The China challenge will be Joe Biden’s greatest legacy

Andrei Lungu | 23 December 2020

Joe Biden will soon return to the White House, this time as President of the United States. Once inaugurated, the most important challenge he will face, the one that could leave the deepest legacy, for better or for worse, won’t be related to domestic politics, but foreign policy: China.

The China challenge that the US and the world face goes far beyond issues and threats like territorial disputes, freedom of navigation, economic espionage, intellectual property theft, human rights abuses, overseas influence activities, or government control over private companies. The real China challenge is about how to maintain peaceful relations with China, as it becomes increasingly powerful, by successfully integrating it in the liberal order as a peaceful, cooperative and responsible country. It won’t do any good if the US and the world successfully fight against all these short-term threats, maintain the military edge, but end up in a nuclear war against a hyper-nationalistic PRC two decades from now, or even against a hyper-nationalistic democratic China.

This task will be extremely difficult and might take many decades, but it is the only sustainable long-term goal. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) could one day cease to exist, but China isn’t going anywhere – it will not disintegrate like the Soviet Union, be occupied like Imperial Japan, or be kept down forever. The only long-term solution is to integrate it into the liberal order. If the US fails or completely abandons this goal, then it faces a never-ending confrontation with China.

This is the challenge the Biden administration faces. The first problem that it should address is very simple: nominate and promote more women in positions related to China and the Asia-Pacific all throughout government. In more than 20 years, between Sandra Kristoff and Allison Hooker, no woman held the position of NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs. Nor has a women ever been confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs or Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs – just two women held these positions on an acting basis, but were not confirmed. The Biden administration could, for a change, name three women to all these three important positions. The PRC, led only by men, already has a shortsighted, aggressive, testosterone-driven foreign and military policy and most observers agree that it’s doing a pretty bad job. Shouldn’t Washington avoid the same mistake?

Once Biden has the right people, with China-specific credentials, it can move on to strategy and policy itself, but it must do so quickly. It does not afford to waste a year to put together a strategy. Many others have detailed the general policies that a Biden administration needs – make the United States a better place, solve problems at home, strengthen alliances, win back trust on the world stage, return the US as a leader acting for the common good. All these are necessary, but not enough. The US also needs a specific, coherent and sustainable long-term China strategy.

This strategy needs to focus on the ultimate goal of eventually integrating China into the world order and maintaining peaceful relations with it. This needs to be done while dealing with the serious challenges and threats posed by the PRC’s authoritarian leadership and its mindset of ideology, nationalism and might makes right. The difficulty is further intensified by the consequences of the current administration’s misguided policies: some in Beijing always believed that the US will try to contain China. This view has been vindicated and any desire for cooperation with the US will only be on specific issues or on a short-term basis. In the background, the PRC’s leadership focus is to prepare for a future inevitable confrontation (cold or hot war) with the US, believing that a long-term cooperative relationship isn’t possible. It takes two to tango, so that’s that for cooperative engagement.

The Biden administration must begin by repairing the damage caused by the previous administration and revoke numerous counterproductive, or outright stupid, policies. Non-China specific ones would be rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO and UNHRC, nominating Members to the WTO Appellate Body, or even rejoining the TPP.

Then come the more complicated China-specific corrections. Because of the climate created by the current Republican administration, any undoing of bad or counterproductive policies will be portrayed as weak, appeasing or selling-out. Doing the right thing will take political courage and the ability to shape the narrative, after the current administration successfully managed to portray the PRC (though, to most of the public, just “China”) as an existential threat that has to be confronted immediately on all fronts. Over the next four years, the Biden administration must correct this narrative to present reality as it is. It should start by understanding the political underpinnings of the current administration’s approach to China.

