Team Biden: managing America’s decline and the rise of China


Meet the new boss in the White House – same as the old (but one) boss – and China, through one of its English-language mouthpieces, “Global Times”, is hoping for a reset back to the standard operating procedure:

Facing a voracious round of assault from the coronavirus and an economy in doldrums because of the health crisis, the incoming US administration of Joe Biden is hoped to chart a new course of policy interventions – categorically different from the inertia displayed by Donald Trump’s team.
Seeking China’s material help and rich experiences to contain the infectious disease and rescue a faltering American economy is equally important for the new US government.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China has congratulated Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris for winning the US general election, which is widely seen as extending an olive branch to the incoming Biden administration in the backdrop of the worn-out confrontations between the two countries that were caused by Trump’s protracted trade war…

As to the policies of his new administration, the world pins high hopes on him tossing out the old-fashioned and selfish “America First” doctrine, restoring multilateralism and cooperation with the whole world – particularly stopping the reckless and brutal ideological and economic fight between US and China, which many have likened to a new “cold war”…

Economic confrontations with China chosen by Trump’s team failed to do the US, or any country in this world, any good. The buying power of Chinese businesses and Chinese households should never be diminished or looked down upon. Australia and Canada, the two hardcore allies of the US who are very unfriendly toward China, have received a bitter lesson from Beijing. Don’t trample on Chinese people’s bottom lines, otherwise they will bite back.
Now, a flurry of US multinational companies have vehemently opposed Trump’s so-called “economic decoupling” attempt, as they know perfectly well they could not find another giant and growing market like China’s. So the incoming Biden administration needs to ponder its new policies, to reverse the course of the tumultuous policies of the past four years trumpeted by Trump.

In other words, keep buying our stuff, bitches, and don’t you mind our human rights record, our espionage and subversion in the West, our neo-colonialism throughout the developing world, our Uyghur concentration camps, or our dishonesty and cover-ups that helped turn a local pandemic into a global health, economic and social calamity of the century.

How will the United States respond to this charming entreat? The incoming president Biden has been known on occasions to talk tough on China:

The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage—and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future.

The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security. On its own, the United States represents about a quarter of global GDP. When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor, trade, technology, and transparency, so they continue to reflect democratic interests and values.

But will he walk the walk? Here’s Biden’s chosen National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan:

During a lecture he delivered on behalf of the Lowy Institute in 2017, Sullivan said leading foreign policy expert Owen Harries was “right” to warn against “containment” as a self-defeating policy, much like acquiescence.

“We need to strike a middle course – one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order,” Sullivan said. “This will require care and prudence and strategic foresight, and maybe even more basically it will require sustained attention. It may not have escaped your notice that these are not in ample supply in Washington right now.”

During the same lecture, Sullivan said China policy needs to be about more than just bilateral ties, “it needs to be about our ties to the region that create an environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive Chinese rise,” he said.

Sullivan reasoned that a thriving China, specifically from an economic standpoint, was good for the global economy, though it depends on the “parameters of the system within which China is rising.”

All this sounds nice, but it’s pretty much the sum total of all the conventional policies and approaches, which over the past four decades have failed to help turn China into a free, happy and peaceful giant. China has been multilaterised to exhaustion, free traded with into a superpower status, and fated as if it really were an ordinary country like a larger and much more populous Germany or, for that matter, even India. In other words, the “environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive Chinese rise” has been in place since the 1980s, with the result that China has indeed risen, though it doesn’t seem very peaceful or positive. Despite sincere hopes of many (including yours truly) that trade and openness to the world would lead to political liberalisation, this has clearly not occurred. In fact, under the presidency-for-life of Xi, China is now more authoritarian and more bellicose than it has been under any of his recent predecessors. As some observers have commented, far from China becoming more like the West, the West has been, sadly and worryingly, becoming more like China, with the renaissance of illiberal mania for command, control and censorship among the developed world’s liberal elites. Of course, no one wants a war with Beijing, not even a cold one, but neither should we wish for a return to the previous realistic unrealism of crossing fingers, buying lots of stuff, and hoping for the best. Or, to put it differently, the conventional wisdom of the sophisticated professional foreign policy elites.

The COVID crisis has been a much needed and much overdue wake up call to the rest of the world: China (and we’re talking here about its rulers, not its people in general) is a one-party dictatorship with a certain degree of economic freedom but otherwise non-existent human rights and liberties. It is mercantilist, revanchist, and carries stacks of chips on its shoulders. Its values are inimical to liberal democracy and actively competing with the latter, while its geo-political ambitions scare the entire region. Not surprisingly, it has few friends among its neighbours, most of whom remain deeply, and increasingly even more concerned about their territorial integrity, security, and sovereignty. Beijing’s Marketist-Leninist regime brooks no competition or cricticism, and shuns any transparency and accountability, which in no small part contributed to the initial spread and confused response to the pandemic.

Senator Tom Cotton might be a tad over-dramatic, as politicians in search of a sound bite tend to be, but it does not mean the substance of his concerns should be dismissed out of hand:

As [former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates said, Joe Biden has ‘been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades. Now he’s surrounding himself with panda huggers who will only reinforce his instincts to go soft on China.

John Kerry will jet off to Beijing in pursuit of a climate accord with the world’s biggest polluter, the Chinese Communist Party. If Xi Jinping plays along, he’ll demand concessions. And we know what that means: more shuttered factories in the U.S., more hot air from Beijing.

What else will Biden, Kerry, & Blinken give away to ‘smooth relations’ with Beijing? Will they stop efforts to arrest Chinese spies on our campuses? Rescue China’s electronic surveillance company, Huawei? Weaken export controls? Delay arms sales to Taiwan? Reduce U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea? Prohibit our military commanders from speaking frankly about the [People’s Liberation Army]? Halt the development of U.S. intermediate-range missiles for deployment to the Pacific? It’s all on the table.

I hope to live to see the day when the Chinese people are free to decide their own future. Until that time, encouraging “the rise of China” is a pious policy that carries no guarantees whether that rise will be positive for the rest of the world (as opposed to Chine itself). In many ways much more acceptable than the old communist Soviet Union (or, for that matter, the old Maoist China), Xi’s China is in some other ways actually more dangerous: it has plenty of money. It is not a normal country, and it’s not a normal partner to countries like the United States and Australia. Pray for the best, if you will, but abandon useful self-delusions and conventional wishful thinking.