No foreign policy challenge will be more complex or consequential for the incoming Biden Administration than U.S. relations with China. China presents a fundamentally new type of challenge for the United States: a great power competition in which both rivals maintain extraordinary interconnectivity in the commercial, technological, financial, and cultural spheres, and in which China plays a dominant economic role in the Indo-Pacific region. The Biden team’s approach needs to be subtle, patient, and sophisticated.
The first order of business should be to dispel three dated narratives.
First, China is clearly not going to become a “responsible stakeholder,” accepting the burden of producing global public goods and adhering to accepted norms and rules. Instead, it will continue to be a “selective stakeholder,” choosing international institutions that support its ideas of sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs, and rejecting (or suborning) those that emphasize transparency, accountability, and human rights.
Second, for some time now Beijing’s reassuring narrative of China’s “peaceful rise” has been at odds with predatory commercial behavior and threats of military action across the region. It has empowered “wolf warrior” diplomats to discredit and demean its foreign critics, and it has leveraged social media to whip up nationalistic fervor among its netizens, who retaliate by organizing boycotts against its neighbors. That China is rising, there can be no doubt, but there is considerable doubt that it will do so peacefully.
Third, China is not the Soviet Union, and the Biden Administration needs to resist the temptation to cast it in that role. China’s overreaching over the past few years—and the global response to it—does not signal the beginning of a new Cold War. The Trump Administration aggressively pushed this narrative throughout 2020, after three years of regular diplomatic engagement, but the model doesn’t fit now, nor will it in the future. There is no modern-day Iron Curtain walling off China’s 1.4 billion people. The country is fully integrated into the global economy and a key player in its major financial institutions. China is not seeking to coerce or entice any country to adopt its ideology or form of government. Instead, it wants other countries to recognize China’s cultural, political, and economic superiority and to defer to its preferences, in return for which Beijing would bestow gifts and prestige. This is a far cry from America’s competition with the Soviet Union.
In addition to dispelling these narratives, the Biden Administration will have to navigate a changed domestic landscape. American views of China have reached their lowest ebb in more than forty years, according to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. In particular, survey respondents blamed China for its mishandling of the COVID-19 virus, but they also cited Beijing’s unfair trade practices, its human rights abuses against Muslim Uighurs, and the crackdown in Hong Kong. Further, the two domestic constituencies that traditionally have defended engagement with China—academia and the business community—have toned down their support.
China is faring no better elsewhere in the world. A Pew survey this past summer in fourteen developed countries showed that unfavorable opinions toward China had increased to levels not seen since the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
It’s not clear whether these attitudes will persist. After all, after the initial outrage over Tiananmen, the world quickly proved more eager to access Chinese markets than to criticize its human rights record. It is also unclear whether the ill-feelings will dent China’s continued economic rise, which has now spanned more than three decades. Even in this pandemic year, the IMF forecasts that China’s GDP will grow 1.9 percent, versus a contraction of 4.4 percent for the rest of the world. China’s exports and trade surplus with the United States are at record high levels for the year, and it appears to be headed toward a V-shaped recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, with an 8.2 percent growth rate projected in 2021. No wonder, then, that Chinese President Xi Jinping recently boasted that China’s example in fighting the virus “fully demonstrated the clear superiority of Communist Party leadership and our socialist system.”
Yet there are strong signs that Xi may have overplayed his hand here, too. China is not as strong as Xi has assessed, nor are other countries as docile, deterred, or easily intimidated as he had hoped.
China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, forced imprisonment and indoctrination of its Uighur population, and ongoing military activities in the region have increasingly aroused opposition, prompted coordinated countermeasures, and isolated the regime.
China’s clash with India in July over the Line of Control in the Himalayas not only resulted in the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers; it also hardened Indian attitudes toward Beijing. In the past year, China has also continued to clash with a range of Southeast Asian countries all of which are alarmed by its extravagant territorial claims in the South China Sea, which have no basis in international law.
In response, countries in the region have increased their military spending. The 2020 Defense of Japan White Paper ranked China as a graver threat to the country’s security than North Korea, and the Ministry of Defense submitted a record-high budget request. Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that he would recommend a $190 billion increase in defense spending over the next decade.
Other countries have embraced greater military cooperation and intelligence-sharing with each other and with the United States, including Malaysia and Indonesia. In late October, India and the United States signed an agreement to share classified geospatial intelligence between their armed forces, an initiative the United States had been pursuing for more than a decade. India, Japan, and Australia are all poised to play a larger and more coordinated role with the United States in a revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
On the commercial side, India banned the use of fifty-nine Chinese apps, including the hugely popular TikTok and WeChat, and prohibited Chinese firms from bidding on domestic infrastructure projects. India also agreed with Japan and Australia to develop supply chains for the Indo-Pacific region that would reduce China’s role in providing essential supplies. The Trilateral Supply Chain Initiative may be launched as soon as next year. Japan started a $2.2 billion fund to create incentives for Japanese industries critical to national security to relocate out of China. Tokyo also quietly canceled Xi’s planned visit to Japan scheduled for this year. (The European Union did likewise.) In response to the repression of Hong Kong, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered the right to live permanently in Britain to up to three million Hong Kong residents. A few days later, London reversed a January decision and banned the Chinese technology firm Huawei from participating in its 5G telecommunications network, with all previously installed equipment to be removed by 2027.
