How will Joe Biden handle China? The right thinks he will be too weak, the left thinks he will take a more measured approach. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Top Story: How Will Biden Handle China?
In Axios, Dave Lawler writes: “President Biden told reporters on Thursday that his call Wednesday evening with China’s Xi Jinping lasted two hours.” Biden summed up his view on China during brief remarks from the Oval Office on Wednesday, saying, “If we don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch.” During an infrastructure meeting with bipartisan senators, he cited China’s efforts on high-speed rail and electric vehicles and said the US would have to “step up” to compete effectively. Notably, Biden contradicted that exact sentiment while on the campaign trail in 2019. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” he said at the time, adding, “They’re not competition for us.” Shortly before his call with Xi, Biden announced a new Pentagon task force on China, and the White House unveiled its most detailed portrait yet of their policies on China.
Senior administration officials tell reporters that Biden agrees with Donald Trump’s “basic proposition of an intense strategic competition with China,” but that his approach is different. Here’s what both sides are saying and why the story matters:
On The Right
The right claims that Biden has always been weak on China. While some think he can be pressured into laying out a sensible plan with respect to the country, others believe his administration is hopelessly wrong on foreign policy as a whole.
In her article for Fox News, Liz Peel quotes Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, who once wrote that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Peel would “add underestimating China to the list” and believes that Biden’s naivety with respect to PRC will “put our nation at risk.” In her view, Biden demonstrates that naivety by putting excessive faith in corrupt and impotent international institutions like the UN and WHO, who have little interest in curtailing China’s human rights abuses. Biden is also seeing major pressure from big business and big tech to back off China. Those global corporations that donated heavily to the Biden campaign seek a return on their investment by restoring trade relations to their pre-Trump era ways. Peel also notes that Biden is negotiating against a counterpart in Xi, who holds considerable leverage over him in two big ways: Xi knows Biden needs China to verbally re-commit to the Paris Climate Accord, and Biden knows that China likely has evidence related to his son’s dubious business dealings overseas.
Dominic Green, writing in The Spectator, is no more optimistic than Peel. As he sees it, “America’s lunch was long since served to China, and Biden was a consistent supporter of serving it. What’s coming next is the tab.” The rest of the world, Green believes, sees Biden as slow and weak. To them “America’s politicians are decadent and feckless. They substitute image for reality, and when it goes wrong, they pretend it never happened. Everything about Joe Biden is false, from his teeth to the random musings that float past them. The whole world sees this, but we are enjoined not to by an administration that drifted into office on a cloud of fantasy, puffed up by a largely complicit media.”
Rebeccah Heinrichs strikes a more optimistic tone in The Hill, however. She cites evidence supporting the Trump Administration’s strong stance against China and sees glimmers of hope that Congressional pressure will steer the Biden Administration in a parallel direction.
Conservative commentators see the Trump era as a welcome reversal towards a more hawkish stance with respect to PRC policy; however, they are split on whether Biden can be forced to acquiesce and in turn follow his predecessor’s lead on China.
On The Left
Democrats see China as one of the most important and challenging foreign policy matters on the new administration’s plate. They urge Biden to take a strong but more measured approach than his predecessor did.
The Economist views President Biden as shifting on China and believes an approach more assertive than Obama but less abrasive than Trump is needed. The magazine sees a president who has strayed from the Obama Administration in which he once served, who had described the level of cooperation between both nations as “unprecedented in scope.” One advisor told The Economist that “during the campaign Mr. Biden had to be reprogrammed on China.” The president will likely “retain some of Mr. Trump’s toughest national security measures against China,” most notably the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of China-sceptical nations: US, Australia, Japan, and India. At the same time, the new administration will seek renewed cooperation with China on climate change through the Paris Agreement, global health efforts via renewed WHO affiliation, as well as a more welcoming stance towards Chinese students looking to study in the US. According to The Economist, managing US/China relations requires a delicate balance.
Nicholas Kristof sends out a warning in his New York Times column that this relationship must be very carefully managed. As he sees it, there is “a hardening toward Beijing across the political spectrum that leaves little room for diplomacy. That makes me nervous.” He wants the Biden Administration to be firm but warns against exaggerating threats, jingoism, and failing to respect China’s accomplishments. He praises Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has “signaled that he will continue what he called Donald Trump’s ‘tougher approach’ toward China, albeit adding human rights concerns and working with allies to make that toughness more effective.” Still, Kristof sees a dangerous situation brewing in China.
Alex Ward writes in Vox that Biden is up to the challenge, stating that he “won’t back down against major US adversaries, but he won’t just feud with them, either.” Ward makes the case that Biden’s best approach going forward is to stand tough and clear in his positions: “It’s now Biden’s charge to ensure there is no misunderstanding. If he fails, two of America’s most important relationships could get worse.”
Progressives want President Biden to continue to remain just firm enough in dealing with China while seeking out areas of mutual cooperation where feasible.
Pew conducted a poll of citizens from 14 Western nations as well as South Korea and Japan regarding their opinion of China. “A majority in each of the 14 countries surveyed has an unfavorable view of China. In most countries, around three-quarters or more see the country in a negative light. In Spain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, the US, the UK, South Korea, Sweden, and Australia, negative views have reached their highest level in the 12 or more years that Pew Research Center has been polling in these countries.” In the US, cynicism toward China has risen steadily since 2018, and for the first time in history, in 2020 more than half of young Americans looked upon the country with negative feelings. Biden will need to balance these sentiments against his desire for cooperation with China.