, and is written by an anonymous former official. Time will tell if “The Longer Telegram” has any bearing on the Biden administration’s China policy.
Compared with its predecessor, the Biden-Harris team is shaping up to adopt a softer, more targeted stance on China. If Biden’s “extreme competition” mixed with cooperation based on America’s “interests” is geared towards leadership change in the PRC, it lays the groundwork for a showdown in the CCP factional struggle as Xi Jinping makes a bid for a norm-breaking third-term in office next year. In light of the crises facing Xi and the Party already, China could be due for a Black Swan event this year.