During his years as vice president, Joe Biden liked to boast that he’d spent the most time with the leader of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping, than any other world leader. Together they’d logged 25 hours of private meals — they’d even slurped noodles together in Beijing — and 24,000 miles of travel. That familiarity was meant to communicate that Biden had, to steal a line from George W. Bush, looked into Xi’s soul.
As a candidate for president, however, Biden put some distance between him and China’s leader, calling Xi “a thug.”
How the United States fashions its most consequential foreign relationship will depend a lot on which view of Xi the president-elect embraces.
American presidential candidates are prone to make nasty comments about China’s Communists during elections. Bill Clinton accused his predecessor of coddling “tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing.” George W. Bush named China a “strategic competitor.” But both ended up with policies — such as ushering China into the World Trade Organization — that added a dose of rocket fuel accelerant to China’s rise. President Trump careened from cultivating a bromance with Xi to blaming China for the covid-19 pandemic.
Still, Biden’s more recent harsh rhetoric reflects a fundamental shift in America’s view of China, one that has been propelled by Trump. In 2017, the Trump administration described China as a “revisionist power” in its first National Security Strategy review. In America writ large, a Pew Research poll from July found that 73 percent of American respondents had negative attitudes toward China — the highest percentage since Pew began collecting such data in 2005. Then only 35 percent reported negative attitudes toward China.
For Biden, the challenges will be to balance the instincts he’s honed as a lifelong dealmaker — which could lead him to soft-pedal criticism of China in exchange for cooperation on, say, climate change — and the blunt reality that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is not turning China in a more liberal direction as generations of Americans believed it would.
Some of Biden’s advisers, such as Susan E. Rice, have advocated a softer approach. As national security adviser during the Obama administration, Rice opted to avoid provoking China in some matters, such as militarization of the South China Sea, its human rights record and predatory trade practices, to get deals in others, such as cyberespionage — only to be embarrassed when China broke the cyberespionage deal, as well.
Other advisers have taken a more critical view of China and have generally backed the analysis of the Trump administration that China is intent on replacing the United States as the preeminent world power. “I think there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices,” Kurt Campbell, the top Asia official in the Obama State Department, now a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, told the Wall Street Journal in September.
But how broad that recognition actually is among Biden’s inner circle remains an open question. Very early into his administration, Biden will confront a raft of China-related questions.
What if China offers assistance on climate change, which Biden has termed an “existential threat,” or commits to help America fight covid-19, which Biden on Monday labeled as his administration’s first priority? But what if China’s price involves a rollback of all the steps, tariffs and sanctions the Trump administration has taken to constrain Beijing? Once again, Biden will be faced with the kinds of deals that the Obama administration often accepted — a promise of better behavior in the future in exchange for a win for China today.
Biden has also signaled that he will embed his China policy in America’s alliances. “We make up 25 percent of the world’s economy but we poked our finger in the eyes of all of our allies out there,” Biden said before the election. “The way China will respond is when we gather the rest of the world.”
But approaching China with a broad front, while necessary in principle, will demand hard choices as well. America’s allies all want different things from China. Japan, for example, is a strong supporter of moves to counter China’s militarization of all the surrounding seas in Asia. However, it is less supportive of steps to limit China’s campaigns to influence domestic politics, which has become a big issue, for example, in Australia. South Korea, another key ally, is increasingly fearful of almost anything China does, following a damaging economic embargo that Beijing imposed on Seoul after the deployment of the THAAD antimissile system. Seoul would be hard-pressed to agree to a tougher policy against Beijing.
Probably the best advice for Biden is to wait. The Chinese Communist Party views the United States as a nation in decline. Only when Biden can reunite America’s allies and right the American ship of state, will engaging with China yield any positive results.