China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic has also cast a long shadow. Its initial handling of the virus was criminally negligent, as political officials actively suppressed the truth. In July, the Justice Department indicted two Chinese nationals for seeking to steal COVID-19 vaccine research. Perhaps to compensate for its missteps, China has adopted Russian-style disinformation tactics to attack the United States and Europe over their mishandling of the pandemic and has spread disinformation on social media. As of November 2020, China still had not fully cooperated with the World Health Organization’s efforts to investigate the origins of the virus, instead denying WHO scientists access to key sites and data.
Yet there is no appetite in the region for making a zero-sum choice between the United States and China. No one wants a new Cold War and its concomitant risks of miscalculation and conflict. Countries are not eager to join a formal alliance aimed at confronting China directly—at least not yet. Their preferred approach looks more like a hedging strategy than containment, designed to ensure that they can maintain their autonomy, reap economic benefits from trade, and refrain from submitting to Beijing’s preferences.
Many of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region would welcome a more robust U.S. military and economic presence, yet they would prefer an American partner that shows more respect for their opinions and more consistency in its policies toward China.
China’s neighbors differ in their assessments not only of the threat Beijing poses, but also of its immediacy and its best remedy. The Biden Administration will have to knit these views together, even if informally, to effectively counter China’s influence. It will be hard to build consensus when one country’s adoption of a prudent hedging strategy may seem to another to be a containment policy, or even a combative approach.
Enter the Biden Administration
For Washington, the list of opportunities to engage bilaterally with Beijing is short. It would include greater cooperation on global issues such as climate change and nonproliferation. It may also be possible to forge an agreement with China that the status quo on Taiwan has served all parties well enough and should be preserved, but getting Beijing to respect international legal claims in the South China Sea will be more difficult. An even more ambitious agenda would be to reach mutual understandings with China on cyberwarfare and the non-militarization of space. Washington’s pursuit of all these goals should receive widespread support from regional stakeholders.
Of course, China gets a vote in this contest. Beijing could try to win friends by offering economic benefits and preferential access to its markets. Or it could double down on pressure tactics, leveraging influential domestic constituencies in countries by threatening to impose tariffs or to deny access to its markets altogether.
Xi could also try to reduce the use of inflammatory rhetoric and provocative actions, hoping that the anger and fear directed toward China would gradually recede over time. After all, 2020 has not turned out like Xi planned. In his last New Year’s address, he stressed the importance of a creating a “harmonious and stable environment.” He correctly understood that the country needed a period of regional and international stability to consolidate its gains and tackle domestic challenges. These challenges, which have been well-documented, include a demographic time bomb in which China could get older before it gets richer, reinforced by a middle-income trap, in which it tries and fails to transition from resource-driven growth and cheap labor to a model based on higher productivity from engineering, scientific, and technological innovations. Xi’s China is also handicapped by a state-led industrial policy that misallocates resources to inefficient and unprofitable state-owned enterprises, as well as by severe environmental degradation that is damaging Chinese citizens’ quality of life. In the coming years, Beijing may welcome a period of calm and less antagonistic relations with the United States.
Even if the Biden Administration finds that China is not receptive to any part of its agenda, there are still opportunities around the region that it can seize right away.
First, it can act quickly to repair the damage caused to America’s alliances, starting with South Korea and Japan, which have been scarred by the last four years of dealing with an often caustic, unreliable, and unpredictable Trump Administration. Treating allies with respect and communicating regularly with them to avoid surprises would go a long way toward improving alliance relations, which will enhance security and our ability to deter threats in Asia.
Second, the Biden Administration can build on the slow and steady progress U.S. administrations have made over the past few decades in deepening Washington’s relations with India and Vietnam. Both countries are more amenable to working with the United States to counter China’s behavior, especially in the security sphere. With the right approach, Indonesia and Malaysia should also welcome closer security ties with the United States.
Third, Washington can send a clear signal to all that it is committing to a renewed presence in Asia by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was the successor agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Biden Administration would likely encounter some domestic political opposition to this move, but most analysts argue that the agreement would be a net economic gain for the United States. The larger reason for U.S. membership is that it would reduce its Asian members’ overdependence on trade with China.
Fourth, the United States needs to do a better job of competing with China in the arena of ideas and values. For the past two administrations, Washington has spoken with an uncertain and often muted voice on human rights. The Biden Administration needs to proudly defend America’s founding values and make the argument that they are universal. The reason for doing so is not that there is any chance of dethroning the Chinese Communist Party anytime soon. Rather, standing up for fundamental values of freedom and democratic behavior is important to show that Washington takes these values seriously, and that its model of governance, despite its flaws, is superior to the type of directed authoritarianism favored by Beijing.
There are no guarantees that the United States and China can work together on certain fronts while managing their competition to prevent escalation to open conflict. What is certain, however, is that the course the Biden Administration charts on China will not only determine stability in the Indo-Pacific region for the next few years; it will also determine whether the liberal world order that sustained peace and prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century will extend much further into the 21st.
Mitchell B. Reiss is a Distinguished Fellow at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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