Soon-to-be President Joe Biden will instantly face a set of extraordinary domestic crises—a runaway pandemic, a stalled economy, and raw political wounds, especially from the recent Trumpian assault on the Capitol—but few challenges are likely to prove more severe than managing US relations with China. While generally viewed as a distant foreign-policy concern, that relationship actually looms over nearly everything, including the economy, the coronavirus, climate change, science and technology, popular culture, and cyberspace. If the new administration follows the course set by the preceding one, you can count on one thing: The United States will be drawn into an insidious new Cold War with that country, impeding progress in almost every significant field. To achieve any true breakthroughs in the present global mess, the Biden team must, above all else, avert that future conflict and find ways to collaborate with its powerful challenger. Count on one thing: Discovering a way to navigate this already mine-laden path will prove demanding beyond words for the most experienced policymakers in Biden’s leadership ensemble.
Even without the corrosive impacts of Donald Trump’s hostile diplomacy of recent years, China would pose an enormous challenge to any new administration. It boasts the world’s second-largest economy and, some analysts say, will soon overtake the United States to become number one. Though there are many reasons to condemn Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, its tough nationwide clampdown (following its initial failure to acknowledge the very existence of the virus, no less the extent of its spread) allowed the country to recover from Covid-19 faster than most other nations. As a result, Beijing has already reported strong economic growth in the second half of the year, the only major economy on the planet to do so. This means that China is in a more powerful position than ever to dictate the rules of the world economy, a situation confirmed by the European Union’s recent decision to sign a major trade and investment deal with Beijing, symbolically sidelining the United States just before the Biden administration enters office.
After years of increasing its defense expenditures, China now also possesses the second most powerful military in the world, replete with modern weaponry of every sort. Although not capable of confronting the United States on the high seas or in far-flung locales, its military—the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA—is now in a position to challenge America’s longstanding supremacy in areas closer to home like the far western Pacific. Not since Japan’s imperial expansion in the 1930s and early 1940s has Washington faced such a formidable foe in that part of the world.
In critical areas—scientific and technological prowess, diplomatic outreach, and international finance, among others—China is already challenging, if not overtaking America’s long-assumed global primacy. On so many fronts, in other words, dealing with China poses an enormous conundrum for America’s new leadership team. Worse yet, the destructive China policies of the Trump administration, combined with the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose immediate challenges to Biden when it comes to managing US-China relations.
Trump’s Toxic Legacy
Donald Trump campaigned for office pledging to punish China for what he claimed was its systemic drive to build its economy by looting the American one. In 2016, he vowed that, if elected president, he would use the power of trade to halt that country’s nefarious practices and restore American global primacy. Once ensconced in the White House, he did indeed impose a series of tariffs on what now amounts to about $360 billion in Chinese imports—a significant barrier to improved relations with Beijing that Biden must decide whether to retain, loosen, or eliminate altogether.
Even more threatening to future cordial relations are the restrictions Trump placed on the access of Chinese companies to US technology, especially the advanced software and computer chips needed for future developments in fifth generation (5G) telecommunications. In May 2019, claiming that leading Chinese telecom firms like Huawei and ZTE Corporation had links to the PLA and so represented a threat to American national security, Trump issued an executive order effectively barring those companies from purchasing American computer chips and other high-tech equipment. A series of further executive orders and other moves followed that were aimed at restricting Chinese companies from gaining access to US technology.
In these and related actions, President Trump and his senior associates, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top trade adviser Peter Navarro, claimed that they were acting to protect national security from the risk of intelligence operations by the PLA. From their statements at the time, however, it was evident that their real intent was to impede China’s technological progress in order to weaken its long-term economic competitiveness. Here, too, Biden and his team will have to decide whether to retain the restrictions imposed by Trump, further straining Sino-American ties, or to reverse course in an effort to enhance relations.
