Since US President Joe Biden took office, many people have been surprised by his China policy. As one of the few presidents in American history with decades of foreign policy experience, people thought he would take a professional, rational and more traditional diplomatic stance. They expected his policies to be a departure from former US President Donald Trump’s aggressive and arrogant “America First” approach.
Many commentators have taken it for granted that being rational implies taking a moderate stance, meaning that Biden should deviate from Trump’s hardline position against China and seek win-win cooperation with the country.
Framework of Biden’s China policy
But reality is harsh. It is clear that Biden is not seeking friendly cooperation with China but continuing to oppress and contain it. That said, Biden’s policy design is more structured and streamlined and is clearly the work of a professional team. Biden’s China policy is broadly outlined as follows:
First, strengthening the US’s absolute and relative competitiveness vis-à-vis China. The various bills that the Biden administration has pushed for in Congress are fundamentally aimed at strengthening the US’s industrial competitiveness, revitalising infrastructure, enhancing hi-tech research and development, and reshaping global supply chains to bring manufacturing back to the US. These bills make clear that “responding to the China challenge” is the overall driving force in making domestic and foreign policy adjustments. The Biden administration’s long-term goal is to build up the US’s national strength and restore its absolute power. The short-term goal, on the other hand, is to curtail China’s development at the very least and prevent it from surpassing the US.
Second, rounding up its allies and establishing a united front against China with the goal of containing China on a global scale. Just within a couple of months, the Biden administration has successfully revived and straightened out its alliance system, namely the G7, NATO, Five Eyes, the Indo-Pacific, and alliances with Japan and South Korea.
Because the Trump administration went by “America First”, the US was indifferent towards its traditional allies. But this changed when Biden took office. While these alliances were not established by the Biden administration, Biden quickly won their support because he was enthusiastic about reinstating these relations.
...using the US’s powerful voice to portray China as an emerging power that is evil, barbaric and oppressive at all levels in an attempt to fit US-China competition into the Hollywood narrative framework of “light versus darkness” and “justice against evil”.
Third, encroaching on sensitive issues of concern to China — mainly Taiwan and the South China Sea — and incrementally challenging China’s red lines, so that China’s strategic resource allocation would be dispersed, creating immediate problems and potentially explosive issues for China’s development.
On the South China Sea issue, the Biden administration continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations and opposes China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
On the Taiwan issue, Biden frequently challenges China, such as by inviting a Taiwan representative to his inauguration ceremony, sending three US senators to Taiwan in a whirlwind visit, landing a US military aircraft at a Taipei airport, and approving a US$750 million arms sale to Taiwan.
Fourth, launching a war of public opinion — the shifting power dynamics between China and the US due to narrowing relative strength is reduced to an ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy. In addition, using the US’s powerful voice to portray China as an emerging power that is evil, barbaric and oppressive at all levels in an attempt to fit US-China competition into the Hollywood narrative framework of “light versus darkness” and “justice against evil”.
In this regard, there is no limit as to the American government’s choice of words, and also no concern whether their speech is based on facts. For example, while the US labelled China’s Xinjiang policy as “genocide”, they are unable to justify their claim with concrete evidence. In peacetime, it is unimaginable that a country would demonise its competitor based on unfounded rumours and allegations in normal exchanges between countries.
Well designed but poorly executed
On paper, the US’s China policy framework seems to be satisfactory. But in terms of execution, one would need to minus points based on the varying effects of each policy. Firstly, in terms of enhancing the US’s competitiveness, the Biden administration is learning from China’s industrial policy route and prescribing the right remedy for the hollowing out of US manufacturing. Their general direction is correct and they will see results, but this will take time. While these efforts may lead to China-US decoupling in a few industries in the long term and possibly create parallel systems in some industries, China’s position in the global supply chain will not be shaken.
That the Biden administration was able to effortlessly restore its alliance system that was otherwise neglected and even somewhat destroyed by Trump demonstrates that the US’s position as the leader of the West is firm. But this is neither surprising to China nor will it deliver a fatal blow to China.
Following the Second World War, the US has always been the leader of the so-called Western-led “free world”. Trump’s actions caused disunity between the US and its allies, but this was just a temporary anomaly in the US’s alliance system. In the normal scheme of things, a US president would lead the country in re-establishing its position as a Western leader and strengthen its relationship with its allies — just as it should be — and every countermeasure taken by China against the US must be based on this understanding.
