Little will change in America’s public stance toward China when Joe Biden takes office in late January, but the new administration will likely give more leeway to powerful US tech companies who depend on Chinese business.
The Democratic contender has ridiculed Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports, arguing—in line with the facts—that the trade war had pushed US manufacturing into recession even before the Covid-19 pandemic. More important than the trade war is tech war.
Washington under Biden will continue to denounce China’s global aspirations as a threat to American security but it will do less about it. Unless Biden’s physical or mental health collapses between now and November 3, nothing will impede his victory at the polls. He will win for the same reason that Trump won in 2016.
I write this reluctantly; I voted for Trump in 2016 and will vote for him again in November, for reasons I gave last month in Asia Times and on October 1 in the website “The American Mind.” I also believe that the failed attempt to frame Trump for alleged “collusion” with Russia was a seditious mutiny by his enemies that sought to overturn a presidential election by nefarious means.
Despite some important disagreements, I have supported the president throughout. Back in 2016 I predicted a Trump victory three months before the election, under the headline, “Deplorably, Trump is going to win.” Hillary Clinton couldn’t suppress her contempt for the majority of American voters, the “deplorables” whom she dismissed in an unguarded moment before an LGBT fundraiser.
“Americans are by and large forgiving people,” I wrote in 2016. “They’ll forgive Bill [Clinton] for cavorting with Monica ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ Lewinsky in the Oval Office and imposing himself on any number of unwilling females. They might even forgive Hillary for losing tens of thousands of compromising emails on an illegal private server and then repeatedly lying about it in a way that insults the deplorable intelligence of the average voter.
“But the one thing you can’t do is spit on them and tell them it’s raining. They’ll never forgive you for that. They’re hurting, and they rankle at candidates who rub their faces in it.”
Deplorably, that is what President Trump did when he tweeted on October 6 that influenza “in most populations” is less deadly than the flu. He wrote: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”
Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 30, Trump said that the world “must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.” It’s a “plague,” but it isn’t as bad as your average flu season. He stopped saying that the virus would “go away,” as he did on 34 occasions recorded by the Washington Post. We Americans are pretty stupid, but not that stupid. Don’t spit on us, and tell us it’s raining.
The Democrats are hammering relentlessly on this point, with evident success. The polls make clear that Covid-19 is Trump’s nemesis. The news site Axios observes that Trump’s support has imploded among Americans aged 65 and older, the demographic most at risk from Covid-19.
In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Biden led Trump among older Americans by 62% to 35%, a lead of 27 points versus an overall 14-point lead. In the CNN/SRS poll, Biden led by 60% to 39%. Trump won the senior citizen vote in 2016 by a margin of 7 points.
Trump’s attacks on China are popular, for the same reason that his 2016 attacks on Mexican illegal immigrants and immigrants from countries unable to control Islamic terrorism were popular. 73% of Americans have a negative view of China, according to the Pew Survey.
Everyone likes to blame his or her problems on someone else. Telling Americans the truth—that if they want their kids to succeed they had better make sure they know calculus by 10th grade—wouldn’t go down well, and it is too much to ask any politician to do so. Newt Gingrich, who no longer runs for office, tells anyone who will listen that our biggest problem is our educational system, and we can’t blame China for that.
Because China-bashing is popular, Biden will bash China through the remainder of the campaign, to deflect Republican charges that he is a secret panda-hugger whose son got Chinese assets to manage while Biden was vice president. No matter who is inaugurated next January, China and America will remain strategic rivals and relations will remain strained.
There will be some important differences though. To begin with, President Trump’s talk of decoupling from China is economic nonsense. American imports from China in August ran at a $450 billion annual rate, near the historic peak, as Americans bought consumer electronics in bulk.
Apple’s Tim Cook says he can’t build an iPhone in the US—the needed process engineers simply aren’t available—and the idea that Vietnam or even India could replace much of China’s output is fanciful.
For that matter, Qualcomm earns almost half its revenue in China and Nvidia about a quarter of its revenue. America’s most innovative high-tech companies depend on Chinese sales. GM sells more cars in China than it does in the US. To “decouple” the world’s two largest economies would be like separating Siamese twins with a grapefruit spoon.
I doubt that Biden will remove Huawei and ZTE from the Commerce Department’s “entity list,” which requires special approval for US companies to sell to the Chinese telecom giants. But the fact that the entity list will continue to exist matters much less than the rigor with which it is enforced.
Intel and AMD have obtained licenses to sell to Huawei, and numerous other providers including Japan’s Sony and Taiwan’s Mediatek have also applied for licenses. Biden will listen to the advice of tech CEOs and industry elder statesman like Bill Gates, who warn that a cutoff of American technology to China will push the Chinese to develop their own alternatives and, eventually, push American companies out of the world market.
Biden’s diplomats, moreover, will pay more attention to the remonstrations of America’s allies, many of whom depend on trade with China. German trade with China is now larger than its trade with the US. South Korea exports almost three times as much to China as it does to America.
The Trump Administration asserted unprecedented extraterritorial powers earlier this year when it required export licenses for sales to Chinese “entity list” companies if the products were made with American equipment or software. Again, it’s all in the enforcement.
Prominent members of Biden’s likely foreign policy team have gone on record calling for cooperation rather than confrontation with China, at least in matters such as fighting the coronavirus. Last April, the Asia Society assembled signatures of numerous former Obama administration officials, including Biden’s advisor Tony Blinken, in a letter proposing US-China cooperation.
It stated: “No effort against the coronavirus – whether to save American lives at home or combat the disease abroad – will be successful without some degree of cooperation between the United States and China. China’s factories can make the protective gear and medicines needed to fight the virus; its medical personnel can share their valuable clinical experience in treating it; and its scientists can work with ours to develop the vaccine urgently needed to vanquish it.”
More generally, the Democratic side of the foreign policy establishment is reconciled to the rise of China as a world power. Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s 2017 book The Thucydides Trap typified its thinking. Big wars occur, Allison argued, because established powers won’t tolerate the ascent of a rising power, starting, he claimed with the Athenian-Spartan war of 431-404 B.C.E.
I disagreed with Allison’s thesis, as I explained at Claremont Review of Books, but the volume nonetheless encapsulates the declinist thinking in the Democratic camp. Intellectually, the foreign policy circles around Biden accept the decline of America’s unique superpower status and don’t want to fight to maintain it.
To stay ahead of China, the US would need ten years and a trillion dollars of additional R&D spending, with strong guidance from the Pentagon. Weapons development always leads innovation because winning wars requires progress at the frontiers of physics.
The Trump administration showed scant interest in this kind of approach, which the Reagan administration employed successfully to win the Cold War, as I argue in my book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World).
Although Biden has spoken of technological renewal, I suspect that so-called renewable energy will get the lion’s share of federal funding. This will make the declinist thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Under Biden, the US is less likely to go out with a bang than with a whimper.