President Trump’s scattershot China policy has mixed good ideas with dumb ones. Silly threats to ban apps like TikTok and WeChat vie with smarter moves to cut some Chinese firms off from American capital and technology. Wrongheaded plans to limit the number of Chinese students in American universities bump up against a necessary push to crack down on espionage. An embarrassing bromance between Trump and China’s “brilliant” authoritarian leader Xi Jinping competes with U.S. support of the Uighurs, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Trump administration should be credited for waking the United States up to the challenge China represents. Previous administrations were either naive or asleep at the switch. The Obama administration was so intent on pursuing a climate accord that included China that it chose not to walk and chew gum at the same time, downplaying issues such as China’s gross violations of international law in, and militarization of, the South China Sea. President Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was so focused on the “global war on terror” that his administration ignored China’s widespread theft of U.S. intellectual property and moves to replace the United States as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy, issued in December 2017, acknowledged the reality that China is and will be for the foreseeable future a “strategic competitor” of the United States. And while previous administrations focused on engaging China, the Trump administration has stressed the threats posed by China’s government, political ideology and economic system. In so doing, the Trump administration instituted a smorgasbord of policies. Should Biden win the White House, he and his team will be able to strengthen the best of these and disregard the rest.
Take tariffs. Biden has criticized Trump’s trade war with China, specifically because China’s counter-tariffs have hurt U.S. farmers. The tariffs also reflect Trump’s woolly-headed obsession with America’s trade deficit when he should have concentrated on China’s massive theft of intellectual property instead. But, with tariffs still in place, should Biden enter the White House, he’d have leverage. He shouldn’t do what past presidents have done and get rid of a policy to show good will. China will only pocket that advantage. If China wants the United States to cancel the tariffs, it’s got to give a little. Sure, the tariffs have failed as an overarching policy, but they are hurting China and Biden has a chance to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. He should.
News media access is one of the worst aspects of the U.S.-China relationship now. The playing field hasn’t been level for decades. The Trump administration has moved to cut the number of Chinese journalists representing state-run media outlets in the United States. China countered by expelling all the American reporters, save one, from the New York Times, The Post and the Wall Street Journal. Biden would inherit this mess with the opportunity not to get it back to “normal,” but to make it reciprocal. Set the number of Chinese correspondents in America and the number of American correspondents in China at the same level, say, 150 positions, and simplify the visa process, too. Make the offer publicly; it’s a patently fair deal.
On Trump’s first day in office, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal among the freer economies bordering the Pacific. The deal was drawn up to respond specifically to the mercantilist economic challenges from China. Surprisingly, when the United States left, the TPP didn’t collapse. Instead, the other 11 nations, led by Japan and Australia, ratified it. Should he win the White House, Biden will have the opportunity to reenter the pact. Of course, some renegotiation will be necessary to appease the anti-trade wing of the Democratic Party. But the opportunity is an enormous one to reassert U.S. leadership. The same holds true for the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization.
A more united international response to China could allow Biden to build off the Trump administration’s policies to limit Beijing’s heretofore unfettered access to U.S. capital markets and U.S. technology. Such moves were pretty much unthinkable in the past, and Trump’s China experts should be credited with thinking outside the box.
The Trump administration has banned U.S. computer-chip manufacturers from selling a wide array of chips to Huawei. The logic for taking such a move is compelling. Huawei has reportedly broken international trade sanctions in Iran and North Korea. In addition, under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, Huawei, which seeks to build 5G infrastructure around the world, must spy for China if asked by China’s spy agencies.
When it comes to accessing U.S. capital, the Securities and Exchange Commission has recommended a plan that would compel Chinese companies with shares traded on American stock exchanges to give up their listings unless they comply with U.S. accounting requirements. Chinese firms have raised tens of billions of dollars on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. Some significant accounting frauds, such as a $300 million scandal involving Luckin Coffee, a Nasdaq-listed Chinese competitor to Starbucks, have alarmed American investors and the Treasury Department.
Biden shouldn’t toss out this section of the Trump China-policy buffet. But he needs to improve it by getting America’s allies on his side.