The Biden administration has prided itself on breaking with the policies and practices of its predecessor, which have done incalculable damage to the foreign policy and domestic peace of the United States. But curiously, when it comes to the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the United States — how to deal with China’s rise — Biden’s team went ahead and emulated Trump’s destructive approach. This has sparked joy among former Trump officials, who proudly call themselves innovators and the Biden administration unimaginative and dedicated implementers.

Biden officials begin their defense of their China policy by citing supposedly strong bipartisan support for their hardline. When asked to distinguish their China strategy from that of their predecessor, they say little more than they favor a multilateral approach of rallying allies, in contrast to the unilateralism of “America First” practitioners.

Yet it is intellectual laziness to justify policy on the basis of bipartisanship rather than formulating one on the basis of national interests. In no other instance, for example policy towards Iran, Ukraine and Russia, NATO and the EU, has the administration sought to replicate Trump’s policy. Rather, Biden’s team found its own approach and then tried to sell it to both parties.


Moreover, the claim of bipartisanship is exaggerated. A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll showed big differences in opinion on China between Democrats and Republicans:

  • 42% of Republicans but only 17% of Democrats see China as an adversary.
  • 67% of Republicans but only 39% of Democrats consider limiting China’s global influence to be an important US foreign policy goal.
  • 73% of Republicans support restricting scientific research exchanges between the United States and China and 72% support limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the United States. In contrast, 66% of Democrats oppose limits on Chinese students and 59% oppose limits on scientific exchanges. .
  • 83% of Republicans support raising tariffs on imports from China. 45% of Democrats do, while 50% oppose it.

The pursuit of a so-called “bipartisan” policy towards China has in practice been the adoption of Trump policy, at the expense of grassroots Democratic views. It’s easy to be bipartisan when you simply submit to the opposing side’s perspective.

How Trump fanned the flames

What does this mean in practice? The Trump administration has preached a policy of zero-sum confrontation with China. The speeches of his top officials portrayed a nation of intellectual thieves and economic predators that had advanced the world through betrayal and trickery. They suggested that cooperation with such a regime was impossible and almost called for regime change in China as necessary for coexistence. They saw a China whose DNA was a need for domination and argued that 45 years of complex interaction with China since Nixon was healing. They viewed international diplomacy as a chessboard where each country became a battle zone against a Chinese adversary. They undertook a strategy of “decoupling” from China – high tariffs contrary to US legal obligations, an FBI “China initiative” that was used as a blunderbuss against Chinese Americans and Chinese leading research in American universities, and the closure of exchange programs like the Fulbright Program and cooperation of the Center for Disease Control with Chinese counterparts. They have also begun to dismantle the foundations of the four-decade-old US “one China” policy (i.e. US recognition of the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China ) and the informal nature of our relationship with Taiwan which, with military deterrence, has supported peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for 50 years.

The Biden administration has generally kept these Trump policy approaches intact, but with less inflammatory language. They echoed the Trump administration in declaring the end of the era of engagement. Essentially, they argue that they can fight the adversary more effectively than Trump.

What Biden’s team should do instead

What should be the approach of a Democratic administration seeking to project American values ​​and protect American interests? Here is an outline of the principles that should apply.

A sound policy should start with the recognition that China is a great power. In the MAGA world, there was an obsession with being number one. In the real world, there are competing and co-existing major powers, none of which is likely to disintegrate in the face of foreign disapproval or achieve victory on any level. The challenge for the United States will be to lead, live, compete and cooperate with a rising China.

There is no higher priority than avoiding a slide into war, which would be with a nuclear power expected to have 1,000 warheads by 2030. Policies that heighten confrontation and the risk of open conflict must be scrupulously avoided. Both countries bear the responsibility of preventing the emergence of a relationship where war could be seriously considered.

There are international crises that require the cooperation of the great powers. The fight against climate change, for which the United States and China bear the main responsibility, is at the top of the list. The same goes for preventing the next pandemic by working with foreign scientists, including Chinese, who have considerable expertise. Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and defeating North Korea’s nuclear program – both vital US interests – will not succeed without Chinese support.

Decoupling the world’s two largest economies is a formula for impoverishing each. Lifting high tariffs on Chinese imports, which were the centerpiece of Trump policy, would be a good way to start reversing the destructive economic disengagement of the previous administration. Tariffs selectively contribute to rising prices and thus to inflation. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen publicly criticized the tariffs, but the administration was unwilling to take the political risk of eliminating them in a mutually beneficial negotiation. Similarly, economists and strategists understand that Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has taken the United States off the ground on economic and trade issues, which are the highest international priority for Asian countries, and threatens to deprive the United States of important growth markets. China wants to participate in the TPP, just as the United States is leaving. This is no way for us to be competitive.

Maintaining Taiwan’s separate status from the Chinese mainland, until and unless there is an unconstrained settlement of disputes between the two sides, is in our interests and those of Taiwan. The recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China, which the United States provided in 1979 when we established relations, and the conduct of relations with Taiwan on an unofficial basis, are fundamental principles. China’s continued tolerance of a separate Taiwan hinges on its understanding that the United States has not ruled out the possibility of peaceful reunification, no matter how difficult it may be in the present day. current. When administration officials give testimony to Congress calling Taiwan essential to America’s defense of its vital interests, they are implicitly suggesting that Taiwan’s future does not belong to either side of the Strait but to America. It is an involuntary invitation to confrontation.

The United States can lead by example

Xi Jinping’s China is politically oppressive at home and has undertaken brutal crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Targeted punitive responses are necessary to keep us true to our values. We need to fix our broken politics at home so we can once again serve as an inspiring role model for people living in authoritarian systems, a mission Biden has rightly emphasized. The soft power of our hopefully improved example offers the best way to support human rights progress in China and elsewhere.

More importantly, the United States must pursue a stable, long-term approach, not pander to domestic politics every time a headline grabs attention. Since its establishment in 1949, the PRC has undergone dramatic changes in politics and governance, moving from isolation to openness, from extreme repression to openness and back to oppression. To assume that its current oppressive incarnation is permanent is to ignore the lessons of the past 70 years and turn our backs on a young socialite generation who could sustain a positive relationship with the United States if given the chance. Keeping the door open to Chinese students, scholars and visitors is essential if we are to lay the foundation for a constructive relationship with the next generation, let alone fill the great lack of trained American experts in math, science and technology. .

I am convinced that Biden sees the need for a relationship with China that is not a pale imitation of that of his predecessor. He showed he understood the possibility of something better, such as initiating a call and virtual meeting with Xi and emphasizing his desire for competitive coexistence. Given the attitudes of Democratic voters, the challenge is not as great as some of his advisers might tell him. There is no hardline policy on China Biden that can shield him from right-wing attacks from the Rubios, Pompeos, Hawleys, et al. who will make the demonization of China a calling card in their likely presidential races. Biden should do the right thing for US national security and values, not pursue the wisp of bipartisan politics that will forever remain beyond his reach.