Washington keeps choosing the wrong moment to challenge China

Andrei Lungu | 6 May 2024

The same decision can be smart at the right time or disastrous at the wrong time. The recent passage of a bill that forces Chinese company ByteDance to divest from TikTok or face a ban on the video-sharing app in the United States is one such case.

One of the main arguments for the bill, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in late April, was based on the long-held worry that ByteDance could use TikTok—especially under the influence or direction of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese government—to spread propaganda and influence its American users and maybe even interfere in U.S. elections. At first, it might seem like a good idea to ban TikTok before the November elections to prevent any kind of interference.

But the new law doesn’t ban TikTok—it just gives the app’s Chinese parent company until January 2025, two months after the U.S. elections, to sell TikTok. TikTok will be around, under the control of a Chinese company, for another round of elections. Recent rumors seem to indicate that ByteDance would even prefer to shut down TikTok in the United States rather than sell it.

But the gravest threat is that Donald Trump, who is neck and neck with Biden in the polls, has come out publicly opposing a ban—even though he supported it in 2020. With TikTok’s operations safe before the elections but facing the end of the road under a second Biden administration, the law creates a logical incentive for ByteDance—or the Chinese government itself—to do whatever it can to help the candidate who opposes the ban get elected, in the hope that it might get a better deal than certain demise.


It is difficult to look at this entire seven-year TikTok process and find something that worked well. If things turn out OK in this case, it will be a consequence of luck, not strategy. And a strategy—one that is coherent, comprehensive, and long term—is what the United States needs in its rivalry with China, as ad hoc hurried efforts cannot make up for years of avoiding tough decisions. For the future of U.S.-China relations, which go beyond TikTok to life-and-death issues such as a possible Taiwan war, it is time for Washington to start playing it by the book, not by ear. 


This article has been published in Foreign Policy. You can read the full article on Foreign Policy’s website.

Photo Credits: Flickr/Solen Feyissa


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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