WASHINGTON – As a candidate, President Joe Biden presented himself as an anti-Donald Trump, whose approach to foreign challenges would bear no resemblance to the incumbent he sought to replace. But as president, Biden’s stances on China have, more often than not, echoed those of his predecessor – even surprising some Chinese hawks.
Yet the Biden administration has also maintained that fierce competition should not and should not prevent close cooperation between nations on a handful of areas of common concern, such as climate change.
Now, as world leaders prepare to meet in a few days for the G20 summit in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow – gatherings that Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to skip – their approach is being put to the test. ‘test.
The challenge is familiar to Biden. For eight years as vice president, Biden was a key envoy to China amid pressure from the Obama administration to stand up to Beijing that never fully took shape.
Asian allies feared Biden would revert to policies under the Obama administration and adopt a more conciliatory tone towards China while cutting defense spending, but were reassured by Washington’s approach, said Michael Green of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, which helped shape Asian politics in the administration of George W. Bush.
Aiding Biden’s efforts is now an emerging consensus in the United States about the growing threat from China.
“Xi Jinping did what no one else in the world can do: he brought together Republicans and Democrats,” said Anja Manuel, a former State Department official and Chinese academic who heads the Aspen strategic group. “For any administration, there is not a lot of leeway. The country has become hawkish towards China.
During his first year in office, Biden’s approach to China was premised on the idea that an increasingly aggressive Beijing underestimated the resolve of the United States. It is only after the Chinese leader realizes Biden was serious, White House officials argued, that significant progress could occur.
This hard line has drawn some of the only comparisons between Biden and Trump, whose individual policies towards China his successor has largely preserved, the most striking on trade.
“You hear people say, ‘Biden wants to start a new cold war with China,’” Biden said Thursday in a televised town hall. “I don’t want a cold war with China. I want China to understand that we are not going to take a step back and change our views. “
Biden’s senior adviser for Asia, Kurt Campbell, put it bluntly in March when he said the period of “engagement” with China was over and “competition” would now define the relationship between Washington and Beijing.
Outside observers agree. “There has been quite a bit of continuity and certainly more than what China expected,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund in the United States.
The White House argued that the United States has strengthened its own hand in its delicate relationship with China, both by working at home to improve the competitiveness of the United States and by rallying a wide range of allies. This contrasts sharply with the approach taken by Trump, who has often criticized America’s longtime partners in Asia and questioned Washington’s defense commitments.
A senior official in the Biden administration said what is often seen as Biden continuing Trump’s policies is simply that the United States is standing up for its interests and holding China to account.
“If you mean to say it’s similar to what the previous administration did, in some ways that’s right,” the senior official said. “But the main difference is our focus on allies and partners, so we don’t do it alone.”
During Biden’s campaign, and now his presidency, the prospect of China overtaking America as an economic superpower was at the heart of his arguments for massive infrastructure and welfare plans. As a candidate, Biden argued that Trump’s harsh rhetoric on China was not supported by his actions.
“What I would make China do is abide by international rules, not like it did. He increased, not decreased, China’s deficit, ”Biden said during the last presidential debate. “We have to have the rest of our friends with us, tell China, these are the rules. You play with them or you will pay the price for not playing with them, economically. This is how I’m going to handle it.
Important issues have been laid bare by a series of apparent alarming escalations in military tensions between the two superpowers in recent months.
The Chinese military has carried out an unprecedented number of fighter and bomber flights near Taiwanese airspace and has reportedly tested a hypersonic missile that has circled the world. The United States has entered into a new defense pact with Australia and the United Kingdom aimed at countering China and has conducted their own displays of military force in the region.
The harsh diplomatic turn between nations was made public in March when U.S. and Chinese officials gathered for their first high-level meetings in Alaska, only for that summit to erupt into angry allegations and grievances.
China, in the months that followed, insisted the Biden administration poisons the well for any prospect of cooperation on issues by challenging Beijing so directly on security, human rights and economic issues. . Yet the Biden administration insisted that China would ultimately be forced to compartmentalize.
On trade and economic policy, the Biden administration is on hold, and officials have yet to explain how the administration intends to tackle a litany of trade disputes with China.
The Biden administration has chosen to continue upholding the “phase one” trade deal with China negotiated by the previous administration, even though officials say China has failed to honor a number of its commitments in the ‘OK.
But nine months later, Biden is upholding Trump’s tariffs and other punitive measures imposed on China. Biden’s MPs have not said under what conditions they will lift tariffs or whether the administration is considering doubling restrictions against Beijing on intellectual property theft or forced technology transfers.
For US allies in Europe and Asia – who have extensive trade ties with Beijing – there is little appetite for tariffs or “decoupling” from the Chinese economy.
“Our allies in general are looking for new trade deals with China,” said David Dollar, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution who worked on China issues in the Obama administration’s Treasury Department. “And the United States is trying to rally countries to decouple from China and isolate it. I don’t think they get a lot of traction.
National Security Hawks in Congress have urged Biden to take tougher measures to protect U.S. technology from what they see as predatory business practices from China by taking a tougher approach to export controls and restricting US investment in Chinese companies linked to the Beijing military.
But tech companies and free trade advocates want to see an easing of the trade war, arguing that tariffs are a drag on the U.S. business that could hamper innovation in the long run. Some progressive voices say that a Cold War mentality with China could jeopardize any potential breakthrough in climate change talks, as Beijing’s cooperation will be crucial in making progress in reducing fossil fuel emissions.
The Obama administration, like Biden’s, has sought to closely pursue climate cooperation with China despite their many other disagreements, said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor at Tufts University who oversaw climate diplomacy with China at the Obama White House. This task is more difficult for Biden given how intertwined climate change has become with other economic issues, she said.
“I think it is impossible to deal with the climate from the other priorities of the US-China relationship,” she said. “But it is crucial that the two countries maintain a channel of dialogue on this issue, and it should be possible no matter how controversial the relationship becomes.”
Since the Alaskan summit this spring, senior officials in the Biden administration have said they believe the Chinese government is starting to understand his position. Biden is now set to virtually meet Xi this year for their first one-on-one summit since the US president took office.
“We feel like we’re in a much, much stronger position now than when we took office to meet the challenge,” a senior Biden official told NBC News. “It is clear that we are not going to change their specific behavior on certain things, so we are focusing on the influence of the architecture around them in the international community.”