How Biden will confront China

November 25, 2020
By David Leonhardt
Good morning. Biden introduces his foreign policy team. The Dow breaks 30,000. And Pennsylvania is banning alcohol sales.
Joe Biden with Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2011.Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
How Biden will confront China
The presidents who came just before Donald Trump took a mostly hopeful view of China. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and the two George Bushes all tried to integrate China into the global economy and political system. Doing so, they believed, could persuade China to accept international rules and become more democratic.
The strategy largely failed.
China used access to the world’s markets to grow richer on its own terms. It rejected many international rules — on intellectual property, for example — while becoming more authoritarian at home. As a recent Times story puts it, China has adopted “increasingly aggressive and at times punitive policies that force countries to play by its rules.”
Trump is not a close student of international affairs, but he evidently grasped China’s ambitions in ways that his predecessors did not. He treated it as what it almost certainly is: America’s most serious threat since the Soviet Union.
Trump’s China policy had a different weakness, in the eyes of many experts and foreign diplomats. He antagonized allies who are also worried about China’s rise, rather than building a coalition with Japan, Europe, Australia and others. As Keyu Jin, a Chinese economist at the London School of Economics, has written, Trump has been “a strategic gift” for China.
Soon, it will be Joe Biden’s turn — to see if he can manage China more effectively than other recent presidents have. (Yesterday, Biden introduced his foreign-policy team.)
His administration is likely to take a different approach to China than it does on many other issues. On those others, like climate change and health care, Biden will be trying to reverse Trump’s policies. On China, Biden instead seems set to accept Trump’s basic diagnosis but to strive for a more effective treatment. The Biden team’s critique of the current China policy is about “means more than ends,” Walter Russell Mead wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
Biden and his aides have signaled that they will not return to the wishful pre-Trump policy toward China (even though several of them helped shape that policy in the Obama administration). “The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in January.
To do so, they will use diplomacy. Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, said this summer: “We are in a competition with China … We need to rally our allies and partners instead of alienating them to deal with some of the challenges that China poses.” Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, has written (along with the historian Hal Brands) that the way to check China’s display of a “superpower’s ambition” and maintain U.S. influence is to end “the current trajectory of self-sabotage.”
Biden, speaking about his new appointees yesterday, said, “They embody my core beliefs that America is strongest when it works with its allies.”
In concrete terms, this could mean forging more agreements on restricting the use of Chinese technology, like Huawei. It could mean creating economic alliances that invest in developing countries only if they agree to respect intellectual property and human rights — and trying to isolate China in the process.
The larger goal will be making other countries believe that the U.S. is no longer going it alone. “The narrative in Asia,” Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, “is that America is out of the game.”
The view from Beijing: A Chinese official writes about the possibility of “cooperative competition” in a Times Op-Ed.

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