Trump talked the talk, but Biden may prove tougher on China


Is President-elect Joe Biden’s administration set to go soft on China?

That seems to be the view of officials in outgoing President Donald Trump’s administration, who in recent days and weeks have been implementing a flurry of rule changes and policy pronouncements aimed at tying Biden’s hands on China.

In rapid succession, the Trump administration has targeted dozens of Chinese companies, including chipmakers and drone manufacturers, for the US sanction blacklist; banned eight Chinese software applications, including the popular Alipay and WeChat Pay mobile payment apps; lifted restrictions on high-level diplomatic contacts between America and Taiwan; and sanctioned more officials in response to Beijing’s rollback of freedoms in Hong Kong.

The Biden ‘soft on China’ trope is also being pushed by Trump’s Republican Party enablers in the Congress. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, for example, in a typically classless tweet after last year’s election, disparaged Biden’s cabinet picks, saying the former vice president was ‘surrounding himself with panda huggers who will only reinforce his instincts to go soft on China’.

Not to be outdone, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for four years another Trump enabler, tweeted his own critique of Biden’s foreign policy team, charging they ‘will be polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline. I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the “normal” that left us dependent on China.’

Perhaps more oddly, the view of Biden as potentially more pliant to Beijing has also come from some local Hong Kong and Asian human rights activists and pro-democracy advocates. They see the former vice president as too eager to revert to the status quo of ‘normal’ relations between Washington and Beijing in pursuit of loftier goals, like cooperation on climate change.

These activists have praised Trump’s tough talk, his trade war and his seeming willingness to disrupt the so-called Washington consensus that prioritised constructive engagement with Beijing. Finally, they believed, an American president who talked of ‘America first’ was holding China to account.

But was Trump really all that tough on China, beyond the bombast and the tweets? And is Biden really about to reverse course and begin cosying up to Beijing?

First on Trump: as is often the case, his rhetoric and self-aggrandising boasts mask a record of scant accomplishment. And even his rhetoric until recently wasn’t all that tough.

Almost from the time he was elected in November 2016, Trump fawned over ‘my good friend Xi Jinping’, sparing the Chinese leader from his normal Twitter broadsides even while attacking the heads of longtime US allies like Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In 2017, Xi flattered Trump with a rare tour and dinner inside the Forbidden City. Trump was so taken by his VIP treatment in China that he even changed his Twitter banner to a photograph of himself and first lady Melania Trump being treated by Xi and his wife to the opera.

Until the early months of 2020, even after the start of the coronavirus pandemic that he blamed on China, Trump continued to offer fulsome praise for Xi personally. ‘He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus’, Trump tweeted in February last year. ‘Great discipline is taking place in China, as Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation.’

Trump’s singular focus during his term was to secure a new trade deal with China, and he was willing to forgo criticism of China’s human rights record to achieve it. According to former national security adviser John Bolton and other insiders, Trump openly endorsed Xi’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the building of concentration camps there, and he largely ignored the crushing of the protest movement in Hong Kong. Those were irritants for Trump’s pursuit of a trade pact.

Trump did manage to sign a narrow ‘phase one’ trade agreement with China in January last year, but the impact has been limited, partly due to the pandemic, the global economic slowdown and the fall China’s import demand. Between January and November, China purchased some US$82 billion in American goods, far below the level promised in the deal. And a ‘phase two’ trade pact is nowhere in sight.

The fear that Biden will hark back to the Barack Obama administration’s days of doing business as usual with China also seems badly misplaced, and about as exaggerated as Trump’s boasts of his own accomplishments.

First, that view ignores how the American foreign policy consensus on China has shifted in the past several years, a shift that actually started during Obama’s second term.

Obama in 2009, with Hillary Clinton as his first-term secretary of state, seemed intent on trying to publicly downplay human rights concerns and to bring China into the fold as a global ‘stakeholder’—the phrase at the time—on big issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, joint exploration of space and stabilisation of the global financial system. China’s response at the time was simply, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

For example, when the Obama team tried to persuade China to use its leverage to get Iran and North Korea to forgo their nuclear weapons programs, Beijing was decidedly uninterested. As one foreign affairs official in Beijing told me at the time, ‘When we hear a country has nuclear weapons, our only question is, are they pointing them at us?’

During Obama’s second term, around the time Xi ascended to power, the US was already adopting a tougher line, seeing China’s build-up in the South China Sea as a major military challenge. Obama was already trying to form an alliance to keep China in check, including through the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that excluded China and that Trump later disavowed. More recently, China has joined the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and this time it is the US on the outside looking in.

Biden will have to decide whether to negotiate to join either or both of those pacts.

The shift in thinking on China has been spelled out most starkly by Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia, who has been tapped to lead Biden’s Asia policy. In several recent articles, Campbell has explained the existential challenge China poses to America, and the altered view in Washington.

‘Although Washington remains bitterly divided on many issues, a rare area of apparent consensus across the political aisle has emerged around the need to pursue a more robust approach when it comes to China’, Campbell wrote in one piece last year.

In a seminal 2018 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Campbell laid out how the entire foreign policy establishment wrongly believed that engagement with Beijing would eventually make China more liberal, open and less repressive.

‘Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted’, Campbell wrote. ‘China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.’

Biden will inherit Trump’s tariffs, and will likely find them useful tools in his future negotiations with Beijing. His incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, recently told CNN that the incoming American president was in no hurry to roll back the tariffs, but was looking for ‘a clear-eyed, leverage-based approach to bring China to the table and get them to alter or amend their most problematic trade practices that harm the American economy’.

Biden will find an American public largely unified on the need to be firmer with Beijing on trade and other issues, from Rubio and Cotton on the right to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the left. The US business community, which once provided the ballast for the Sino-American relationship, has lately soured on China and will be in favour of a more hardline approach to pry open markets and level the playing field.

And Biden has indicated he will eschew Trump’s go-it-alone approach and bring along America’s traditional allies, who are similarly worried about the challenge from a more assertive China.

During the hard-fought 2020 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly disparaged the former vice president as ‘Beijing Biden’, claiming he would roll back tariffs and become more accommodating to China. The irony is that while Trump talked tough, it may be Biden who gets more done.

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Featured image: Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0