Of all of the Trump administration’s many foreign policy missteps, its confrontational stance toward China has been perhaps the most inappropriate. The traces of trade and intellectual property negotiations were followed by escalating tariffs on Chinese imports paid by US companies. These provoked Chinese retaliation that required tens of billions of dollars in aid to US farmers decimated by the collapse of Chinese agricultural purchases. The harsh conversation of the Secretary of State of the former US President Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, about Chinese human rights violations fell with a thud because Trump was unable to raise international support. His threats became even more toothless with the US withdrawal from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Even if it was agreed that the United States must hold its own against China on some issues, Trump’s approach only succeeded in increasing hostility and reducing Chinese investments and purchases from the United States. It did not change the basic parameters of the relationship between the two countries in the least. The trade deficit remained astronomical (not necessarily a bad thing, but Trump gave it a reason for his policies), factories remained off the coast, China’s human rights abuses continued, and China’s influence increased globally.
Now, U.S. President Joe Biden seems to be adopting large chunks of Trump’s policies and even many of the former president’s core assumptions, namely that China is the United States’ main antagonist and that there are many areas of mutual interest and cooperation between the U.S. Second, competition the hallmark of an increasingly strained relationship.
These ideas were wrong under Trump. So you stay under Biden.
Last week’s tense meeting between senior US and Chinese foreign policy officials in Anchorage, Alaska, made for juicy news. The headlines ranged from “tough US-China talks signal a rocky start to relations among Biden” to “Bitter Alaska Meeting complicates already shaky US-China relations”. And the public and apparently spontaneous back and forth between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was indeed particularly open. Blinken said China’s actions on multiple fronts, from treating the Uyghurs to suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, “threaten the rules-based order that sustains global stability.” Yang replied that the US government “is using so-called notions of national security to impede normal trade and encourage some countries to attack China.” It reeked of hypocrisy when the United States criticized China on human rights in the face of US racism against black and Asian Americans.
In the remainder of the talks, the newly minted Biden administration reiterated the Trump administration’s aggressive policy of treating China as the United States’s main antagonist. The hostility was evident, with little talk of a next round of trade deals or a lifting of the tariffs currently being imposed by the US government on Chinese imports. In fact, the meeting was preceded by announcements of further US sanctions against Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
In order to be fair to the Biden team, a confrontational stance towards China is supported by the general public. The notion that China is an emerging adversary threatening the long-term position of the United States and possibly the global order is widespread. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly half of all US citizens view China as their country’s greatest enemy, almost twice as many as last year. In addition, the majority of people believe that China poses an economic threat to the United States and the future well-being of individual Americans. While it is difficult to get good poll data in China, it is fair to say that many in China share similarly hostile views of the United States.
However, the fact that public opinion sees China as a threat does not mean that policy should be determined on that basis. Public opinion is particularly fickle and diverse on foreign policy issues, and it depends heavily on how officials and the media shape it. Most Americans believed in 1959 that there was a missile gap with the Soviet Union that threatened the United States, because they heard that every day. But there weren’t any, and public opinion was a derivative of public communications, not the other way around. Today the feeling that China poses a threat is deep but also incomplete.
During the heat of the Cold War there was a justified – if exaggerated – fear that a world of communist states would hobble the United States economically. The parallel fear of a rising power with a domestic political ideology that contradicts western liberal democracy makes far less sense today: China is a capitalist autocracy that has shown no interest in globalizing its particular form of communism. The domestic market has enriched US and multinational companies significantly. This also applies to the widespread intellectual property violations, much of which are in the past, as Chinese companies have their own domestic intellectual property in 5G and artificial intelligence. The rise of China has sparked an economic upswing for the United States and other more developed economies, stretching from Japan to Thailand to Germany, although its rise has accelerated the United States’ transition from a lower manufacturing powerhouse.
It is also not clear whether China’s aggression in East Asia “threatens the rules-based global order” or whether it simply threatens the US position as the hegemon of the global order. These may be one and the same from a traditional Washington strategic perspective, but that doesn’t mean they are actually identical
Unfortunately, even if China is believed to pose a profound threat, the tactics used by Trump and now the Biden administration are not up to the task of forcing Beijing to reconsider its behavior. China is so powerful that tactics that may have had teeth in the past are now ineffective. Sanctioning a few dozen Chinese officials for human rights violations will not change Beijing’s behavior in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, and the tariffs have caused sufficient pain to be effective. The lecture is held as a lecture. The United States has never had to face an economic and military power that it cannot easily or directly enforce. The mere economic interdependence of today’s world turns a Cold War-era showdown into a nearly useless double-edged sword.
The result is that by continuing a domestically popular aggressive stance, the Biden government has missed the chance of devising a realistic strategy for an entirely new competitor in a post-pandemic world. Tenacity to China may be good domestic policy, but it is still bad policy if the goal is to strengthen US economic power and global security. The Trump administration has not achieved any of its goals; The earlier the Biden administration sets a new course, the better.