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Opinion Biden is rebranding but not reinventing Trump’s China policy

Antony Blinken in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday.
Antony Blinken in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The Biden administration-in-waiting is sending clear signals about its China approach, which will look very different from President Trump’s — at least on the surface. But at the same time, President-elect Joe Biden’s personnel picks so far portend a strategy that maintains the Trump administration’s core thrust of focusing on competition — not engagement — with Beijing. That should comfort nervous allies even if it doesn’t satisfy hawkish Republicans.

On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent Biden a congratulatory message, in which Xi said he hopes the incoming team will “uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” This is standard Chinese Communist Party doublespeak for asking the United States to back off criticizing Beijing’s ever-increasing external aggression and internal repression. As the joke in Washington has it, when Chinese officials speak of “win-win cooperation,” that means China wins twice.

CCP leaders are surely glad to put the antagonism and unpredictability of the Trump administration behind them, but they might not want to celebrate just yet. Biden has selected key national security officials who are relatively hard-line on China within the Democratic Party. And the Biden team is already changing the United States’ Asia policy, but not in a way that benefits Beijing.

Biden’s announcement he plans to nominate Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser shows he is making a break from the Obama White House’s engagement-focused China policy. There were fears in the region that Susan Rice, who resisted a more competitive strategy when she was national security adviser, might have become America’s top diplomat.

Blinken laid out his thinking on China in a July Hudson Institute event, when he argued that Trump put the United States in a weaker strategic position vis-a-vis China by undermining alliances and waffling on values promotion. Blinken promised to rally allies toward the mission of pushing back on China’s various bad behaviors.

“There is a growing consensus across parties that China poses a series of new challenges and that the status quo was really not sustainable,” he said. “We are in a competition with China, and there’s nothing wrong with competition, if it’s fair.”

Increased coordination was a theme of Biden’s calls with regional democratic leaders, all conducted before his still-pending conversation with Xi. The Biden team readouts said Biden emphasized working with them to maintain a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.” That phrasing has been deliberately changed from the Trump administration’s term, a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. Many countries in Asia prefer the term “secure and prosperous,” although there isn’t much difference in the substance. Biden is essentially continuing a key feature of Trump’s strategy but rebranding it to appeal to allies.

Sullivan, who served as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning director, laid out his current thinking on China in a May essay for Foreign Policy co-written with historian Hal Brands and a Foreign Affairs essay in September 2019 co-written with former Asia official Kurt Campbell. In the former piece, Sullivan and Brands argue “the signs that China is gearing up to contest America’s global leadership are unmistakable, and they are ubiquitous.” In the latter piece, Campbell and Sullivan write, “There is a growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close.”

According to American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow Eric Sayers, there are three basic camps on China inside the Democratic Party: the competitors, the centrists and the optimists. Blinken and Sullivan could be seen as competitors or centrists, whereas Rice would be considered an optimist. This perception is important because Republican senators have made clear that they want to focus on China during the incoming team’s vetting.

“What constitutes a China-policy centrist has moved in a more competitive direction since the Obama years, but that won’t prevent Congress from imposing a hard China litmus test on them during confirmation,” Sayers said.

Biden’s calls with Asian leaders all mentioned climate change, a nod to former secretary of state John F. Kerry, who will sit on Biden’s National Security Council as special envoy on that issue. Everyone will be watching how Kerry, perceived as a China optimist, will fit into the new scheme. Biden’s defense secretary choice will also be a key signal. Former undersecretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy, who had been seen as the most likely candidate, is in the competitor camp, but her fortunes appear to be waning.

The group of Biden officials in the running for key sub-Cabinet-level Asia positions also leans heavily toward the competitor camp. They include former Obama NSC officials Jeffrey Prescott and Ely Ratner and former Pentagon official Kelly Magsamen. Older optimists such as former NSC official Jeffrey Bader and former deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg are not expected to return to government.

The Biden team will never be hawkish enough on China to satisfy some Republicans, but the emerging team should appeal to Asian allies who liked Trump’s enthusiasm but not his style. A competition-based approach is not a panacea — it’s simply the prerequisite to meeting the generational challenge of managing China’s rise.

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