The China Crisis: Military and Diplomatic Dimensions
An even greater challenge for President Biden will be the aggressive military and diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the Trump administration. In 2018, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, issued a new military doctrine under the label “great power competition” that was meant to govern future planning by the Department of Defense. As spelled out in the Pentagon’s official National Defense Policy of that year, the doctrine held that US forces should now switch their focus from combatting Islamic terrorists in remote Third World locations to combatting China and Russia in Eurasia. “Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, “long-term strategic competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
In line with this policy, in the years that followed, the entire military establishment has been substantially refocused and reengineered from acting as a counterterror and counterinsurgency force into one armed, equipped, and focused on fighting the Chinese and Russian militaries on the peripheries of those very countries. “Today, in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this past September, shortly before he was ousted by the president for, among other things, supporting a call to redub US military bases now named after Confederate Civil War generals. Significantly, while still in power, Esper identified China as America’s number one strategic competitor—a distinction Mattis had failed to make.
To ensure Washington’s primacy in that competition, Esper highlighted three main strategic priorities: the weaponization of advanced technologies, the further “modernization” and enhancement of the country’s nuclear arsenal, and the strengthening of military ties with friendly nations surrounding China. “To modernize our capabilities,” he declared, “we have successfully secured funding for game-changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy, and 5G networks.” Significant progress, he claimed, had also been made in “recapitalizing our strategic nuclear triad,” this country’s vast, redundant arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range nuclear bombers. In addition, with the goal of encircling China with a hostile US-oriented alliance system, he bragged that “we are implementing a coordinated plan, the first of its kind, to strengthen allies and build partners.”
For Chinese leaders, the fact that Washington’s military policy now called for just such a tripartite program of non-nuclear weapons modernization, nuclear weapons modernization, and military encirclement meant one obvious thing: They now face a long-term strategic threat that will require a major mobilization of military, economic, and technological capabilities in response—which is, of course, the very definition of a new Cold War competition. And the Chinese leadership made it all too clear that they would resist any such US initiatives by taking whatever steps they deemed necessary to defend China’s sovereignty and national interests. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn then, that, like the United States, they are in the process of acquiring a wide array of modern nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry, while weaponizing emerging technologies to ensure success or at least some semblance of parity in any future encounters with American forces.
Alongside such military initiatives, the Trump administration sought to hobble China and curb its rise through a coordinated strategy of diplomatic warfare—efforts that most notably included increased support for the island of Taiwan (claimed by China as a breakaway province), ever closer military ties with India, and the promotion of joint Australian, Indian, Japanese, and US military ties, an arrangement known as “the Quad.”
An upgrade in ties with Taiwan was a particular objective of the Trump administration (and a particular provocation to Beijing). Ever since President Jimmy Carter agreed to recognize the Communist regime in Beijing in 1978, and not the Taiwanese, as the legitimate government of China, US administrations of every sort have sought to avoid the appearance of engaging in a high-level official relationship with that island’s leadership in Taipei, even as it continued to sell them arms and conduct other forms of intergovernmental relations.
In the Trump years, however, Washington has engaged in a number of high-profile actions specifically intended to show support for the Taiwanese government and, in the process, rile the Chinese leadership. These included a visit to Taipei this past August by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar II, the first of its kind by a cabinet secretary since 1979. In yet another provocative move, the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, has just met with top Taiwanese officials in Taipei. The administration also sought to secure Taiwan observer status at the World Health Organization and other international bodies to help bolster its image as a nation unto itself. Of equal concern to Beijing, the administration authorized $16.6 billion in new top-grade arms sales to Taiwan over the past two years, including a record-breaking $8 billion sale of 66 advanced F-16C/D fighter planes.
Enhanced US ties with India and other members of the Quad proved to be a top Trump administration foreign-policy priority as well. In October 2020, Mike Pompeo traveled to India for the third time as secretary of state and used the occasion to denounce China while promoting closer Indo-American military ties. He pointedly referred to the 20 Indian soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese forces last June, insisting that, “the United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty.” Defense Secretary Esper, who accompanied Pompeo on that trip to New Delhi, spoke of increasing defense cooperation with India, including prospective sales of fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.
Both officials praised the country for its future participation in “Malabar,” the Quad’s joint naval exercises to be held that November in the Bay of Bengal. Without anyone saying so explicitly, that exercise was widely viewed as the debut performance of the burgeoning military alliance aimed at containing China. “A collaborative approach toward regional security and stability is important now more than ever, to deter all who challenge a free and open Indo-Pacific,” commented Ryan Easterday, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, one of the participating vessels.
