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Opinion Despite the war in Ukraine, Biden understands China matters most

President Biden listens as he meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the White House on Nov. 15, 2021. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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President Barack Obama operated under the mistaken assumption that China wanted to be a responsible member of the international community. President Donald Trump — with his nasty, xenophobic rhetoric, indifference toward human rights, alienation of democratic allies and counterproductive tariff wars — left the United States in a weaker position against China.

President Biden has taken a different tack: tougher than Obama’s and smarter than Trump’s. There’s growing evidence that this approach is paying off.

When Biden entered office, he — like his predecessors — promised to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. His withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was largely to facilitate that refocus. But like other presidents, he faced a world full of challenges, including an ongoing pandemic, worldwide economic setbacks and Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine.

Fortunately, Biden’s foreign policy remains devoted to democratic alliances and revived diplomacy. The result has been a sea change in China policy, as he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear during the president’s trip to Asia.

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Biden’s remarks at a joint news conference with Japan’s prime minister last Monday stirred discussion that the United States was migrating away from its strategic ambiguity about Taiwan. "Yes,” Biden replied when asked if he would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. “That’s the commitment we made.” He then clarified, “We agree with the one-China policy. We signed on to it, and all the attendant agreements made from there, but the idea that it can be taken by force … is just not appropriate.”

Had Biden omitted the initial “yes,” his response likely would not have raised eyebrows. Blinken later recited the traditional formula on U.S. policy toward Taiwan: “The United States remains committed to our one-China policy,” he said. He added that “we oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side; we do not support Taiwan independence; and we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means.” Nevertheless, as is often the case with Biden’s foreign policy remarks (most plainly on Russia), his telltale bluntness was welcome.

On Thursday, Blinken reiterated the degree to which this administration takes the multifaceted threats from China seriously. “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” he said. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.” Blinken added that “this is one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any that we have in the world today.”

More so than previous administrations, the Biden team has linked domestic economic policy (from infrastructure to supply chains to chip manufacturing) to the need to bolster the U.S. economy against China. With a bill designed to make U.S. tech production more competitive against China’s making its way through conference committee, Biden might claim a significant legislative victory.

Equally important would be revamping the U.S. immigration system. While, as Blinken said, “we’re lucky when the best global talent not only studies here but stays here,” the United States could be strategic in expanding visas both for students and for tech workers. America could also bolster democracy at home (e.g., pass voting rights reform) to demonstrate the inferiority of China’s authoritarian system and effectively denounce its human rights violations. As Blinken remarked, “Our task is to prove once again that democracy can meet urgent challenges, create opportunity, advance human dignity; that the future belongs to those who believe in freedom and that all countries will be free to chart their own paths without coercion.”

The Biden administration deserves credit for making good on its pledge to revive democratic alliances and use them as force multipliers in confronting China. It developed a new agreement with Australia and Britain to provide Australia with nuclear submarines. It also elevated the “Quad” — an informal group of nations that includes Australia, India, Japan and the United States — and enhanced the ASEAN alliance. Beyond national security, the administration has maximized the United States’ leverage by acting in concert with allies on climate change and trade. (While not directly applicable to Asia, the success in revitalizing NATO has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.)

Several points warrant emphasis when assessing the challenges that China poses. For starters, the administration’s policy is a work in progress. As a senior State Department official previewed in a call on Thursday, near-term announcements are expected that will refine U.S. tariffs and support for Taiwan’s national security. The administration seems determined to pursue a policy that is more robust, realistic and diplomatically adept than its predecessors.

Second, the senior State Department official conceded that regarding Ukraine, China’s conduct has been “mixed.” The official stressed that the administration has not seen China extend military aid or help Russia avoid sanctions. Nevertheless, China continues to defend Russia rhetorically and excuse its war crimes.

Finally, China’s failure to match the West in developing effective coronavirus vaccines, resulting in continued shutdowns and an anemic recovery, should dispel the notion that it has some inherent advantage over the West. To the contrary, newfound collaboration among Western democracies and a swiftly revived U.S. economy offer evidence that free societies retain substantial advantages over closed ones. The challenge remains in harnessing that collective strength against a nation that still relies on intellectual property theft, military intimidation and state propaganda to compete with the West.

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