But if it is used to target China, the US’s existing alliance system has a structural limitation — most of its major allies, including the European powers, Japan, South Korea, and so on, have strong economic relations with China which is often their largest trading partner. In the absence of fundamental conflicts of interest or strategic conflicts, the US’s allies are not strongly motivated to enter into hostile relations with China.
As long as these countries still find the Chinese market attractive, and China does not challenge the core interests of these countries or interfere in their internal affairs, they will only respond to the US’s containment policy to a certain extent and not go on the offensive with China.
With regards to the South China Sea issue, the Biden administration is using the traditional approach of the past few US administrations — strengthening the US’s military presence in the South China Sea, while taking every opportunity to break up China’s relations with countries in the South China Sea. This US strategy is limited by the fact that the South China Sea issue is no longer a core hot-button issue between China and the Southeast Asian countries, due to changes in domestic politics in regional countries, as well as China’s conciliatory foreign policy with its neighbours following arbitration on the issue.
Before arbitration, China had already completed land reclamation in the South China Sea, creating artificial islands and even installing key facilities on them. Thereafter, China has not made any major controversial moves in the South China Sea. Instead, it has actively pushed for trade cooperation and talks on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which has greatly eased hostility from some regional countries. The US’s efforts to stir up the South China Sea issue at this time will not have much effect.
“Taiwan is a part of China” — this is the bottom line and core interest that China has to firmly hold to in its diplomatic exchanges. The Biden administration has been pressing China on the Taiwan issue because it thinks that it is going for the opponent’s vital point. But the Taiwan issue is also a card that China can play in managing China-US relations. In fact, China and the US have a mismatch of interests here. China considers Taiwan one of its core interests and would protect it at all costs. If Taiwan were to become independent, China would resort to force and maintain unification, regardless of the scale of the fight and the sacrifices it would go through.
In contrast, Taiwan is a bargaining chip for the US to contain China, and it does touch on the US’s international reputation, but that is all. None of the points above would get the US to sacrifice its own soldiers to protect Taiwan. If China feels that it has been pushed to the wall by the US and Taiwan independence forces, and decides to act on an armed unification, the US would have to make a tough choice.
A lethal war of words
Currently, both countries are engaging in the most intense crossfire in the war of words. The US has yet to produce substantial evidence for its accusation of a “genocide” in Xinjiang. Whether it is the Chinese government that does not allow it or the accuser that is unwilling, there is no reliable investigation to support such an outrageous accusation.
But in any case, US diplomats hold to this accusation and keep bringing it up at various events around the world, seriously damaging China’s international image, while Western media is increasingly taking for granted that this “genocide” is the truth.
On another note, the US has also seen heavy losses in this war of words; it has lost the goodwill and approval that the Chinese people used to have for the US. In the decades following China’s reform and opening up, China actually looked up to the US. There were isolated incidents, but each time after they blew over, China-US relations quickly went back to normal.
The US’s actions and policies, including its policies towards China, are mostly interpreted in the friendliest way possible. The subconscious reading is that the US’s aims are noble and its intentions are good. But things have changed. The systematic containment of China begun by Trump and inherited and given full play by Biden has greatly damaged the long-held positive image of the US among Chinese society.
But China-US relations are clearly at a new phase where both sides no longer trust each other on principle, nor is there any more consensus on many international issues. In future, non-cooperation will be the norm and cooperation the exception, which will only be gained through difficult bargaining.
New normal in China-US competition
With official statements and policy implementations during the Trump-Biden era, the US is in fact treating China as an opponent. China’s professed stand at the two China-US talks in Alaska and Tianjin in 2021 also shows that China no longer trusts the US’s two-faced approach, and will not easily cooperate with the US on any issue, unless the US changes its idea of “cooperation”.
This is a major shift in China’s diplomatic approach. Previously, while China often rebutted US attacks on China on the issue of human rights, on many issues of global governance and geopolitics, it has cooperated with the US in principle and in general, and both countries were in agreement on many international issues.
In other words, over the years, when it comes to China-US relations, cooperation has been the guiding principle while rivalry has been the exception. But China-US relations are clearly at a new phase where both sides no longer trust each other on principle, nor is there any more consensus on many international issues. In future, non-cooperation will be the norm and cooperation the exception, which will only be gained through difficult bargaining. This will be the new norm for the international community for a long time to come.
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