Is the Biden Administration Going Soft on China?

The need to counter China has been a welcome area of bipartisan consensus in a Washington riven over everything from nuclear modernization to chicken nuggets. But the bipartisan concordat on China is ending, foundering over politics, ideology, and economic expediency. And the biggest beneficiary? The People’s Republic of China.

The break has been coming for some months, a product of myriad, disparate fears among Democrats—a progressive backlash to the alleged “drumbeat to war”; claims that standing up to China is fostering anti-Asian sentiment in the public at large; a desire to draw a contrast with increasing Republican bellicosity; and an appeal to younger generations more skeptical of the need to confront rising powers. And if that’s not enough, don’t forget the possible recession headed America’s way—not the ideal moment for economic conflict—as well as ever-present business lobbying insisting that national security not interfere with corporate profits.

Then there’s the fretting of the liberal commentariat: Jon Bateman argued in a December Politico piece that “The Fevered Anti-China Attitude in Washington Is Going to Backfire.” The New York Times’s Tom Friedman warned, “If it is not the goal of U.S. foreign policy to topple the Communist regime in China, the United States needs to make that crystal clear.” In the pages of the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria cautioned that “Washington has succumbed to dangerous groupthink on China.” And éminence grise Graham Allison has returned repeatedly to his Thucydides trap warning of 2015, reupping it in 2022 to liken then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo (a visit that nominally sparked World War I).

Needless to say, the musings of Washington’s chattering classes are not always dispositive indicators of a policy shift. But I have been told by several insiders that the White House is keenly attuned to these criticisms from Biden stalwarts in the press. And thus, a shift.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan all but announced the new policy in a recent speech, explaining: “We are for de-risking and diversifying, not decoupling. We’ll keep investing in our own capacities, and in secure, resilient supply chains. We’ll keep pushing for a level playing field for our workers and companies and defending against abuses.” In other words, for the Biden administration, at least nominally, attention is going to shift first and foremost to cultivating the economic relationship with Beijing, with a little industrial policy thrown in for good measure.

Truth be told, the first two years of Democratic-Republican harmony on China were unexpected, particularly as the end of the era of Kissingerian accommodation to Beijing was very much a Trump administration signature.

The magnitude of the policy transformation that took place under former U.S. President Donald Trump is difficult to overstate. Certainly, there was a growing international awareness of seismic changes in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping accelerated China’s transformation from a rising power focused on a “harmonious” integration into the international system—replete with massive trade surpluses, growing domestic prosperity, and a firm place in a globalizing world—to a predatory power bent on dominating the South China Sea, reintegrating Taiwan into the mainland, repatriating capital and business, stealing intellectual property, curbing any and all forms of dissent, and generally throwing its weight around in international affairs. But in the early years of the 21st century, the global response to those troubling changes in Beijing was a collective shrug.

Political greybeards insisted that China could continue to be a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs even as it militarized its foreign policy and began testing the limits of its welcome in Western capitals. Simply, the calculus was that the economic benefits of China, Inc. outweighed the costs of growing Chinese Communist Party-led predations, both internal and external. Thus the mild Obama administration response to China’s theft of millions of U.S. government personnel files and its eagerness to downplay growing Chinese human rights violations.

But Trump’s election marked a rebalancing of China engagers versus skeptics. It wasn’t simply that Trump fancied himself the champion of the economically dispossessed—America’s “forgotten men” who had not benefited from globalization and freer trade. For the first time in decades, national security hawks who had long doubted rising China’s purportedly benign intentions notched more influence than the Wall Street traders who had become accustomed to setting the tone for U.S.-China relations.

Strangely, perhaps, Xi appeared to relish his new “Dr. Evil” status, and he set about confirming some of the world’s worst fears. In 2018, an Australian think tank documented a wholesale ethnic cleansing campaign directed at China’s Muslim Uyghur minority. In 2019 and 2020, Hong Kong saw its most widespread pro-democracy demonstrations, which were met with massive police brutality and sweeping arrests. And while the protests died down as COVID-19 took hold, Beijing took the opportunity to bypass the island’s legislature and impose a strict new security law in June 2020. All of this, coupled with the rise of Beijing’s aggressive new “wolf warrior diplomacy,” signaled a new stage in the Chinese Communist Party’s hundred-year campaign to “lead the world.”

Even the Europeans seemed to be coming around to Trump’s more jaundiced China policy after more than a few rocky moments—and the threat of U.S. sanctions. Early efforts to persuade, for example, the United Kingdom of the unwisdom of allowing China telecom giant Huawei to provide critical 5G equipment made little headway. But the Brits, and now even the Germans, appear to have changed their minds. London now complains that it, along with the European Union, has now rebalanced its China policy far more than Washington has—and, indeed, U.K. and European exports to China have cratered while America’s have risen year on year, Trump and U.S. President Joe Biden notwithstanding.

Now, however, the Biden team is retooling, “looking to move beyond” the spy balloon fiasco and stop the “spiral” of tensions with Beijing. I am told there are ongoing arguments within the administration about the need for—and the nature of—the reset with China. Some argue that Biden cannot back down on either security or economic battles with Beijing and that any rapprochement with Xi risks allowing the Republican Party to outflank the administration. Others insist that, with the CHIPS and Science Act and a decision to “harden” Taiwan against an invasion, the economic and security imperatives are well in hand.

But few dispute that a real reset is actually happening, underpinned by a pointed effort to romance Chinese officials at the highest levels. On Thursday, for instance, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will meet with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao for what will be the first Cabinet-level meeting between the two countries in Washington during the Biden administration.

As evidence of this reset, look to the Biden administration’s recent rhetorical shift away from using the Trump-era buzzword of “decoupling” the U.S. economy from China to instead focusing on “de-risking” U.S. supply chains; growing pressure on the Pentagon to keep its views on the China threat to itself; and the campaign to paint as extreme the U.S. House of Representatives’ new Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (and even, I hear, for Democrats to depart the committee as a statement).

It’s not entirely clear whether Xi is interested in Biden’s (or Sullivan’s) proffered hand. Hopes had been high at the White House that, having consolidated his unprecedented third term as Communist Party General Secretary and moved past the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Xi would be ready for a plateau moment—a pause in its escalations against the United States and others. And the axing of China’s lead “wolf warrior,” former Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, appeared to confirm Washington’s optimism. Alas, however, recent signals from China’s new foreign minister, Wang Yi, suggest that Beijing is less eager for a reset than Washington.

Instead, Beijing appears to be all too ready to exploit divisions inside Washington and between Europe and the United States. Bickering among senior Biden administration officials has boiled down to allowing China to choose whom it would most like to entertain on a visit to Beijing. Meanwhile, on a recent European tour, Wang warned that “If this ‘new Cold War’ is fought, not only the interests of China will be harmed, but Europe’s interests will also be sacrificed.”

Still, Biden’s senior national security team is intent on trying for the desired reset. And the U.S. president himself, ever confident in his foreign policy chops, likely estimates that he can succeed where Trump faltered: in splitting China from its dangerous new alliance with Russia, deterring China from its promised absorption of Taiwan, and ramping up trade with China while fostering national champions in semiconductors and other critical sectors. Perhaps he will fail, but he will have done so satisfying critics within his party and his base that, at the very least, he stood up to warmongering Republicans. Could work.

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