In his first weeks as president Joe Biden has been focused on the Covid-19 vaccine rollout and trying to pass a $1.9tn stimulus package. But he has been eager to deliver another central message — when it comes to China, he will not be a pushover.
Speaking to the online Munich security conference last month, Biden said the US and its allies faced “long-term strategic competition” with China and had to “push back” against Beijing’s “economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system”.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” he said, a choice between those who argue that “autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential.”
In the first weeks of his administration, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, described the detention of 1m Uighurs in Xinjiang’s labour camps as “genocide”, while national security adviser Jake Sullivan slammed China’s “assault” on freedoms in Hong Kong, saying the US would “impose costs” on China over any abuses.
While the Biden administration has tried to signal a clean break with its predecessor on most issues, the stance on China has often sounded similar. Biden has even signalled that he has no immediate plan to remove the tariffs Donald Trump imposed on imports from China during his trade war.
“People thought there was going to be a huge difference between the Trump and Biden administrations,” says Nadège Rolland, a China expert at The National Bureau of Asian Research. “But from the first few weeks, it seems there’s going to be a lot of continuity, not in style and tone but in the awareness of the challenges posed by China.”
There is one big difference, however. Biden believes he can craft a much more effective strategy for dealing with Beijing by forging common ground with US allies and partners. In interviews with a series of senior officials who are leading the administration’s dealings with China, they describe a strategy that can be summarised as — tough, but with alliance backing.
Biden officials believe Trump was correct to take a harsher stance towards China. But they did not support his methods, saying the former president, who criticised the amount the US spent defending allies in Europe and Asia, had created power vacuums and weakened alliances.
One senior official said Biden wants to create what Dean Acheson, postwar US secretary of state, called “situations of strength” where like-minded nations co-operated to tackle threats.
But the question he is grappling with is how much partners, especially in Europe, are willing to take part in these plans. While opinion towards Beijing has hardened in many countries, European allies in particular are reluctant to get drawn into a cold war-style confrontation with China.
“There’s a broad desire for dialogue and discussion, but no illusion that many EU countries are careful and want to take a step-by-step manner,” the official says.
When Barack Obama took office amid the global financial crisis in 2009, the priority with China in his first year was to avoid unnecessary confrontation. The Biden administration, which operates with many of the same officials, is not ruling out co-operation with China — it says the US will engage on urgent issues such as Iran, North Korea and climate change. But the new president, they say, is more focused on rebuilding alliances.
“They’ve clearly signalled that they’re not in a rush to pursue dialogue for the sake of dialogue,” says Evan Medeiros, former top Asia adviser to Barack Obama.
One senior official, however, stressed that the US was “not preventing dialogue in any way” with Beijing, but wanted to first explore areas of common ground with its allies.
“We are putting a premium on a deep sharing of views with partners and allies to help arm us with strategic perspectives,” he said.
Biden on Wednesday issued his “interim national security strategic guidance”, which said China was “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”.
In Asia, Biden wants to strengthen the “Quad”, a group that includes Japan, Australia and India, to counter China. The Financial Times reported this week that the White House is spearheading an initiative with Japan, Australia and India that would use vaccine diplomacy in Asia to counter China’s influence.
In Europe, his team has been engaging with European officials in an effort to find areas where they can co-operate on China.
But US officials say they recognise that while the US and Europe share many values, there is different risk appetite across the Atlantic. After Biden spoke in Munich, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron both gave remarks with more emphasis on the need to co-operate with China.
European and US officials say they are about to hold a series of discussions in the coming weeks over everything from strategic approaches to specific issues such as how to work together to stop China from securing sensitive technologies.
A second senior US official says the talks will focus on finding areas of convergence and building “interlocking and overlapping” coalitions, as opposed to a big united front against China, in order to generate “the greatest wingspan”.
Medeiros adds that while Merkel and Macron have been “very clear that alignment against China isn’t on the cards”, the US can build coalitions for specific issues.
“There’s a real geopolitical play to leverage Europe to shape China. But that is different from some kind of Kissingerian approach to get Europe to align with the US against China,” he says. “We shouldn’t expect to see Biden, Merkel and Macron standing up and saying, ‘We will work together Yalta-style to balance Chinese power’.”
US officials are confident they can find common cause with Europe on issues such as the Uighurs and Hong Kong and on economic issues involving access to China’s market. But they say it will be harder to agree on technology issues, such as the 5G debate that strained transatlantic relations during the Trump administration.
One challenge for Washington is the different political calculations that have to be made when balancing competing economic and security considerations.
Nathan Sheets, a former top Treasury official, says Biden’s tougher stance reflects bipartisan congressional pressure which is amplified by the fact that looking weak on China would hurt the Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
“The zeitgeist right now demands a policy that is tough on China,” says Sheets, who is now chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income. “Everyone in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, is in broad agreement that China is a strategic competitor.”
Across the Atlantic, however, the picture is more mixed, partly because some politicians put a higher premium on ensuring good trade relations with Beijing.
