TOPIC: General Studies 2
- International Relations
In news: Describing an “aggressive” China as the “most serious competitor” to the US, President Joe Biden has said that his administration will take on the challenges posed by Beijing directly, but will not hesitate to work with it when it is in America’s interest to do so.
- Realising that a rising and more assertive China as one of his biggest foreign policy challenges, Biden stressed on the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.
- Among his most daunting challenges will be to lay the foundation for decades of peaceful, constructive relations between the United States and China — on terms favorable to the U.S. and partner nations, and ultimately for China and the global community. Getting there will require bounding, and sustainably balancing, Beijing’s growing power. If the United States and its partners fail on that score, a future of Chinese hegemony could well lie ahead.
- As Trump leaves, Biden will inherit an American polity still more divided and dysfunctional than the one that elected Trump in 2016; tattered relations with capable European allies; and, in Beijing, a rival on heightened alert, its confidence bolstered by a quick rebound from COVID-19 and the Trump trade war.
The Background: Biden and China
If there has been one decisive shift in the Trump era, it has been the change in China’s status from a friend to a peer competitor and, indeed, adversary. This has not come about with any great planning. It began with a seemingly whimsical policy of equalising the trade balance between the two countries, but morphed into a technology war that saw the US pass increasingly restrictive rules against high-tech trade with China. Then, mixed with the Xinjiang and Hong Kong issues, it has brought relations between the two countries to a new Cold War.
Biden’s political life has spanned an era in which there was consensus in US politics and business that the goal of American policy was to integrate China into the US-led world order. He was an early champion of China joining the WTO and argued that it was in America’s self interest to have China prosper. But neither he nor his contemporaries of either party addressed the currency manipulation, the forced transfer and the outright theft of technology that China used to get ahead, issues that hurt America grievously. It was only towards the end of the Obama presidency that the US began to raise the issue of cyber theft, tightening restrictions on Chinese investments in the US, challenging China in the South China Sea.
The Present: Biden’s Policies
Instead of the whimsical, go-it-alone Trump style, the Biden administration could make it far more effective by roping in allies and building a consensus. The US now realises that the competition with China is not just over the South China Sea; there is an all-round competition involving technology, ideology and the economy. It’s a big task, and Biden and his advisers are savvy enough to realise that this is best handled by taking allies along, something that Trump disdained.
The hard choices for Biden will include deciding whether to maintain about $360 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese imports that have raised costs for U.S. businesses and consumers, or whether to relax those levies in exchange for concessions on economic issues, or other fronts, like climate change.
Beyond policies and personalities, there will be larger trends influencing America’s China policy in the post-Covid world. There are shifts in global trade and industrial techniques which will bring supply chains closer home. Biden has said it will encourage this through policy, and possibly even subsidy. The second leg of this policy will be a government-backed campaign to take on China in high-tech areas like AI, quantum computing, 6G and so on. The emphasis will be on making the US more competitive, rather than on blackballing China. Actually, China’s economic strength, the reforms in its financial sector will emerge as a strong magnet for Wall Street and US corporates who will push to moderate any hardline position.
What Xi thinks matters…
Beijing is sending some positive signals. At the virtual Davos summit on Jan. 25, in his first speech since Biden’s inauguration, Xi called on the world to abandon an “outdated Cold War mentality,” adding that “confrontation will lead us to a dead end.” And there are ways Biden and Xi can at least tamp down tensions. Xi will probably be open to cutting small deals to achieve specific ends. For instance, he could offer Biden a few concessions on trade or market access for U.S. companies to get remaining Trump tariffs on Chinese goods lifted. He may also find more avenues of engagement with Biden than Trump—for example, a shared concern about climate change.
But Xi has pursued a much more aggressive policy abroad, on just about every front. He has flexed China’s new muscle in a quest for greater influence over, and respect from, the rest of the world. With his pet diplomatic project, the infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative, he’s expanding China’s clout across Eurasia and beyond. He’s sought heftier sway within international institutions such as the World Health Organization. What Beijing considers core interests have been pursued with extra gusto, whether its contentious claim to almost all of the South China Sea or the sensitive issue of Taiwan.
Xi’s controversial policies at home—the detention of untold numbers of minority Uighurs and the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement—and he’s as responsible for the dangerous deterioration in U.S. relations as Trump. Improving those ties will require changes in Xi’s policies as well as Washington’s.
The new urgency with which he is pressing for “self-sufficiency,” most of all in key technologies such as chips, indicates that he aims to limit China’s reliance on the U.S. and Biden’s influence over the Chinese economy. Xi’s new economic catchphrase, “dual circulation,” places more stress on domestic development and thus may shift the focus of policy inward, That, too, could heighten tensions with the U.S. if Xi substitutes imports with homegrown products or further discriminates against American companies.
The Way Forward
Architecting a preferable future will depend on Biden leading and negotiating with urgency in three interdependent contexts: at home, with partner governments, and with Beijing.
- He needs to persuade Americans that the United States has no choice but to become the best, most unified version of itself. Without greater national unity and a recommitment to truth and objective reality, the U.S. won’t merely lose the competition with China; it will likely default to merely muddling along, as a bizarre hybrid of superpower and failed state.
- The White House should be steadfast in keeping global commons issues like climate change as separate as possible from negotiation in the bilateral rivalry domain. Because this will transfer too much leverage to Beijing, which, in entertaining the White House’s demands on climate, will seek concessions on other issues central to the Sino-American rivalry. Neither of these vital policy agendas should be sacrificed for the other.
- Prioritize building a sustainable, favorable balance of power via coalition — more so than setting new rules of international order.
- Revert to the respectful tone toward Beijing that it has earned by performance. Respectful interactions won’t create the desired meeting of minds between Washington and Beijing, but incendiary, disrespectful rhetoric can block what may otherwise have been possible.
Connecting the Dots:
- Joe Biden’s China policy and its impact on India-US relations.