In April, Joe Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee, issued a controversial campaign ad slamming President Donald Trump for “roll[ing] over for the Chinese” in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.
The ad cast Biden as tough on China, showing him on the debate stage reeling off demands for Beijing — “I would be on the phone with China and making it clear: ‘We are going to need to be in your country’” — and rolling footage of what appear to be Chinese security forces.
It sparked immediate blowback from some on the left, who criticized it as inflammatory and a failed attempt to out-hawk Trump on one of country’s thorniest foreign-policy problems. But it signaled clearly that within the Biden campaign, “tough on China” was seen as a winning issue.
But what would “tough on China” mean in a Biden administration?
Part 1: What if Joe Biden Wins?
Part 2: Biden’s China Policy Starts With Building a Stronger America
Part 3: How Biden Would Wage Great Power Competition
Part 4: ’How Much and How Fast’: Biden Watchers Anticipate Defense Spending Crunch
Since President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, U.S. presidents have grappled with how to approach a country with a vastly different political and economic system — and military ambitions — but with whom the United States has become increasingly economically intertwined. By the end of the Obama administration and its “pivot to Asia,” some China hands had concluded that designing an effective policy would require fracturing a longstanding norm in American foreign policy: that strict issues of national security should be kept separate from international trade policy.
The Trump administration seemed to agree. While the new president mostly spoke about rebalancing U.S.-China trade, almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat, agreed that U.S. policy needed to reflect President Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian governance and aggressive foreign stance. The formal change arrived with the 2017 National Defense Strategy, crafted under former Defense Secretary James Mattis: henceforth, America would regard China as a “strategic competitor.” The application of Trump’s new policy has been somewhat rocky. Military leaders struggled to understand their role in responding to a competitor whose primary tools of power were its economy, information, and influence — not its military. (Analysts also warn that the U.S. is woefully unprepared for war with China.)
Biden has yet to issue a formal campaign paper on his proposed China policy, and much of what he has said on the debate stage about Beijing has focused on Xi’s authoritarianism. In February’s South Carolina debate, Biden called the Chinese leader a “thug…without a democratic…bone in his body.” But close aides have written extensively on the topic, and longtime aides and advisors in multiple conversations with Defense One paint a picture of an emerging policy built around the notion that if America wants to compete against China, it must first look inward — even as it also seeks to repair alliances the campaign says have been fractured under Trump.
“It’s not about bashing China, it’s about strengthening us to compete more effectively with China who is our most important competitor,” Ely Ratner, Biden’s deputy national security advisor from 2015 from 2017, said in an interview.
Competition, Not Conflict
Biden laid out the foundations of his approach in a Foreign Affairs piece in January: “To win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, the United States must sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices and reduce inequality.”
“Economic security is national security. Our trade policy has to start at home, by strengthening our greatest asset—our middle class—and making sure that everyone can share in the success of the country, no matter one’s race, gender, zip code, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.”
In a June Carnegie panel, senior advisor Jake Sullivan, Biden’s former national security adviser and director of policy planning at the State Department, described a strategy that is geared toward working with China as it is — “a fundamentally different actor when it comes to international trade and economics” — rather than trying to influence its political and economic systems and practices to become more Western. “I think that means putting… more emphasis on saying, if that’s the system that we’re confronted with, how do you change rules around it so that the playing field is more level and the global system is more fair?” Sullivan said.
The other part of that strategy, he said, is that the United States “should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster, ourselves.”
In a February Foreign Policy piece, Sullivan and Jennifer Harris, who worked on economic issues on the National Intelligence Council staff, argued that U.S. foreign-policy makers “now face a world in which power is increasingly measured and exercised in economic terms.” Competing effectively with China, they wrote, will require a careful husbanding of the U.S. economy in key sectors — like technology and telecommunications — through the use of industrial policy, antitrust efforts, and the blending of foreign and economic policy.
“While military power will still matter, the emerging great-power competition between the United States and China will ultimately turn on how effectively each country stewards its national economy and shapes the global economy,” they write.
“The U.S. national security community is rightly beginning to insist on the investments in infrastructure, technology, innovation, and education that will determine the United States’ long-term competitiveness vis-à-vis China.”
Biden has also called for a return to multilateralism in U.S. diplomacy — scorned by the Trump administration — and a values-based approach to China that would prioritize human rights.
“The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs.
(He did not answer directly when asked by the New York Times in December whether normal relations with China should be dependent on Beijing respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and closing internment camps for Muslim Uighurs.
“When I am president, human rights will be at the core of U.S. foreign policy,” he said in a statement. “The United States should be pushing back on China’s deepening authoritarianism, leading the free world in support of the brave people of Hong Kong as they demand the civil liberties and autonomy promised to them by Beijing. The same is true for the unconscionable detention of over a million Uighurs in western China. This is no time for business as usual.”)
