During the bitter U.S. presidential campaign, Republicans tried to paint Joe Biden as a quisling who wouldn’t stand up to the Chinese Communist Party — “Beijing Biden.” In fact, China’s most useful ally in the U.S. may turn out to be the GOP.
The reality is that Biden’s China policy is no less confrontational than his predecessor’s. His administration treats China as the topmost geopolitical threat facing the United States. Biden has maintained tariffs on Chinese imports and sanctions against Chinese technology companies. Despite Chinese protests, the U.S. hasn’t slackened in its firm support of Taiwan.
Even more worrying from China’s perspective, Biden is implementing a more coherent strategy than former President Donald Trump ever managed, one that maximizes U.S. strengths and exploits China’s vulnerabilities and mistakes. And, so far, it’s working.
The new U.S. administration clearly understands that China’s recent aggressiveness is a product of the Chinese leadership’s perception of U.S. decline. Only by addressing internal socioeconomic problems such as inequality, poor infrastructure, inadequate government investment in education and science, and racial disparities can the U.S. maintain its global economic leadership and thus alter China’s strategic calculus and behavior.
To that end, Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue package is expected to raise growth to 6.4% and help the U.S. surpass China as the largest contributor to global GDP growth this year. The $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan Biden recently proposed, if passed by Congress, should provide an even bigger boost to long-term U.S. competitiveness.
Just as importantly, while Trump’s “America First” foreign policy alienated friends and allies, Biden has re-established a rock-solid U.S. commitment to multilateralism. His administration has rejoined the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. It has allowed the World Trade Organization to move forward under new leadership and is working hard to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
That approach is helping the U.S. to construct a durable framework of containment against China for the coming decades. Biden recently took the first step toward cementing a semi-formal Indo-Pacific security alliance by convening the first-ever summit of the Quad — the U.S., India, Australia and Japan. Even more impressive was Biden’s success in orchestrating a concerted effort by European, British and Canadian allies to impose sanctions on China for its human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Without such wide support, the Trump administration’s own Xinjiang sanctions had a muted diplomatic impact. By contrast, China lashed out against the new campaign, hitting the UK., European Union and Canada with retaliatory sanctions. Not only has its petulance brought China’s relations with key U.S. allies to a new low, it has endangered a highly prized recent achievement — its investment agreement with the EU, which China had hoped to use as a wedge between Brussels and Washington.
In both cases, Biden’s advisers have skillfully exploited China’s habit of turning friends, or even neutral players, into enemies. In Asia, the U.S. has tapped into the deep fears of China’s neighbors, in particular Japan and India, about Beijing’s military modernization, expansive territorial claims and aggressive behavior.
In Europe, the administration has focused on the power of values. Trump cared little about human rights and his illiberal behavior in office tarnished America’s moral standing. Biden understands that human-rights are China’s greatest vulnerability where the EU is concerned. However reluctant some European countries may be to confront China, there is very little daylight between Brussels and Washington on human rights.
China now finds itself in a bind. Further attempts at intimidation will only drive more countries into the U.S. camp. For help, Chinese leaders may need to look to Biden’s internal opponents.
While Republican voters are generally more hostile to China than Democrats, the Trumpified Republican Party viscerally opposes Biden and his agenda. Congressional obstructionism could doom Biden’s infrastructure plan and other initiatives to revitalize the U.S. economy. That would severely undercut efforts to regain a favorable balance of power against China.
If the GOP continues to undermine U.S. democracy with new voter suppression laws and gerrymandering, America’s ideological appeal will suffer, turning the U.S.-China duel into a pure struggle for power that allies might hesitate to join. Trump’s dark shadow over the 2024 presidential election will also make U.S. partners reluctant to commit to a long-term effort to contain China, for fear that the next administration will ignore allies once again.
Ultimately, of course, China will have to devise its own more effective strategy to counter the U.S. Until then, Beijing can only hope that its harshest U.S. critics succeed in undermining the new administration.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at [email protected]