◎ Biden’s approach to China in his first hundred days signals a radical departure from the Trump administration.
President Joe Biden is often depicted as a “moderate,” his presidency described as a “return to normal” after the “sound and fury” of the Trump years. At the same time, mainstream reviews of “moderate” Biden also laud him as a “transformational president,” an observation that is quickly substantiated by the ambitious character of the Biden-Harris administration’s policies.
Biden’s first hundred days in office—which saw the passage of a $6-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, numerous pandemic restrictions, and initiatives to institutionalize “woke” ideology—make clear the president’s desire for a running jump into socialism. Less clear, however, is where the Biden-Harris administration stands on the “China challenge” as identified by the Trump administration.
As the mainstream press would have it, Biden is maintaining former President Donald Trump’s “tough stance on China.” At first glance, there is much to suggest that this is the case: At the time of writing, the Biden-Harris administration has kept the bulk of the Trump administration’s China policies, albeit under review. Biden and his China team have also issued strong-sounding rhetoric on China, censured the People’s Republic of China over the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and appear to be supportive of Taiwan. The Biden-Harris administration has even addressed “sensitive” human rights issues like Falun Gong, particularly in sanctioning a former “610 Office” director of Chengdu.
But a closer examination of how the Biden-Harris administration has approached China and the Chinese Communist Party threat in President Biden’s first hundred days signals a radical departure from the Trump administration.
The Biden-Harris administration’s most consequential, but probably least noticed, China policy change is its reframing of the ideological dimension of the “China challenge.” In his April 28 speech to Congress, President Biden said that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other autocrats “think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies.” This is the closest Biden and his administration have come to clearly spelling out the “autocracies versus democracies” framing that Washington has adopted to explain the ideological challenge from the PRC, as obliquely referenced in an earlier strategic guidance.
In its framing of the Sino-U.S. confrontation as competition between democracy and autocracy, Biden has all but dropped the Trump administration’s definition of the “China challenge,” that is, standing up to Communist China’s existential threat to the free world. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear the dire nature of the threat in a July 2020 speech, “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world.” And in his groundbreaking “China Challenge” speech given in October 2019, Pompeo identified the CCP as a “Marxist-Leninist Party focused on struggle and international domination.” To date, President Biden and his team have only described China as an autocracy, with nary a mention of the communist ideological creed underpinning the Party’s political system.
Resculpting and watering down the “China challenge” to a battle between “autocracies versus democracies” spells peril on multiple levels. For one, the framework describes competing systems of government, not ideologies. Moreover, autocracies, including Communist China and North Korea, often claim to be democratic, while democracies can be authoritarian. In a piece about how America and the West are now resembling the PRC, the historian Niall Ferguson observed, “There is a kind of low-level totalitarianism detectable in many [Western democratic] institutions today—from elite universities to newspapers, publishers and technology companies—which reveals that practices such as informing, denunciation and defamation can all flourish even in the absence of a one-party dictatorship.”
The Biden-Harris administration’s rhetoric about “autocracies versus democracies” is vague to the point of meaninglessness. The dangers of such unclarity are manifest: The CCP is left with ample room to work its subversive propaganda to convince the world that it is just another “normal” country and a “responsible stakeholder,” and not a brutal regime bent on global domination like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.
More crucially, the Biden-Harris administration’s “autocracies versus democracies” framework fails to acknowledge the pernicious Marxist-Leninist nature of the CCP. The consequences are two-fold. First, Beijing will exploit Washington’s unwillingness to call out Communist China for being a wolf in sheep’s clothing and properly hold it accountable to push harder in undermining the rules-based international order. This is most obvious in the COVID issue, with the CCP basically getting away with its role in causing the pandemic as the Biden-Harris administration emphasizes healthcare cooperation with China and rejoining the CCP-hijacked World Health Organization. The Biden-Harris administration also did itself no favors with Secretary of State Antony Blinken telling 60 Minutes on May 2 that America’s “purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down,” while encouraging the CCP to adhere to the rules-based order. In sharp contrast, Mike Pompeo observed last July that Communist China has already subverted the rules-based order and “is already within our borders.”
Second, not affirming the existential threat posed by the CCP allows the Biden-Harris administration to downgrade the “China challenge” in its priorities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hints at this in an April 19 speech where he notes that while he is focused on “aggressive actions by Russia or China,” climate change is “an equally grave threat to the American people—and an existential one over the long term.” Secretary Blinken’s climate speech is one of many signals from Washington that the Biden-Harris administration’s driving agenda is climate change, not the “China challenge.” The CCP has already recognized this, and its handling of Biden climate czar John Kerry’s April trip to Shanghai suggests that Beijing is using climate change as a diplomatic vehicle to revert Sino-U.S. relations back to the pre-Trump “engagement” era.
The Biden-Harris administration has also made small but significant gestures regarding Taiwan that are causes for concern. On April 9, the State Department issued “new guidelines for U.S. government interaction with Taiwan counterparts to encourage U.S. government engagement” with Taipei. While the move was widely lauded by the mainstream press, it was barely mentioned at the time that Secretary Pompeo had already lifted all “self-imposed restrictions” guiding interactions between U.S. officials and their Taiwan counterparts on Jan. 9. In effect, what the Biden-Harris administration did was to impose new restrictions under the guise of “encouraging engagement” when in fact, no restrictions were in place for four months.
Even more disturbing from the Biden-Harris administration on Taiwan was the publication of an article titled, “Why US will lose a war with China over Taiwan island” in the CCP propaganda tabloid Global Times on April 27. Written by Franz Gayl, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major who is currently a science and technology officer for the Corps at the Pentagon, the article emerged at a time of growing concerns in America over the CCP’s intent to take over Taiwan using military force and whether the U.S. should come to Taiwan’s aid. Mainstream U.S. publications also ran opinion pieces around the same time criticizing the Biden-Harris administration for being “reckless” on Taiwan or calling on America to end its commitment to Taipei.
In sum, President Joe Biden’s statecraft not only aims for transformation at home, but also fundamentally alters the essence of U.S. policy towards China from what it was during the Trump era. On the current trajectory, “strategic competition” between the U.S. and Communist China will cease to resemble the “new cold war” under the Trump administration to become something more akin to Sino-Soviet confrontation. The Biden-Harris administration must swing away from its vacuous rhetoric and crypto-socialist projects, and correctly recognize the nature of the CCP threat—lest they risk permanently dimming the “shining city on the hill.”