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Opinion Biden sounds like he has made a choice on China

President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on national security in Wilmington, Del., on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, shortly after the election, wrote an insightful piece on the two potential directions for President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy:

Within Biden’s team, an ongoing, but largely overlooked, debate has been brewing among Democratic centrists about the future of U.S. foreign policy. One group, which I call “restorationist,” favors a foreign policy broadly consistent with that of President Barack Obama. They believe in careful management of The Post-Cold War order. They are cautious and incrementalist. They will stand up to China but will not want to define their strategy as a great power competition. They maintain high hopes for bilateral cooperation with Beijing on climate change, global public health, and other issues. …
A second group, which I call “reformist,” challenges key orthodoxies from the Obama era. Philosophically, these advisers believe that U.S. foreign policy needs to fundamentally change if it is to deal with the underlying forces of Trumpism and nationalist populism. They are more willing than restorationists to take calculated risks and more comfortable tolerating friction with rivals and problematic allies. They see China as the administration’s defining challenge and favor a more competitive approach than Obama’s. They view cooperation with other free societies as a central component of U.S. foreign policy, even if those partnerships result in clashes with authoritarian allies that are not particularly vital.

The devil is in the details, but from what we have heard so far from Biden, it appears the “reformist” wing is carrying the day when it comes to China policy. At an appearance in Wilmington, Del., on Monday after speaking with his foreign policy team, Biden explained that “as we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies to make common cause with us in defense of our shared interests and values.”

Straight away, he recognizes China and Russia as aggressive competitors. “We talked about the different strategic challenges we will face from both Russia and China, and the reforms we must make to put ourselves in the strongest possible position to meet these challenges,” he said. As with Wright’s “reformist” vision, the key is getting enough support from democratic allies to level the playing field. Biden argues:

On any issue that matters to the U.S.-China relationship — from pursuing a foreign policy for the middle class, including a trade and economic agenda that protects American workers, our intellectual property, and the environment — to ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, to championing human rights — we are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of our world. That’s how we multiply the impact of our efforts and make those efforts more sustainable. That’s the power of smart and effective American leadership.

In short, “America First” is precisely the wrong strategy to deploy when facing international challengers. The current administration, as Biden puts it, created an “enormous vacuum” by receding from the world stage and believing that the president could win over adversaries with his peculiar brand of personal diplomacy, which vacillated between fawning and frenetic bombast. Biden offers a clear-eyed view of our big-power adversaries. However, when coupled with rational analysis as to how we maximize our leverage, he might just succeed where the Trump administration failed.

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Wright made another sage observation: “Biden should use competition with China as a bridge to Senate Republicans.” Since many Republicans claim to be tough on China, he should seek their buy-in and define the contours of what a tough-on-China policy looks like. Biden’s approach, Wright suggested, should include enlisting Republicans to support when it comes to “pending legislation on investments in the semiconductor industry and 5G infrastructure, appointing assistant secretaries for Asia at the State Department and the Pentagon who can easily win bipartisan support, and showing that he is serious about using the Treasury and Commerce Departments to compete with China.”

A robust response to China, Biden can explain to Republicans, includes some items already on his domestic agenda items: “targeted infrastructure investments, including clean technology; an industrial policy to compete with China on 5G, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence; a limited and strategic decoupling from China in certain areas; and bolstering the resilience of the U.S. economy to external shocks, which would include making supply chains more secure,” as Wright says.

This approach to China may be a point of bipartisan agreement, despite Republicans’ campaign hysteria that Biden is somehow weak on China. If Biden and his team can find domestic investments that serve to improve our international position in relation to China, even right-wing Republicans might be hard-pressed to stiff him.

The Biden administration’s first opportunity to sketch out his approach to China will come when his national security nominees appear for their Senate confirmation hearings. They would do well to use that setting to educate the Senate and the country as to their boss’s “reformist” outlook on big-power competition.

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