When it comes to managing relations with China, a nation drawing on centuries of statecraft to inform its strategic designs, president-elect Joe Biden has no better asset than his own political maturity. After a bitter presidential campaign, the new Biden team will be tempted to jettison all of President Donald Trump’s foreign policies. That would be a mistake that Biden is unlikely to make as a longtime veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former vice president who saw his role partly as serving as a foreign affairs tutor to a young commander in chief in Barack Obama.
If they don’t know it already, Biden’s top policymakers will quickly learn that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not change its strategy simply because the U.S. has a new president. Beijing will continue its attempts to push America out of Asia by weakening U.S. alliances and neutralizing the American military’s power projection capabilities. The regime’s efforts to reshape the international order to better serve the CCP’s authoritarian system of governance will continue unabated. China will not cease its efforts to erode U.S. economic and military advantages by stealing U.S. intellectual property and cutting-edge technology and by subsidizing its state-owned tech companies to squeeze American companies out of China. And it will accelerate its political subversion campaigns to co-opt foreign elites to serve CCP global interests. China’s strategy is relentless, sophisticated and bipartisan: it does not care who wins U.S. elections. It views democratic processes and open economic systems as weaknesses ripe for exploitation.
The new president’s desire to improve allied relations could serve as a much-needed antidote to China’s multidimensional onslaught. He would not be starting from scratch. The U.S. already enjoys strong relationships with India, Taiwan, Japan and Australia and continues to improve its new partnerships in Southeast Asia. Securing European and South Korean cooperation in maintaining a hard line on China is crucial.
Biden’s efforts to improve alliances will face challenges posed by U.S. politics. Traditionally U.S. presidents look to bolster alliances by signing trade agreements and improving America’s military posture for deterrence. But these tools will likely be unavailable to Biden. Key political constituencies have turned against trade. Cuts to the defense budget are likely. Biden will have to push allies to make hard choices that risk their positive commercial ties with China. This will require tenacious diplomatic efforts by Washington.
The Biden campaign promised more multilateral approaches to the technology challenges posed by China. This will not be easy, since China retaliates, particularly against weaker countries. Beijing should face a united democratic front against its predatory practices. U.S. allies can impose export and investment controls on advanced technologies together, preventing China from taking advantage of any divisions among them. Washington, meanwhile, should work more closely with its allies to keep the most malfeasant Chinese intellectual property thieves out of their collective markets.
Another dimension of the strategic competition that desperately needs more coordinated collective action is China’s subversion of democracies. The security services of Australia and New Zealand have uncovered vast networks of Chinese agents buying off politicians, attempting to silence academics and mobilizing business and other elites to amplify China’s propaganda messages. At home, the U.S. Department of Justice has a nascent “China Initiative” that has prosecuted legal cases against Chinese agents engaging in similar activities in America. Biden can make this into a global effort that shares intelligence and helps allies use their own laws to prosecute foreign (and especially Chinese) influence peddlers. China has yet to face a real collective challenge to this insidious element of its strategy. Biden can be the first to pose one.
Team Biden was right to accept the fundamental premise of Trump-era China policy: China is a formidable strategic competitor. It was also right to focus on better alliance building as a corrective, though it will not be easy. In Asia, the president-elect will enjoy a honeymoon period with U.S. allies before they become nervous that his administration will not be tough enough on China. In Europe, the honeymoon period will end as soon as Biden asks them to do more to undermine China’s strategy. Given domestic realities, traditional tools of statecraft such as trade and a more robust defense posture may not be in the offing. But if president-elect Biden manages to convince America’s allies to confront China’s predatory technology strategy and malign political influence, he will have accomplished much.
Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. He is author of The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State (AEI Press, forthcoming November 17, 2020).
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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