With Donald Trump’s departure from the White House, President Joe Biden has the opportunity to fix the failed China policy. Early signs are promising.
Days before he stepped down from office, during a time described by commentators as “the big sulk”, Donald Trump authorised the declassification of his administration’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”. This ten-page report, written in early 2018, makes interesting reading as its aim was to guide the US approach to India, China, North Korea and other nations over the next three years. The strategy was threefold: accelerate India’s rise; block China from establishing “illiberal spheres of influence”; and “maintain US strategic primacy” in the region. You would need a high-powered microscope to detect any achievements. OK, there was the change of title of the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018, the sailing of a few ships into the South China Sea, and the ineffectual meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in 2019, but little else. Trump’s China scorecard was almost zero. Why?
Having a clear strategy is fine, but this is just the first step. You have to turn a strategy into objectives and then objectives into action. But as with so much of the Trump era, the President’s actions tended to work against stated objectives, causing frustration and resentment among his staff, who resigned or were fired in record numbers. The White House door never stopped revolving. Trump’s policies on China often featured two separate tracks: policies which he personally led, and policies spearheaded by officials with China expertise. Claiming that he knew more than the experts, Trump frequently interfered with the work being done by his senior staff, which led to confusion and failure.
With only experience in business prior to his surprise election in 2016, everything is brutishly transactional in Donald Trump’s world. But successful diplomacy requires subtlety and patience, skills not listed in the Trump playbook. He ran for office pledging to rewrite the US economic relationship with China, which he blamed for hollowing out America’s manufacturing base and impoverishing its workers. But after four years in office, the unprecedented trade war he launched, breaking Republican free-trade orthodoxy along the way, ended up costing American factory jobs rather than creating them. In 2019, Moody’s Analytics estimated that Trump’s trade war with China had resulted in 300,000 fewer jobs in the US and a whopping annual bill for higher taxes on $350 billion of purchases from China. The US Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that Trump’s tariff hikes on China cost the average US household nearly $1,300 last year, with many businesses postponing investments. By contrast, the state support for Chinese enterprises that Trump pledged to confront remains intact. Even an incurable pro-Trump supporter would struggle to call this a success.
With Donald Trump’s departure from the White House, President Joe Biden has the opportunity to fix the failed China policy. Early signs are promising, as China hawks have been named to key Asia-focussed positions across his administration. Although beset with domestic problems caused by the virus, the new administration has China in its sights and the stage is set for action. The issues were well recognised by Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, last week: “Strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century” she confirmed, “China is engaged in conduct that hurts American workers, blunts our technological edge, and threatens our alliances and our influence in international organisations”. In addition to strategic competition, Psaki also mentioned “China’s economic abuses”, its influence over international organisations, its forced technology transfers, and the importance of “holding China accountable”. So far, so Trumpish. But the one major difference from Trump-era rhetoric is Biden’s strong emphasis on multilateralism. Notably, in her remarks on Monday, Psaki answered almost every China question with a reference to America’s “allies and partners”. Under Donald Trump the US disengaged from international organisations, even displaying scepticism about international cooperation and hostility towards allies.
President Biden has 40 years of experience in international relations and well understands the current problems with China. While he will probably continue with many of Trump’s most assertive policies against Beijing, you’ll notice two important differences. First, as indicated by Psaki, there will be a strong emphasis on “multilateralism”. Secondly, his administration will work as a close, stable and coherent team. Biden has already selected a strong and diverse team around him, but there are two members who will play a key role on China issues: Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan.
By a strong bipartisan vote, Antony Blinken is now confirmed in the most important post of Secretary of State. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Blinken deftly sidestepped Democratic invitations to sharply criticise the Trump administration, as well as Republican efforts to lure him into controversy. As expected, many of the questions concerned China when Blinken was adamant that “standing up to China is fully within our control” if it is approached from a “position of strength”, including a “unified position among democratic allies, renewed US participation in international institutions , and standing up for our values”. In reply to a Republican question, Blinken gave the biggest hint yet: “I believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China”, he said, before adding “I disagree with many of the ways he went about it”. So there we have it—a similar policy but more sensibly enacted.
Another critical appointment is Jake Sullivan as Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor. This 45-year-old graduate of Yale Law School and former Rhodes Scholar of Magdalen College Oxford, is one of the youngest ever in that role. Having earlier served in the Obama administration as Hillary Clinton’s top aide, accompanying her to no less than 112 countries, his most notably earlier work was in shaping the Obama’s Asia-Pacific strategy. Sullivan, who last week severely criticised the Kremlin on its treatment of Navalny, echoes Antony Blinken’s views on internationalism. Last week he highlighted his most important objective—“to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system”. You can tell which part of the world he was thinking of, as this week Sullivan downsized his Middle East team and bulked up the unit that coordinates US policy in the Indo-Pacific. As clear an indication of Biden’s foreign policy priorities as India could wish!
So what policies will President Biden, assisted by Blinken and Sullivan, adopt? The first will be to begin the process of repairing the damage done by Trump on US relations with allies and strengthening the US influence in multilateral forums. In a flurry of Executive Orders on day one, Biden put America back in the Paris Agreement on climate change and halted the US departure from the World Health Organization, which was set to take effect in July this year. He has already signalled that his administration will support the World Trade Organization, maintain US troops in Europe and Asia, and return to the Iran nuclear deal. Taking these steps early will help clarify that the world’s most serious challenge is China, not the US allies and the international institutions they helped build.
Biden should then roll back those tariffs on steel and aluminium from the EU, Mexico and Canada, which Trump imposed in a fit of pique in May 2018, but retain those on China and Russia, which have been accused of dumping steel at below cost. Blinken and Sullivan are also likely to recommend that the US unilaterally should maintain and even toughen Trump’s sanctions on China for abuses of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, should delist Chinese companies operating in America that don’t comply with US financial reporting requirements, and finally retain bans on telecommunication companies that are suspected of being threats to national security.
It will be important for Biden to revisit those other Trump initiatives that have damaged the US economy as well as its soft power and relationships with allies, without imposing any substantial costs to China. These include tariffs on Chinese goods, the closing of consulates, and tit for tat expulsion of journalists. This will need to be done by bilateral discussions with Beijing, so that China can address the concerns that prompted the restrictions in the first place. After all, there is little point in maintaining tariffs when those who suffer most from them are your own people.
Throughout 2020, President Trump and his campaign team repeatedly warned voters that “if Biden wins, China wins”, and that “China would own the United States”. The Democrats have been in office for a week, but Joe Biden and his aides have confounded the former reality TV star’s predictions. Contrary to Trump’s glib remarks, “Beijing Biden” doesn’t exist.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.