“When I discussed the threat of China’s strategy and the necessity of a competitive response with foreign ministry and security officials in Europe, they were in complete agreement,” says Alex Wong, a former Trump official now at the Hudson Institute. “The question was always whether they could convince their politicians.”
But Wong adds that European lawmakers seem more willing to adopt a more hawkish stance after seeing the lack of transparency from China surrounding the pandemic.
In another example of the challenge, the Biden team was frustrated that Europe signed an investment treaty with China just before the new president took office, even after Sullivan had signalled they would prefer Europe to confer before proceeding.
“US-EU co-operation is going to be harder than anybody likes to admit. It is easy to say, but harder to do as evidenced by the EU-China investment agreement,” says Anja Manuel, director of the Aspen Security Forum. “It wasn’t really the ideal way to go out of the gate.”
The first US official told the Financial Times that they had assumed China had put such an “enticing” deal on the table that the EU felt compelled to move quickly. But he says US officials who have since reviewed the text were very “underwhelmed” about concessions China made.
“We are concerned that these kinds of deals or arrangements don’t push China to move away and abandon certain elements of their economic practices,” he says.
While trade concerns may influence some European politicians to hold back on attacking China, one problem for the US is that the perception in Europe about the security and economic threats from China is nowhere near as strong as it is in Washington.
“Europeans have finally come to realise that China is not going to liberalise politically under President Xi Jinping but they’re still clinging to the hope that they can shape Chinese behaviour on economic issues,” says Rolland, a former French defence ministry official.
Susan Thornton, a former senior state department Asia official now at Yale Law School, adds that while Europeans share concerns about Chinese state capitalism and economic rule-breaking, they view the rise of China in a less threatening way than Americans.
“European officials who work on Asia policy say they’re used to seeing powers rise and fall and are comfortable with China’s rise, and don’t see things as a Manichean struggle,” she says. “There’s a structural power shift that is driving a lot of the US narrative about China, and the US tends toward overconcern about decline.”
Signs of caution
While the US focuses on finding agreement with allies, its actions in the Pacific indicate that Biden will maintain a tough stance on China. The US navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait and held dual aircraft carrier exercises in the South China Sea — only the third time that has occurred since 2012.
But the Biden administration has yet to take any big decisions that would indicate whether its harsh rhetoric will be matched by equally tough action.
Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican lawmaker and leading China critic, says he has seen encouraging signs, but is taking a “wait and see” attitude. “The good news is that many of Biden’s advisers have demonstrated a growing awareness of the threat from the Chinese Communist party.”
In addition to Blinken and Sullivan, Biden has installed Kurt Campbell to be his Indo-Pacific co-ordinator and Laura Rosenberger as his top NSC China official. Meanwhile at the Pentagon, Ely Ratner, another more hawkish official, has been asked to head a new task force focused on China policy.
But one early litmus test may be how Biden responds to the situation in Xinjiang. In his first call with Xi last month, Biden said there would be “repercussions” for the persecution of Uighurs in China’s northwestern province. But he later said he understood that there were “different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow”.
While defenders say he was just explaining why China might view the situation differently, critics questioned whether he would actually take meaningful action.
“It is increasingly clear that Biden himself is not as hawkish as his advisers,” says Gallagher, who worries that he will ignore his more hawkish advisers.
Another measure of Biden’s approach will be how aggressively he tries to prevent China from obtaining sensitive US technology — an area where Trump was assertive with export bans on companies from Huawei to DJI, the drone maker, and SMIC, China’s biggest semiconductor maker.
While Trump faced a tough time convincing European nations to exclude Huawei from their networks, Biden’s nominee for commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, was criticised for refusing during her nomination hearing to commit to keeping Huawei on an export blacklist, before later clarifying her position after a big uproar.
Sarah Bauerle Danzman, an expert on the security implications of investment decisions at Indiana University, says the Biden team shares the same view about technology risks as the Trump team, but the key question is how they would evaluate the level of risk and the ability to mitigate threats in crafting policies.
“They’re going to have to think about the trade-offs in terms of when maximum pressure works and when it does not. A lot of this is about slowing the People’s Republic of China. Nobody thinks we can keep this technology from the PRC forever.”
Another indication will be how Biden handles an order that Trump signed to bar Americans from investing in Chinese companies with alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army. The Treasury recently pushed back the implementation deadline by several months, as part of a broader review of many of the sanction-related actions taken by Trump.
“That will be a litmus test. If Treasury secretary Janet Yellen goes soft on that, they will lose a lot of goodwill in Congress,” says one former top Trump administration official.
John Smith, former head of the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, says Biden is unlikely to ease up on this matter. “There is bipartisan support in Congress that will press him on China,” says Smith, a partner at Morrison & Foerster. “And his own team will want him to take a tougher approach on China, but with allies.”
While Biden sizes up China with a harsher eye, Beijing has also taken a more jaundiced view of Washington, suggesting that relations will remain choppy.
“China is under no illusions about how the US is looking at the relationship,” says Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Beijing has also undergone a shift. There is now a more open discussion of longer-term rivalry with the US which was always there, but was buried.”
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