The incoherent, but tougher China policy of the first three years was ultimately the product of the preferences and beliefs of just one man – Donald Trump’s idea that trade wars are winnable and his desire to score a “huge” trade deal to help his reelection, his lack of interest in a long-term, coherent and multilateral approach to China, his utter disregard for human rights. Trump prevented a broad confrontational approach, in order to pursue his trade deal. This was the general framework that US officials had to operate in, regardless of their views. Once the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic hit America, the main driver of the administration’s China policy has become the desire to build up an existential foreign threat, so that attention can be shifted from the disastrous handling of the pandemic, thus securing a Republican electoral victory.

The Republican Party used China as a line of attack against Democrats, including by tying “Communist” China to the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Republican Members of Congress wrote dozens of bills not with the purpose of ever becoming law (as they lack any Democratic co-sponsors), but simply to brandish their anti-“Communist China” credentials. This policy of confrontation against China was never intended to be bipartisan, coherent, or sustainable over the long-term. It was only designed for partisan political purposes. Once Trump abandoned his previous restrain, in order to create an alternative path to Electoral College re-election, many hardliners in the administration were finally set loose, trying to hit China as much as they can, regardless of consequences, with the hope that a future Democratic administration will be forced to leave these actions and policies intact.

This would be a fatal mistake that would doom any Biden strategy before it even comes to life. Understanding that the main driver of the administration’s approach to China has been pure domestic politics collapses the whole fantasy of bipartisanship. Foreign policy needs to be designed to serve the long-term national interests of the United States, not the short-term political interests of a person, a party or an administration.

The first obvious mistake to correct is the trade war. It did and does nothing to solve the trade and economic problems posed by the PRC, it does little to sabotage the Communist Party of China (CPC), but it hurts the American people and the American economy. It’s also illegal and puts off allies. But unilaterally lifting tariffs will attract a flood of criticism. The Biden administration must engage the PRC to negotiate a bilateral removal of tariffs. At the same time, it should start engaging with allies to bring multilateral and legal pressure on the PRC leadership to solve the numerous trade, investment and economic issues. These issues must be settled multilaterally, not bilaterally, as it would disappoint allies which won’t receive the same conditions as the US. The administration must simply negotiate only the bilateral, simultaneous lifting of all tariffs imposed following the Section 301 investigation. As a gesture of goodwill to jump-start these tariff negotiations with China, Biden could unilaterally eliminate a batch of the current tariffs. Ending the trade war will bring huge political criticism, but it will be good for US consumers at a time when the economic crisis affected incomes. It isn’t about being soft on China, it’s about being soft on US citizens during a time of economic difficulty. And it’s about being consistent: Washington cannot accuse China of subverting the “rules-based order,” while conducting an illegal trade war against it.

Other mistakes abound. The US campaign against Huawei was badly implemented, but it cannot be completely abandoned for reasons of credibility and consistency. The US should continue to engage with allies in issues related to Chinese investments in critical infrastructure and control of personal data, but without any public or even private threats or cajoling, which have alienated people even in allied nations that eventually imposed restrictions on Huawei. The US should share concrete proof or explain the hypothetical, but real risks to allies. If public pressure on an allied government is deemed necessary, it should be done not through threats, like ending intelligence sharing or downsizing military cooperation, but by explaining the risks, in an objective, not propagandist tone.

The campaign against almost all Chinese companies is also short-sighted, though thankfully, it only had time to target just a few companies. It’s true that there is a risk that the CPC could coerce any company to become a tool of espionage or geopolitical statecraft, but the proper solution isn’t to ban everything Chinese until the CPC finally collapses – what if it doesn’t? This campaign also ignores more than half of the world’s population, as the US is mostly pressuring its allies. If the threats to democracy, privacy and human rights are so dangerous, then why are people in countless developing countries being abandoned to them? Do their rights not matter? Instead of banning everything Chinese and waiting for regime change in China, the US should try to work with companies to find solutions that could greatly reduce or eliminate risks, at least in specific instances.

