President-elect Joe Biden will take a different type of tough approach to China. Image: Getty/AFP/Twitter/Intercept

Many officials in Japan, India and some Southeast Asian countries are reportedly worried that a Joe Biden administration will be too weak in its dealings with China. These officials like Trump’s tough approach toward Beijing enough to forgive the sometimes awkward implementation. 

Biden, by contrast, makes them fear a return of what they saw as a Barack Obama-era policy of overlooking Chinese aggression in the region in the interest of gaining Beijing’s cooperation in solving global problems. Biden served as Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2017.  

The notion that a Biden-led US administration will be weaker than Trump’s government on China is oversimplified and premature. In several important ways, Biden’s team may position the US to compete with China more effectively. 

Biden indeed had a slow start in recognizing a strong, grievance-driven China as a threat to the US-sponsored liberal regional order. In 2019, he said China was too preoccupied with its own internal problems to be serious competition for the US. 

More recently, however, Biden’s views on China have hardened, reflecting the larger change in the American policy-making community as a whole. “The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote in 2020, and should cooperate with partners “to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge.” 

Members of President-elect Biden’s foreign policy team who will likely hold senior positions in his government do not sound soft on China. One, Ely Ratner, recently said: “Should the United States fail to rise to the China challenge, the world will see the emergence of a China-led order that is deeply antithetical to US values and interests.”

Obama administration Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy looks on during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Ma Xiaotian in Beijing on December 7, 2011. Photo: AFP/Andy Wong

Another, Michèle Flournoy, said the US should maintain the capability to sink all Chinese ships in the South China Sea – civilian as well as military – within 72 hours.

Biden’s former national security advisor Jake Sullivan and former Obama official Jennifer Harris argue for a more purposeful US national economic strategy to win the competition with China, in effect a step away from laissez-faire toward mercantilism.

In contrast to Trump, Biden is amenable to multilateral trade arrangements. 

Many analysts have criticized the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an abdication of US global leadership. The TPP set a new standard for rule-making for the global trade system. 

The opportunity to enhance US prestige and influence was arguably greater than the potential economic benefit to Americans. Leaving the US behind, 11 other countries went ahead with a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP in 2018, and China opportunistically sponsored an alternative Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.   

Biden says he will renegotiate the TPP, but favors the US’ joining because he recognizes that “either China’s going to write the rules of the road for the 21st century on trade or we are.” 

US re-engagement with TPP is not automatic, as much of Biden’s Democratic Party fears the loss of American jobs and wages due to expanded international trade. 

Nevertheless, Biden’s ascension to the presidency creates the possibility that the US will re-commit to promoting the liberalization of global trade, strengthening the alternative to China’s preferred model of economic nationalism.

Donald Trump is conspicuously missing as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (6th from L) poses for a photo with ministers from 11 countries during the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership 1st Commission 2019. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Biden’s criticism of Trump’s trade war with China reflects intelligence rather than weakness. He is right that the tariffs have hurt American workers. 

Furthermore, he acknowledges that focusing narrowly on the US trade deficit with China is misplaced. The real problem lies, Biden has noted, is in structural inequities such as China’s systematic intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer and that the proper way to address China’s economic statecraft is for America to band together with other like-minded states. 

Trump has mostly given China a pass on the issue of civil and political rights. By contrast, Biden talks of making human rights a higher priority in US foreign policy. Biden has spoken publicly in support of the Dalai Lama, called the persecution of Uighurs “genocide” and criticized Trump for a “weak” response to Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Biden has recently even referred to Xi as a “thug.” 

The Trump administration damaged US relations with its Asia-Pacific allies, key assets in the competition with China. Favorable public views of the US have dropped sharply in Australia, Japan and South Korea during the Trump years. 

Early in his presidency, Australians learned to dislike Trump through reports of his disrespectful phone conversation with their prime minister. In the end, they were shocked by Trump’s behavior during the election.

Then-vice president Joe Biden speaks before a dinner at Admiralty House in Sydney on July 19, 2016. Photo: AFP/Jessica Hromas

Trump’s White House asked Japan to pay four times as much as it is accustomed to paying toward the cost of hosting US troops in Japan, and made a similar demand to South Korea for five times the usual amount. 

Given Trump’s frequent public complaints about alleged defense free-riding by Tokyo and Seoul, this raises the legitimate question of whether Trump intended to sabotage these alliances by making unacceptable demands, and would have achieved this objective had he won a second term. 

Biden, by contrast, has consistently emphasized the value of US alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and the need to work with partners to achieve US-desired outcomes. He has also pledged “deepening our ties with Taiwan.” 

It is fair to assert that Biden’s stated intention to stand up to China on multiple fronts has been empty rhetoric calculated to win votes. It is equally fair, however, to question the record of the outgoing Trump administration on this score. 

Trump had a veneer of toughness toward China. He allowed his senior advisors to re-characterize the bilateral relationship in starkly adversarial terms and to increase US strategic pushback against China through such means as more frequent US Navy patrols to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea and upgraded US engagement with Taiwan. 

Yet Trump proved willing to bargain away parts of this confrontational approach if he could gain the appearance of Chinese concessions in the bilateral trade relationship. An example was Trump’s abrupt reversal of a cut-off of supplies of US components to the Chinese telecom firm ZTE in 2018. 

The cut-off arose from national security concerns, but Trump said he acted out of concern for jobs in China and because of his “personal relationship with President Xi.” 

Trump himself seems to lack either an ideological or a grand strategic basis for viewing China as a long-term US foe. The deterioration in US-China relations in 2020 is closely linked to the confluence of the pandemic and the recently-concluded US elections: Trump found China-bashing a useful electoral strategy. 

Even in 2020, Trump has refrained from insulting Xi, whom Trump has praised and called a “friend” in the recent past. A re-elected Trump might have returned to a friendly relationship with China in 2021 in pursuit of a trade agreement. 

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2016. Photo: AFP

Some Hong Kong democracy activists have expressed fear that while Trump helped prevent further erosion of Hong Kong’s civil liberties by China, Biden will not. In fact, probably no action any US president would consider taking will stop Beijing from prematurely implementing one country, one system.

Trump fans in Hong Kong should also consider the following: Trump spoke favorably of the Chinese government’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Trump acknowledged stalling on sanctioning China over its persecution of Muslim minorities because he was negotiating a US-China trade deal. 

Trump even initially said he might veto the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that Congress passed in 2019 because “I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine, an incredible guy.” 

The Trump administration deserves credit for re-orienting US China policy, but at the cost of considerable incoherence and damage to US alliances. Biden might retain the orientation but improve the implementation.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.