US president Joe Biden’s cabinet picks and senior policy advisers underscore his willingness to emulate Trump's hawkish approach to China.
With a new Cold War between the two countries brewing, the US relationship with China is certainly the most consequential one of the 21st century.
Former US president Donald Trump’s mercantilist bluster ushered in a radical decoupling of a delicate 40-year-long bargain between Washington and Beijing and a break with US grand strategy premised upon liberal internationalism.
With Trump out of office, would the Biden administration jettison a full-frontal assault and continue to pursue a strategic divergence?
As Biden dons the cape of “healer-in-chief” and attempts to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration, all indications thus far signals that he’s in no rush to depart from his predecessor’s policies when it comes to China.
Orders to rescind the Trump tariffs on $350 billion Chinese imports were absent from Biden’s ten-day policy blitz following his inauguration. Nor did Biden suggest any interest in overturning Trump’s actions to delist Chinese telecom companies on the NYSE, nor reverse a ban on Chinese apps and tech companies.
Biden’s first telephone conversation with his counterpart Xi Jinping on February 10 only reaffirmed that there will be no radical shift on the immediate horizon, as a White House statement noted that Biden reiterated the US’ commitment to “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Biden’s pledge to be open to “result-oriented engagement” with China is unlikely to square for Beijing after the US conducted a two-carrier naval exercise in the South China Sea the day before his chat with Xi.
Nor does Biden’s cabinet picks and senior policy advisers inspire much confidence. Rather, they underscore the new president’s willingness to emulate Trump’s confrontational approach to China.
Biden’s China hawks
Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appearing at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, was swift to declare his support for outgoing counterpart Mike Pompeo’s formal accusation of the Chinese government engaging in “genocide” against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
And Blinken didn’t stop there, reiterating Trump’s condemnation of China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, upheld US military support for Taiwan, and bemoaned democracy being “trampled” in Hong Kong.
Like Blinken, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen pronounced China guilty of “horrendous human rights abuses,” and hoped to unite countries to take on China’s “unfair and illegal practices” in stark contrast to Trump’s unilateralism.
Yellen has also accused Beijing of “erecting trade barriers and giving illegal subsidies to corporations” and “stealing intellectual property” while denouncing its labour and environmental standards.
Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines mentioned that Biden sees China as a “global competitor” and an “adversary” in areas like trade. Before her confirmation, she said she would make it a top priority to devote more resources to countering the intelligence threat from the “assertive and aggressive” Chinese state.
Another Biden pick, former Obama official Kurt Campbell, is now Indo-Pacific coordinator within his National Security Council. Campbell was one of the chief architects of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy in 2012.
Veteran Asia analyst and former Biden aide Ely Ratner, chosen as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, has drawn praise from Republican China hawks.
Back in 2018, Ratner and Campbell co-authored an essay that argued Trump’s disapproval of US policy of engagement with China as a failure was correct.
Republicans have also welcomed Biden’s choice of Katherine Tai to head the Office of the US Trade Representative. Tai has been described by trade experts on both sides of the aisle as someone whose views on China’s trade practices mirror that of former Trump trade czar Robert Lighthizer.
For now, it appears that the governing elites in both Washington and Beijing are “trapped in a zero-sum structure of competition” which could develop into a spiraling cycle of mutual insecurity and a self-sustaining escalation of nationalist hatred,” write researchers Jake Werner and Tobita Chow.
If there was a rationalist kernel to Trump’s nativist “America First” foreign policy strategy it was to firmly identify China as a long-term threat to US capital and reorient Washington’s policy around managing Beijing’s ambitions.
With perhaps less bombast, Biden looks positioned to continue this phase of US grand strategy – one which the Beltway’s foreign policy and national security establishment have fallen in line with.
Indeed, if there is one issue that achieves bipartisan consensus in Washington today, it is the spectre of Chinese hegemony.