By engaging Chinese companies, the Chinese people and the Beijing leadership, with the right mix of positive and negative incentives, it might also be possible, over time, to convince the Chinese leadership to establish an independent judiciary that would alleviate such risks. Chinese entrepreneurs want their companies to be global players, not tools in the hands of party leaders who never had a job in the real economy. They are pragmatic capitalists and put money over Marx. Most are forced, not eager, to toe the party line. Treating them like enemies is counterproductive as it simply strengthens the ties between the leadership and private companies, who grow more dependent on the domestic market with every new foreign restriction.

If all attempts to cooperate fail and bans are inevitable, at least the US will show the Chinese people and Chinese entrepreneurs that it is open to Chinese products, services and innovations, yet the CPC remains the unbreakable barrier to cooperation. Explaining to the Chinese people that the problem is simply the lack of an independent judiciary that limits the CPC’s overreaching control, not the rise of China as an innovative economy, might generate doubt towards the party, instead of anti-Americanism. Instead of uniting China’s elites and people together by targeting Chinese innovation, the Biden administration should focus on identifying the different interests between political, economic and intellectual elites, or between the leadership and the people and try to use them, not to bring regime change, but whatever degree of liberalization is possible.

When it comes to the issue of espionage, the Biden administration needs to rethink things. Espionage is a real threat, but attracting global and Chinese talent is vital. With every Chinese student that decides to study and then remain in America, the US becomes stronger and the PRC loses an opportunity and there is a transfer of power, however small, from China to the US. Out of the 350.000 Chinese students in the US, there are more who want to remain in America than there are PRC spies. Measures such as limiting visas for some Chinese students to one year are counterproductive and do nothing to address the real issue of espionage. The goal should be to encourage and attract Chinese talent, while carefully looking, at an individual level, for potential spies. It is vital that ethnic Chinese people in the US, whether American citizens or not, do not feel discriminated and there isn’t a climate of distrust which makes life difficult and might drive some away from the US.

Just as important, there should be opportunities for graduates to remain in the US, instead of moving back to China. Their stay in the US is also a good opportunity to learn more about democracy, rule of law and other political concepts, instead of just seeing them on TV in an imperfect form. It would be wise for US universities to provide courses in critical thinking and debunking disinformation and introductory courses on politics or political philosophy to all students, citizens or not, in all fields. As a bonus, it will also help with the domestic problem of disinformation and “fake news”, building long-term resilience among American voters to assaults on democracy and truth.

In the same sphere of discrimination is the one that comes from the broader public. Racism and violence against Asian-Americans are already on the rise. In the past three years, unfavorable public opinion on China rose from 47% to 66%. Many people simply associate Chinese-Americans with China. The more distrust and hatred of China will grow, the more discrimination and racism Chinese-Americans will have to endure. In fact, all Asian-Americans risk becoming victims of hate crimes, because many non-Asians, especially the ones likely to commit such hate crimes, fail to differentiate between people of different Asian ethnicities. How can this be avoided?

One critical way is not to create the general climate of hatred against China in the first place. Aggressive or illegal actions by the PRC need to be confronted, but there is no need to create the narrative of an invisible, pervasive, existential threat. All too often, China is seen as a monolith, instead of a hugely diverse country with 1.4 billion different individuals. Words matter, so politicians and officials have a duty to use them responsibly. If they tell the public that any Chinese student or any Chinese citizen might be a spy or a party propagandist, then the public will become distrustful of any Chinese, or “Chinese-looking” person. That is why the approach of warning that everything Chinese, from students to tourists, from companies to apps, might be a threat because the CPC might control it, is dangerous and needs to be abandoned. The Biden administration will have to chose every word carefully, because many in the general public do not differentiate between the current leadership in Beijing, the CPC, the PRC, China or the Chinese people. That is a simple fact that should constrain rhetoric and actions.

