US President-elect Joe Biden comes to office at a time of agreement among Democrats and Republicans that China has become a US adversary that seeks to provide the world with an alternative to the American democratic system.
Both parties believe that Beijing is determined for its authoritarian capitalist model to prevail in a rivalry with Washington spanning economic competitiveness, technological innovation, science, space, security, and political ideology.
Amid this rare bipartisan consensus in Washington, what steps will the new administration need to take on January 20 upon assuming office? Biden’s team would be well advised to challenge current assumptions and employ a variety of direct and nuanced measures to manage the troubled relationship.
First, it is incumbent that Biden work with allies. The US is stronger when it taps into its unrivaled network of relationships to work collectively with others.
Because of the multidimensional nature of China’s rise, the new Biden administration will need to coordinate efforts with partners to address present challenges and opportunities.
While the cooperation of regional states will be required – Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Australia – Biden should also look to non-Asian allies such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union to focus on common objectives.
As part of this strategy, there will be some who argue for Biden to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc (now called the CPTPP, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) to advance US strategic interests and involve Washington in shaping the next generation’s trade rules rather than allowing China to set the agenda.
Since many Democrats and Trump voters alike believe that trade severely degrades American wages and manufacturing, Biden will need to walk this political tightrope and commit to providing sustained federal support for Rust Belt states that are affected by any agreement.
While it will be important for the Biden administration to communicate clearly to Beijing its core concerns regarding a variety of issues – forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, mercantilist trade practices, expansive claims in the East and South China Seas, etc – it must be thoughtful with its endgame and not adopt a posture of blind opposition to China.
Part of this will need to involve resurrecting the yearly US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues started by the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations to address shared challenges (the North Korea nuclear crisis, Covid-19, climate change, etc) as well as areas of disagreement, such as maritime claims, Taiwan, Hong Kong, trade disputes and human-rights violations against Uighur Muslims, Christians and others within China.
Addressing these issues effectively will require Biden to strengthen the US at home and repair its social fabric. These steps will be necessary to allow Washington to begin the process of healing internally and to bolster its moral case as to why the American democratic model is a preferred alternative to the Communist Party of China’s autocratic system.
Importantly, Biden can increase US competitiveness vis-à-vis China by reinvesting in key areas such as infrastructure modernization, education, artificial intelligence, bioscience, robotics, quantum computing and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies that have applications to both civilian and military structures and concepts.
Part of the Biden administration’s China policy must also involve a multi-year commitment to modernize the weapons capabilities where the US is currently deficient in defending against China’s campaign to push the United States out of the Western Pacific.
Funds need to be appropriated for the US Navy to increase shipbuilding to continue to allow for the US to operate beyond the second island chain. This will require an increased number of undersea warfare assets as well as frigates, unmanned vessels and ships with enhanced stealth technologies.
Sufficient money must also be appropriated to fill Washington’s current missile gap with Beijing, allowing for the deployment of long-range land-based missile systems in the Indo-Pacific region to raise the costs of Chinese aggression significantly.
Yet while some facets of the Biden administration’s China policy need to be firm, other aspects should move the US forward with partnerships to work with Beijing, rebuild mutual respect, and resume high-level communication.
These renewed efforts need to focus on averting a direct collision between the two powers. To this end, Biden must seek to dial back the openly anti-China signaling of “the Quad,” the Australia-Japan-India-US partnership geared toward supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific.
While this four-country collaboration ought to be expanded and can play an important role toward protecting allied interests from Chinese coercion, it need not be publicly antagonistic nor create a public loss of face for Beijing. Canberra, Tokyo, New Delhi and Washington must do more to maintain cordiality and find opportunities for cooperation with Beijing.
By putting in place strong measures to stand up to Beijing’s malign activities while committing to strategic diplomacy and engagement, Biden can restore stability to US-China relations. These efforts would go a long way toward constructing a productive partnership between the two countries, laying the groundwork for a positive and peaceful collective future.
Ted Gover PhD (@TedGover) writes on foreign policy and is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University in California.