In his first 100 days, President Biden has generally overseen a continuation of his predecessor’s China policies, but he’s done so while reframing U.S. strategy as competition with room for cooperation, which is a break with his predecessor’s more confrontational approach.
At first blush, the differences aren’t apparent. Like the Trump administration, Biden’s team has called its commitment to Taiwan “rock-solid” and lifted restrictions on contact with Taipei’s diplomats amid a broader show of support in the face of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military-pressure campaign. The Biden administration also condemned the persecution of the Uyghurs as genocide and crimes against humanity and redoubled U.S. support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. At home, it maintained key Trump-era restrictions on Chinese tech companies and hosted a virtual summit to expand the scope of the Quad grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies.
The key difference is the trajectory of the president’s strategy. Much of what he has accomplished so far is encouraging. But it’s also the bare minimum of what the current political consensus on China demands. If the administration’s effort to seek cooperation with Beijing on climate issues is any indication, even the current tough stance against CCP transgressions could later soften. Anything less than pointedly condemning the Chinese party-state’s direct assault on democracy, international order, and human rights falls short of what is needed to meet the challenge.
So what should the Biden administration say about China? Officials should emulate their predecessors’ rhetoric. Trump officials described the Party as “a Marxist-Leninist regime that exerts power over the long-suffering Chinese people through brainwashing and brute force,” and they wondered what it would “be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future.” Although Biden and his advisers have spoken cogently about Beijing’s ambitions to usurp democracy around the world, they’ve still discussed the threat more delicately.
The president’s joint address to Congress on Wednesday provides an illustrative case. First, his emphasis on a “foreign policy for the middle class” overshadowed the need to spotlight some of the crucial initiatives that his administration has otherwise supported. He could’ve used his address to echo his previous calls to fully fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and to pass two major legislative packages currently making their way through Congress — packages that would bolster America’s ability to compete with the CCP. Instead, he invoked the competition with China to justify his domestic-policy agenda. “The investments I’ve proposed tonight also advance the foreign policy, in my view, that benefits the middle class,” he said of his $1 trillion American Families Plan.
Biden then cited his discussions with CCP general secretary Xi Jinping to explain how his administration is approaching the U.S.–China competition. He discussed the importance of standing up for human rights but made no mention of Hong Kong’s ailing democracy movement or of the Uyghur genocide. He committed to a “strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific” but failed to specifically use the moment to warn the Party about its designs on Taiwan. All things considered, the address summed up the Biden approach to China thus far: better than the pre-Trump years that preceded America’s awakening to the threat, but still insufficient to move the ball forward.
Meanwhile, since the start of the Biden presidency, the administration has said that competition can be coupled with a bid for cooperation with the Chinese regime, despite the Biden administration’s own recognition that china is commiting mass atrocities and preparing for an assault on Taiwan.
Already, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has met with his Chinese counterpart in Shanghai, a meeting that yielded a joint statement pledging some modest commitments to funding the clean-energy transition in developing countries. The problem with the administration’s approach is twofold: While China does have an interest in reducing its own greenhouse-gas emissions in the long run, there’s no reason to believe that it would do so at a rate dictated by negotiations with Washington.Worse, Chinese officials condition their participation in a future agreement on U.S. policy toward Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. “If the U.S. no longer interferes in China’s internal affairs, then we can have even smoother cooperation on climate change,” Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, reiterating the Party’s stance.
Kerry claims that he won’t let those other issues be “held hostage” to climate, but he views the talks as an imperative nonetheless. Already, though, these negotiations have shaped how he talks about the U.S.–China relationship; he said nothing about human rights in Shanghai. And in an interview with Foreign Policy this week, he said that although the two countries have their differences, “those differences do not need to get in the way of something that is as critical as dealing with climate.” He added that his conversation in Shanghai was tough, but that they managed to find some common ground: “And I think that opens the door or window to other possibilities in those other arenas.”
That future progress remains unlikely; in 2020, China accounted for three-fourths of the new coal plants commissioned in the world. And Kerry erroneously assumes that Beijing sees it as in its own interests to make progress in “those other arenas,” when in fact the Chinese Communist Party has proved that it is eager to deepen its authoritarianism at home and pursue revanchist policies abroad.
A bright spot throughout all of this has been the administration’s emphasis on working with U.S allies to augment Washington’s ability to respond to the CCP’s malign behavior. While the Trump administration leaned on U.S. alliances more than most people realized, that diplomacy was often overshadowed by President Trump’s rhetoric.
Although top administration officials made the mistake of hosting a U.S.–China summit — which gave the CCP’s diplomats a platform on which to lie about Beijing’s human-rights abuses and America’s role in the world — they deserve credit for only doing so after a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Japan and South Korea. The Biden administration’s early outreach to Europe also seems to have paved the way for greater transatlantic unity on China, despite the German government’s appeasement of Beijing in favor of commercial interests. Blinken’s first trip overseas, to Brussels, became the venue to announce a massive, coordinated campaign, in which the EU, U.K., and Canada joined the United States in announcing sanctions on Chinese officials implicated in the Uyghur genocide.
On its own terms, rallying such an international effort makes sense. Even better, it led Beijing to enact its own sanctions against European researchers, activists, and politicians. Previously, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, an EU–China trade deal that merely paid lip service to human-rights concerns, stood a fair chance of winning approval by the European Parliament, despite U.S. objections. The CCP’s heavy-handed response seems to have dimmed those prospects somewhat.
But alliance-building is just one tool in the administration’s arsenal, and that alone can’t mitigate the vulnerabilities opened by the administration’s early outreach to the CCP. Unless the president backtracks on his troubling effort to seek cooperation with the Party, and unless he describes its threat to human freedom in no uncertain terms, he risks undermining some otherwise promising policies he enacted to meet the challenge in his first 100 days.