Joe Biden, then US vice-president, and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a state luncheon for China on September 25, 2015, at the US State Department in Washington. Photo: AFP / Paul J Richards

After US President-elect Joe Biden assumes office this month, how he deals with China will be among his most closely watched policies. To the American voters who sent President Donald Trump packing – and to many observers elsewhere – it might be easy to assume that a return to diplomatic engagement with Beijing is in the best interest of Washington and its allies.

But that assumption would be wrong. If there is one place where elements of the past must persist, it’s the tougher approach to China’s Communist Party championed by Trump. And the effect of this will be felt beyond China, the US and Asia, also in Europe and the Middle East. 

Before Trump took office four years ago, every American president since Richard Nixon wrongly believed that the best way to push Communist China to change its authoritarian ways was to do business with Beijing.

James Mann, author of a seminal book on the topic, calls this the “China fantasy.” The idea was that when democratic countries traded with and invested in China, the resulting prosperity would force a political liberalization.

Bill Clinton predicted in 1997 that this was as inevitable as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though such optimism was later tempered, subsequent administrations did not stray far from it.

George W Bush’s deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, infamously said in 2005 that China’s membership in the international system enabled its economic success, and the time had come for China to “become a responsible stakeholder in that system.” 

Today, it’s safe to say the opposite has happened. China now is less liberal and more politically closed than at any time since Mao Zedong.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has eviscerated liberal norms, trampled on human rights, antagonized its neighbors and sought to weaken or replace the very multilateral organizations that facilitated China’s rise. 

What Trump did was to upend past orthodoxy and bury the China fantasy. Trump challenged China more directly than any of his predecessors on a range of issues, from intellectual-property theft to currency manipulation.

He started a trade war, sanctioned Chinese officials for human-rights violations and pulled back the curtain on Beijing’s espionage and influence operations. While his China scorecard was poor – “a story of many defeats,” as one news headline characterized it – Trump nonetheless recognized that America’s approach to China needed a rethink. 

None of this is to suggest that Trump was anything less than toxic for the world – and as the events of January 6 illustrated, democracy itself. His style of diplomacy was devastating for Western values, and his “America First” fallacy inspired a grotesque period of copycat nationalism that emboldened the far right from Hungary to Moscow to the steps of the US Capitol. The international community is better off with Trump gone.  

Still, it’s worth asking what Trump’s absence will mean for US efforts to constrain China. Will Biden be pressured to keep the screws tightened, or might he return to the accommodating stance he pursued as a senator and later as vice-president under Barack Obama (when he called China’s rise a “positive development” for the world)? 

Those who have experienced China’s brutality are the least optimistic. Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng stumped for Trump during the presidential campaign, urging Americans to give him four more years for the “sake of the world.”

Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, said Biden’s promise to push China to play by international rules would only embolden Beijing to misbehave. (I heard similar concerns from Tibetan refugees in India during the transition from Bush to Obama.)

And Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy advocate and Hong Kong publisher, wrote in his Apple Daily newspaper that “Trump knows what he has been doing with China, while Biden is clueless.” 

Biden, of course, begs to differ, and insists that his approach to China has hardened, too. During a presidential debate last year, Biden called Xi a “thug,” and writing in Foreign Affairs in March, insisted that the US “does need to get tough with China.”

This echoes that of Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has said that China is “arguably the biggest challenge we face from another nation state.” 

So, how should the Biden administration face down the China challenge? 

By far the biggest failing of Trump’s four years – and the first place Biden should focus – was not engaging allies to stand together against China’s authoritarian policies and trade practices.

In a sign of how damaging Trump’s isolationist approach has been, and how hard it will be for the Biden administration to reverse course, the European Union recently signed a landmark investment agreement with China designed to level the playing field for European firms. It was a repudiation of US leadership under Trump, and a clear sign that China is too powerful to push around alone. 

To bring America’s allies back on side, Biden will need to convince them that the US has more to offer than China, and that Beijing’s repressive streak cannot go unpunished. But he must also convince them that the “China fantasy” is just that.

Expecting China to liberalize through trade and engagement is a fool’s errand. Unfortunately, as the new EU-China investment deal suggests, not everyone shares that view.

At the heart of the agreement is a commitment from China to observe international standards on forced labor. But as should be clear from China’s use of forced labor in Xinjiang and Tibet, Beijing has little regard for such rules. 

How the Biden administration proceeds will have implications for the rest of the world, notably the Middle East. For instance, some congressional leaders believe that the best way to resource a more robust approach to China is by de-emphasizing commitments to the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf region. But this would be an unhelpful course of action.

Disengagement would cede Western influence and give China greater sway over oil exports, which could hurt efforts to win Asian support for a stronger China policy. That’s because while the bulk of the region’s oil is bought by China, America’s allies in the Pacific – Japan and South Korea in particular – are also heavily dependent.

In crafting a coherent China policy, Biden has a tough line to walk.

As the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated, China cannot be completely sidelined; it must play an active role on global challenges like climate change and global health. But nor can China be coddled. Biden must be willing to take a page from Trump’s playbook – as unsavory as that might be.

Only a strong and united front of opposition will ever push China to become the “responsible stakeholder” that past US administrations, and Biden himself, once imagined. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Greg C Bruno

Greg C Bruno is the author of Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet. As a journalist his work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian and other international outlets. He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.