WASHINGTON – As a candidate, President Joe Biden presented himself as anti-Donald Trump, whose approach to foreign challenges would not look like the president he was about to replace. But since Biden became president, his attitudes toward China have mostly mirrored those of his predecessor – and even surprised some China hawks.
However, the Biden government has also claimed that fierce competition should not and must not preclude close cooperation between countries in some areas of common concern such as climate change.
Now that world leaders are preparing to assemble within days for the G20 summit in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland – gatherings that Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to skip their approach put to the test.
The challenge is known for Biden. For eight years, as Vice President, he was an important envoy for China in an attempt by the Obama administration to assert itself against Beijing that never fully took shape.
Asian allies feared that Biden could revert to Obama administration policies and adopt a more conciliatory tone with China while cutting defense spending.
Supporting Biden’s efforts is an emerging consensus in the US on China’s growing threat.
“Xi Jinping did what no one else in the world could do: he brought Republicans and Democrats together,” said Anja Manuel, a former State Department official and China scholar who heads the Aspen Strategy Group. “There isn’t that much leeway for any administration. The country has become hawkish towards China. “
In Biden’s first year in office, his stance on China was based on the notion that an increasingly aggressive Beijing had underestimated US determination. Only when China’s head of state understood that Biden was serious, White House officials argued, significant progress could be made.
The hard line has drawn some of the only comparisons between Biden and Trump whose individual policies toward China his successor has largely maintained, most notably in relation to trade.
“You can hear people saying, ‘Biden wants to start a new cold war with China,'” Biden said on 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 resign and change our minds. “
Biden’s Asia Advisor, Kurt Campbell, put it bluntly in March when he said the days of “engagement” with China were over and “competition” would now shape Washington-Beijing relations.
External observers agree. “There was a certain continuity and certainly more than China expected,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the United States’ German Marshall Fund.
The White House has argued that the US has strengthened its delicate relationship with China by both working at home to improve US competitiveness and bringing together a wide range of allies. This is in stark contrast to Trump’s approach, which often beat up America’s longtime partners in Asia and challenged Washington’s defense obligations.
A senior Biden administration official said what is often perceived as a continuation of Trump’s policies by Biden is simply the US standing up for its interests and holding China accountable.
“If you’re going to say that this is similar to the previous administration, that’s fair in some ways,” said the senior official. “The key difference, however, is that we focus on allies and partners so we don’t do this alone.”
During Biden’s campaign and now his presidency, the prospect that China could overtake the US as an economic superpower was at the center of his arguments for massive infrastructure and social plans. As a candidate, Biden argued that Trump’s harsh talk about China was not supported by his actions.
“I would get China to play by international rules, not like they did. He made sure that the deficit in China went up and not down, ”said Biden in the final presidential debate. “We have to have the rest of our friends with us who say to China, ‘These are the rules. You play by them or you will pay the price if you don’t play by them economically. ‘ That’s how I’ll do it. “
The high stakes have been exposed in a series of alarming apparent escalations in military tensions over the past few months.
China’s military has conducted an unprecedented number of fighter and bomber jet flights near Taiwanese airspace and reportedly tested a hypersonic missile that was flying around the globe. The US has made a defense pact with Australia and Britain to counter China, and they have held their own military demonstrations in the region.
The rough diplomatic turn was brought public in March when U.S. and Chinese officials met for their first high-level meetings in Alaska, only to spread angry allegations and grievances at the summit.
Since then, China has insisted that the Biden government poison the well for any prospect of cooperation by directly challenging Beijing on security, human rights and economic issues. Still, the Biden government insisted that China would eventually be forced to secede.
On trade and economic policy, the Biden government is on hold, and officials have yet to outline how the government will address a litany of trade disputes with China.
The Biden administration has chosen to maintain the “phase one” trade deal negotiated by the Trump administration, despite officials saying China has failed to honor a number of its commitments.
But nine months later, Biden is upholding Trump’s tariffs and other punitive measures he imposed on China. Biden MPs did not say under what conditions they would raise tariffs or whether the government plans to double restrictions on intellectual property theft or forced technology transfers.
US allies in Europe and Asia – who have extensive trade ties with Beijing – have little appetite for tariffs or “decoupling” from China’s economy.
“Our allies are generally pursuing new trade deals with China,” said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Obama administration’s Treasury Department on China-related issues. “And the US is trying to rally countries to decouple and isolate China. I don’t think they’ll get a lot of traction. “
National security hawks in Congress have urged Biden to act to protect US technology from China’s predatory trade practices by adopting a stricter approach to export controls and restricting US investment in Chinese companies associated with Beijing’s military.
But tech companies and free trade advocates want the trade war to be eased, arguing that tariffs could weigh on US corporations and hinder innovation in the long term. Some progressives say a Cold War mentality with China could jeopardize any possible breakthrough in the climate change talks, as working with Beijing will be critical to making progress in reducing fossil fuel emissions.
The Obama administration, like Biden’s, has tried to closely monitor climate cooperation with China despite many other disagreements, said Kelly Sims Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University, who oversaw climate diplomacy with China in the Obama’s White House . The task is tougher for Biden as climate change is intertwined with other economic problems, she said.
“I think it is impossible to separate the climate from the other priorities in US-China relations,” she said. “But it is crucial that the two countries have a dialogue on this issue, and that should be possible no matter how controversial the relationship becomes.”
Senior Biden government officials believe the Chinese government has begun to understand their stance since the Alaska summit in the spring. This year, Biden will meet Xi virtually for her first individual summit since he took office.
“We feel like we are in a much, much stronger position now than we were when we took office to take on the challenge,” said a senior Biden official. “It is clear that we are not going to change their specific behavior on certain things, so we focus on influencing the architecture around them in the international community.”