The former vice president has worked on U.S.-China relations across a four-decade career, first traveling there in 1979 as a junior senator. He supported free-trade legislation that helped China ascend to the World Trade Organization, an institution that Trump alleges has given China preferential treatment at America’s expense. During the Obama administration, he was tasked with getting to know then-Vice President Xi. By Biden’s count, they met for a rough total of 25 hours in 2011 and 2012.
“I’ve spent more time in private meetings with Xi Jinping than any world leader,” Biden said in 2018.
A 2015 agreement between Beijing and Washington to crack down on commercial espionage grew out of those initial conversations, said Jeffrey Prescott, who served as Biden’s deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor beginning in 2010. (Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice led the detailed final negotiations.)
The meetings also offered Biden an opportunity to “size up” Xi, Prescott said, and exposed the Chinese leader’s concern about one strategic weakness in particular: China’s lack of alliances compared to the United States.
“One of the things that came out of those conversations was a lot of messages from Xi about American alliances — ‘your alliances are out of date, you don’t need them, it’s Cold War thinking’ — and I think that gave the vice president the sense that this was an area where China was really worried about a strength the U.S. has that China doesn’t really have.”
The trips and meetings were part of the Obama-era effort to “pivot” U.S. focus towards Asia, Prescott said — an effort that became somewhat of a punchline in Washington after Obama became more deeply embroiled in counterterror conflicts in the Middle East, but which Prescott points out was the strategic precursor to the 2017 Defense Strategy and involved a shift of naval assets to the Pacific.
“That was basically the start of a strategic shift in U.S. foreign policy that Obama and Biden championed. That’s the reason why Biden was doing all that diplomacy to advance that overall thrust,” he said. “There’s a little revisionist history — this did not start with the defense strategy in 2017.”
But aides caution against assigning too much value to Biden’s past positions on China, in part because it has changed so dramatically under Xi — even “fundamentally,” according to Ratner — that history isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.
“The China a President Biden would be facing in 2021 is so different than the China that the Obama administration was dealing with when Biden was doing those early engagements with Xi Jinping literally a decade ago,” Ratner said. “The context has changed so much.”
Past, Not Prologue
Ratner joined with Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration, to argue in a 2018 Foreign Affairs article that a key assumption underpinning U.S.-China policy for decades — ”that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior” — has turned out to be wrong.
They fault Trump for “a narrow focus on bilateral trade deficits, the abandonment of multilateral trade deals, the questioning of the value of alliances, and the downgrading of human rights and diplomacy,” but praise his national security strategy labeling China as a “competitor.” Both accept the notion that economic levers — as much if not more than traditional military ones — are critical to U.S. success in competing with China.
The difference is in the execution.
Although the Pentagon continues to carry out freedom-of-navigation operations in the region, Trump has publicly flirted with dramatically reducing the U.S. military presence in the region while publicly elevating trade issues. He has made a call for what he terms “fair and reciprocal” trade a cornerstone of his China policy, and initiated a costly and controversial tariff war in pursuit of a trade deal with Beijing. (The Biden camp derides Phase I of the deal as a concession for nothing.) Trump also pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact that was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the region that Trump believed disadvantaged the United States. Supporters of the pact argued it gave Washington more influence in the region.
“Trump “has been responsible now for dealing with China and the CCP for over three years and it’s a good metric to judge him on because it was a central part of his campaign message in 2016,” Prescott said. “He would stand up to China in a way he claimed no one had ever done before.”
The Biden camp is betting that voters will judge Trump harshly on his China record. For a while, it seemed coronavirus would be the metric. Trump had praised Xi for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic during its early stages. Critics claim that he took Xi’s word over his own intelligence and public health experts, did not do enough to ensure American health personnel were allowed into China to study the outbreak, and failed to act quickly enough to protect America from the spreading disease. To change that image, Trump spent weeks trying to turn the coronavirus into the “Chinese virus,” criticizing the Chinese Communist Party but still praising its leader, Xi. The GOP began a “Beijing Biden” campaign to paint their opponent as soft on China.
But all that came to a halt in June, with reports and excerpts from Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton’s tell-all book alleging that Trump pleaded with the Chinese leader to ensure his reelection and encouraged Xi’s internment of China’s Uighars in concentration camps. Although Bolton has received fierce bipartisan criticism for writing the book — rather than speaking out during impeachment or staying quiet altogether — the revelations have nevertheless pushed Trump’s China policy back to the forefront as a campaign issue.
It may be smart politics. A recent Pew survey found that more Americans have a negative attitude towards China now than at any other point since 2006, when they began tracking this question. Two-thirds of Americans currently hold a negative view of China, compared to 47 percent in 2017.
“Trump has talked tough about China, but the question is not talking tough but whether or not you get results,” Prescott said.