In geopolitics, misperceptions tend to become conventional wisdom over time. A narrative has gained ground over the past two or three years that there is a “consensus of opinion” in the United States as regards its China policies.
According to this narrative, the incoming Joe Biden presidency will more or less continue with the “hardline” policies toward China that President Donald Trump has pursued.
However, the reality is that there are discussions going on in the US between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and even within the two parties. Some of it we got to glimpse in recent days in media reports that the Trump administration might attempt to box the Biden administration in on China policies.
Quoting administration officials, a recent CNN report said: “The China hawks in the Trump administration believe that there are certain actions they can take now that will box in the Biden administration.” Isn’t the choice of words curious – “China hawks”? So there are hawks and doves even within the Trump administration.
Axios was the first to come out with the story that Trump will “enact a series of hardline policies during his final 10 weeks to cement his legacy on China.… He’ll try to make it politically untenable for the Biden administration to change course.”
What the report implied was that the Trump administration apprehends that Biden has his own China policies.
Beijing, of course, anticipated this. A former senior Chinese trade official and an executive council member of the China Society for World Trade Organization Studies, He Weiwen, put it this way: “Biden would not care what kind of the building blocks Trump has put for him. He could blow them down, like what Trump has done to Barack Obama’s legacy.”
Chinese reports have acknowledged that back-channel contacts are going on with Biden’s circle. China’s decision to extend congratulations to Biden suggested that it wanted to send a signal to the president-elect to unfreeze the ties despite current setbacks.
Indeed, there are different discussions taking place in the US on how to meet the China challenge; what sort of trade policy will be productive; how far to go on the path of the “tech war,” and so on. The assumption that there are inevitable tensions, inevitable difficulties between the US and China is valid. But the two countries are not necessarily destined to be conflictual.
A more constructive China policy is in the making. The period of optimism in the Sino-American relationship has become history. The salience is about the US’ ability to get China to move in a direction that it wants – be it on economic policies or political issues.
Put differently, the trajectory of the discussion in the US is how the Biden administration can pursue its policy toward China in a more effective way. Now, this wasn’t so under Trump. The most recent past has been about conflict and criticism.
But there was no measurement of success; the trajectory became an end in itself. Meanwhile, Biden’s advisers are pondering whether Trump’s approach has really changed China’s policies.
Their challenge is to frame a new matrix of more competitive policies on trade, climate, etc with a view to get China actually to move in a direction that the US wants.
The buzzword is “strategic competition.” But it is well understood that the Trump administration’s containment policy, marked by a three-pronged strategy of the trade war, technological blockade, and ideological attacks, failed to achieve significant results.
The heart of the matter is that it is unrealistic for the US to launch an economic war on China or to start any comprehensive military confrontation against China, considering that the power gap between the US and China is rapidly narrowing.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has dealt heavy economic losses in the US. A new round of large-scale suppressive policies against China in the short term is simply inconceivable. Biden is coming under compulsion to seek a structural adjustment of his China policy in order to concentrate on the post-pandemic recovery first.
China is the only major economy that will enjoy positive growth in the period ahead. And China is emerging as the engine of global growth. Yet continuing trade friction between the two countries means that the US will not benefit from this expansion as it did from China’s huge fiscal and monetary pump-priming after the great financial crisis of 2007-08.
All the same, paradoxically, with Beijing pursuing incremental liberalization of its financial market, US banks are already starting to take controlling stakes in existing partnerships in China. Again, China offers hard-pressed pension funds in the US and other developed countries real incomes from which to pay retirement obligations. Clearly, the Biden administration will take note that aggressive US-China “strategic competition” will come at a high cost.
In sum, a certain improvement in US-China bilateral relations can be expected in 2021. Biden’s China policy will be more rational and pragmatic. Although there will still be fierce competition between the two countries – and even more fierce competition in the high-tech fields – the overall atmosphere of the relationship will improve.
To be sure, Biden intends to look at ways to work more effectively with the US’ allies and partners on the entire agenda – market access, for example, intellectual property, China’s industrial policy, etc – as there is a lot of crossover today. However, Biden’s immediate priority will be to stabilize the US-China relationship.
We can expect Biden to take a cooperative approach on health issues in particular. This means that while a competitive edge will always be there, the main thrust will be on putting the relationship on a stable footing.
What is equally important here is that the Chinese strategic considerations are also in place from a long-term perspective. At the core of it, China believes that the US as a world power is inexorably in decline and it is only the pace or dynamics of the decline that needs to be seen.
But China sees opportunities to try to stabilize what has been a tense and difficult relationship under Trump. Specifically, China and the US will have an opportunity to cooperate on global issues such as climate change, non-proliferation, and global pandemics.
Having said that, make no mistake that China has also been asserting a leadership role on the global stage. There is realization in China that the US is likely to maintain a more competitive approach in an attitude of “strategic competition,” and is not contemplating a return to the engagement or the drawn-out discussions on issues characteristic of Obama’s first term as president.
China expects that tough discussions lie ahead. Thus China is advancing its own policies of self-reliance to mitigate its exposure to interdependence with the US.
Finally, there is a huge geopolitical dimension to Biden’s China policy, which is blithely overlooked by analysts, especially in India.
The point is, Biden is a highly experienced diplomatist who honed his political instincts during the Cold War era. Biden entered the US Senate in 1972 and had a continuous stint as senator until he became Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2009, with long stints in the Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden’s perspectives on Russia and China are almost entirely molded by the Kissinger doctrine of the US-Russia-China triangle. Biden recently acknowledged that he regards China as a competitor only, whereas Russia is the most serious threat to the United States’ global standing.
Now, Henry Kissinger advocated that a kinetic US-Russia-China triangle works well for the US strategic interests. Translated into realpolitik, therefore, the high probability – near certainty – is that Biden will be inclined to seek a “mini-detente” with China so that the US can get on with the No 1 priority in the global strategic balance, which is to isolate Russia.
Ideally, Biden would attempt to break the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance. If that is not possible, he will settle for China’s neutrality when he launches his assault on the Kremlin.
Biden’s agenda toward Russia is about “regime change” during the upcoming crucial four-year period of transition ahead in Russian politics leading to 2024 when President Vladimir Putin must seek a renewed term or step down, a period that is also co-terminus with his own term in the White House.
Of course, without China, Russia loses “strategic depth.” There is no Warsaw Pact available now, either. The big question is whether China would play ball with Biden. The jury is still out, as nothing suits China better than any engagement with the US that Biden might offer.
China is not in the business of guaranteeing the preservation of the Russian political system. From Beijing’s viewpoint, on the other hand, the coming 10-year period is extremely critical for it to bridge the gap between China and the US and to strive to emerge as a developed country on par with the Western world.
The above calculus is likely to give impetus to Biden’s expected moves to reset the Sino-American relationship. From Biden’s side, it is a truce with China that he would have in mind. But history shows that China has the intellectual acumen and a political system to make gains in such circumstances to advance its core agenda to rise as a world power. President Xi Jinping has set 2035 as the target for China to be militarily on par with the US.
One last point – the attitude of the United States’ European allies. It so happens that Russia’s relations with the European Union have touched rock bottom. Germany used to be Russia’s advocate in Brussels until recently, but it has turned unfriendly. With Chancellor Angela Merkel’s retirement from politics next year, German policies will become even more Euro-Atlantic.
Importantly, the EU has no security interests involving China, whereas it views Russia as an adversary or even existential enemy right at its doorstep. If Biden proceeds to work out a detente with China like Kissinger did in 1972 and erode the Russia-China alliance so as to be in a better position to confront Russia, the EU would have no problems with such an approach.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.