In its final days, the Trump administration has been rolling out a series of measures to push back on Chinese economic aggression, espionage and human rights abuses. At the same time, calls for the Biden administration to reverse course are coming not only from China but also from advocates of smooth relations such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who warned this week that the two powers are headed toward a conflict akin to World War I.
But the Chinese government’s offer to improve relations comes at an unreasonable cost. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson suggested in July that Washington and Beijing compile lists of various bilateral issues and then take the “tough issues” off the table, “putting aside differences, so as to minimize their impact on and harm to the overall China-US relations.”
Meanwhile, Beijing is showing another democracy, Australia, what happens when its terms are rejected. A Chinese official gave the Sydney Morning Herald a list of the conditions it expects in return for lifting harsh sanctions on Australia’s agricultural and mineral export industries. According to the list, Australia must stop exposing Chinese Communist Party influence efforts on its soil; shut up about Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Uighurs; open its doors to Chinese tech companies; and quit calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
If Australia does everything China demands, that “would be conducive to a better atmosphere,” the Chinese official said, adding a threat: “If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”
Beijing’s naked economic extortion of Australia is a signal to the Biden administration that the price for smooth relations is subservience. But the goal of any administration must be to defend and advance U.S. interests and values, not to sacrifice them for the false confidence of superficially friendly ties.
There’s concern in Asia about whether the Biden administration understands this dynamic. In August, retired top Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote that Susan Rice, rumored to be a candidate for secretary of state, has “no stomach for competition” and “was among those who thought that the US should deemphasize competition to get China’s cooperation on climate change, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of international relations.”
In 2013, when she was President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Rice gave a speech pledging to “operationalize a new model of major power relations,” endorsing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of a relationship based on cooperation and non-interference in each other’s affairs. In 2016, Rice ordered Pentagon officials to stop using the word “competition” when talking about China and to find a less inflammatory term.
Obama and Rice wanted to work with China on issues such as climate change, but they did so at the cost of treating Beijing with kid gloves. Kurt Campbell, the top State Department Asia official in the Obama administration, pointed out in a speech last month that Beijing’s willingness to cooperate on climate change “is not a favor to the United States or the world,” but an aim it pursues because of its own interests, something the United States should be clear about.
There are plenty of ways Biden can improve upon Trump’s China approach. The new president should make the U.S. strategy more multilateral, more organized and more consistent. And his administration should take advantage of Trump’s wholesale demolition of previous assumptions about relations with China.
What’s changed under Trump is that stability in the relationship is no longer seen as the objective, Eric Sayers, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me: “That doesn’t mean that we should seek instability, but we should recognize that some instability is going to be part of the relationship.”
The Biden team would be foolish to play into Beijing’s scheme. If Biden intends to repair alliances, he should realize that allies like Australia want support for resistance to China’s bullying. They don’t want Washington to roll over.
A range of interest groups is poised to pressure Biden into yielding to China’s demands. But to do so would be going against a majority of Americans in both parties and breaking Biden’s campaign promises to stand up to Xi.
The Biden team should make clear early that it won’t accept China’s increasing external aggression and internal repression in exchange for smoothness. Falling back into that pattern would allow serious problems to fester, raising the long-term risk of just the kind of serious conflict both countries would like to avoid.