What other policies should the Biden administration adopt regarding China? The list of possibilities is too long to list, but there is a simple checklist for designing them – does this policy proposal: 1. help strengthen support for liberalism, democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights or international law among the Chinese public or Chinese elites? 2. prevent the growth of nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, revisionism or anti-Americanism in China? 3. increase America’s power relative to China on the long-term, but without a dramatic increase in the threats outlined at question 2? If the answer to any of the three is yes, it’s likely a good idea worth exploring. If, on the other hand, a policy proposal is likely to increase nationalism, militarism, or anti-Americanism among the Chinese public or elites, unless it creates a considerable and, most importantly, a long-term power advantage for the US, it’s a bad idea, even if it helps create this power advantage on the short-term.

It’s highly unlikely that the PRC will invade Taiwan or take over all the South China Sea tomorrow. It’s quite possible it might 30 or 50 years from now. The Biden administration must always keep on its mind that this is a very long-term challenge – a victory today might in fact transform into a disastrous defeat tomorrow. A lot of policies could weaken China on the short-term, but there are almost no immediate confrontational actions that could weaken China on the long-term. Eventually, China’s economic and regional military power will grow and probably overtake America’s. On the long-term, the only solutions are strengthening the US and its alliances, or, more difficult, yet also more efficient, changing China’s mindset to integrate it into the liberal order. Both can be done without antagonizing or confronting China, but confrontation will make the second option impossible.

Yet the Biden administration must also understand that dealing with the PRC as it is now is not an option on the long-term. Unless the Chinese leadership’s mindset and policies change, the moment Beijing will feel more powerful than the US, it will try to use that power, whether in Taiwan, the South China Sea, or elsewhere. This is unlikely to happen under the Biden administration, but unless solutions are identified today, a future administration will confront the nightmarish scenario of standing down or confronting the PRC militarily.

Thus, the US needs to create both positive and negative incentives for the PRC leadership’s and the Chinese people’s mindset to incrementally change over time. In the meantime, it will also have to find ways to engage the Chinese people, to prevent the growth of anti-Americanism, as a consequence of either domestic propaganda or backlash against Washington’s policies, especially those already in place. One option is easy: every time the US does something targeting the PRC, in videos posted on Chinese social media platforms, officials should explain in Chinese why the US government is doing this and why this doesn’t go against China’s legitimate rights and interests, but is simply an answer to illegal or aggressive policies taken by the Beijing leadership, which seems to have little interest in establishing China as a responsible and moral great power, contrary to China’s long-term interest.

Lastly, the Biden administration must work to build real bipartisanship for its China strategy. There will be people in the Republican Party who won’t be able to take a long-term view and will never accept anything short of direct confrontation with “Communist China”. But many others, not just politicians, but foreign policy and national security officials, can be convinced through reason, dialogue and engagement. The point isn’t to have unanimity, but enough bipartisan support so that a different administration would likely follow the general contours of the strategy, even if sporadically opting for more confrontational policies. The goal is to prevent another partisan debacle like the one over the past four years, which ignores the long-term national interest.

Biden and those around him might consider China to be of secondary importance, compared to numerous domestic issues. Strictly on the basis of a four-year term, that might be true. But for the future of America and the world, how Biden will approach China will probably be his most consequential decision. If it gets China wrong, not only does the US face the risk of a future nuclear war, but it will be impossible to address the existential risks of climate change, pandemics, or those stemming for emerging technologies like AI or DNA-editing. A never-ending confrontation with China will ruin the 21st century. This is why it is vital that the Biden administration gets China right, for everybody’s sake.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Joe Biden in front of the US Flag (Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore), Joe Biden and his advisors in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao (The White House/David Lienemann), US and PRC flags (Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture), Joe Biden Toasting Xi Jinping (Flickr/U.S. Department of State), Jack Ma at the 2017 YouthConnekt Africa Summit (Flickr/Paul Kagame), Joe Biden and Xi Jinping at the International Studies Learning Center in Los Angeles (Flickr/Antonio R. Villaraigosa),  Joe Biden giving a speech at Sichuan University (The White House/David Lienemann).


Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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