Needless to say, all this represents a complex and formidable legacy for President Biden to overcome as he seeks to establish a less hostile relationship with the Chinese.
President Biden’s Xi Jinping Problem
Clearly, Trump’s disruptive legacy will make it hard for President Biden to halt the downward slide in Sino-American relations and the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing will make it no easier for him. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of Xi’s turn towards authoritarianism over the past few years or his growing reliance on a militaristic outlook to ensure loyalty (or submission) from the Chinese people. Much has been written about the suppression of civil liberties in China and the silencing of all forms of dissent. Equally disturbing is the adoption of a new national security law for Hong Kong, now being used to round up critics of the mainland government and independent political voices of all sorts. And nothing quite compares to the attempted brutal extinction of Uighur Muslim identity in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China’s far west, involving the incarceration of a million or more people in what amounts to concentration camps.
The suppression of civil liberties and human rights in China will make it particularly difficult for the Biden administration to mend ties with Beijing, as he has long been a strong advocate of civil rights in the United States, as has Vice President Kamala Harris and many of their close associates. It will be almost impossible for them to negotiate with the Xi regime on any issue without raising the matter of human rights—and that, in turn, is bound to elicit hostility from the Chinese leadership.
Xi has also recentralized economic power in the hands of the state, reversing a trend towards greater economic liberalization under his immediate predecessors. State-owned enterprises continue to receive the lion’s share of government loans and other financial benefits, putting private firms at a disadvantage. In addition, Xi has sought to hobble large private firms like the Ant Group, the hugely successful digital-payments enterprise founded by Jack Ma, China’s most celebrated private entrepreneur.
While consolidating economic power at home, the Chinese president has scored considerable success in building economic and trade ties with other countries. In November, China and 14 nations, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (but not the United States), signed one of the world’s largest free-trade pacts, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. Largely viewed as a successor to the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership from which President Trump withdrew soon after taking office, the RCEP will facilitate trade among countries representing more of humanity (some 2.2 billion people) than any previous agreement of its kind. And then there’s that just-initialed investment agreement between the European Union and China, another mega-deal that excludes the United States, as does China’s ambitious trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative, meant to link the economies of countries in Eurasia and Africa ever more closely to Beijing.
In other words, it will be that much more difficult for the Biden administration to bring economic leverage to bear on China or enable large American companies to act as partners in pressing for change in that country, as they might have in the past.
President Biden’s Options
Biden himself has not said a great deal about what he has in mind for US-China relations, but the little he has suggests a great deal of ambivalence about his top priorities. In his most explicit statement on foreign policy, an article that appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, he spoke about “getting tough” on China when it comes to trade and human rights, while seeking common ground on key issues like North Korea and climate change.
While criticizing the Trump administration for alienating US allies like Canada and the NATO powers, he affirmed that “the United States does need to get tough with China.” If China has its way, he continued, “it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property [and] keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage.” The most effective approach to meet that challenge, he wrote, “is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, [nuclear] nonproliferation, and global health security.”
That makes for a good sound bite, but it’s an inherently contradictory posture. If there’s anything that the Chinese leadership dreads—and will resist with the full weight of its powers—it’s the formation of a “united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors.” That, more or less, is what the Trump administration tried to do without producing any significant benefits for the United States. Biden will have to decide where his main priority lies. Is it in curbing China’s abusive behaviors and human-rights violations or in gaining cooperation from the planet’s other great power on the most pressing and potentially devastating issues on the global agenda at the moment: climate change before the planet desperately overheats; the nonproliferation of nuclear, hypersonic, and other kinds of advanced weaponry before they spiral out of control; and health security in a pandemic world?
As in so many other areas he will have to deal with after January 20, to make progress on any issue, Biden will first have to overcome the destabilizing legacies of his predecessor. This will mean, above all, scaling back punitive and self-defeating tariffs and technological barriers, slowing the arms race with China, and abandoning efforts to encircle the mainland with a hostile ring of military alliances. Short of that, progress of any sort is likely to prove next to impossible and the 21st-century world could find itself drawn into a Cold War even more intractable than the one that dominated the second half of the last century. If so, god save us all, we could end up facing nuclear hot war or the climate-change version of the same on a failing planet.