If testimonies at the confirmation hearings of the four key cabinet nominees are a preview of the Joe Biden administration’s policies on China, there is little hope that (the world’s most important and complicated) US-China relationship will be back on track any time soon.
Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, Janet Yellen and Avril Haines, respectively the secretary of state, defense secretary, treasury secretary and director of national intelligence, indicated a continuation of the previous administration’s tough stances on China, albeit with different tactics.
For example, Blinken suggested that he would seek allies and use international law and diplomacy to check and push back China’s “misbehaviors” such as “committing genocide” in Xinjiang.
The question, however, is how “tough” the Biden administration should be on China, and which countries it could recruit in its quest to “contain” China.
In light of former president Donald Trump’s failure to stifle China with trade, technology and geopolitical wars, following the previous administration’s footsteps on China would be folly. The fact that China sanctioned 28 former senior US officials, including Mike Pompeo, would suggest that the Asian power can and will hit back.
In this regard, a continuation of Trump’s policies on China could hinder rather than help Biden’s efforts to revive the US economy and address global issues such as climate change.
On recruiting allies to join in the fight against China, America could hit a wall in view of the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) among China and 14 other countries, including staunch US allies Australia, Japan and South Korea. China and the European Union also successfully negotiated the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).
The two agreements would suggest Asia and the EU are more interested in engaging rather than confronting China. The only possible exception is India, which has border disputes with China and needs US help to fulfill its dream of becoming a global superpower.
Against this backdrop, the Biden administration is well advised to ditch or navigate through the anti-China policies that were put in place by past administrations, particularly those introduced by Trump. These policies have brought nothing but grief to America.
Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy hardened China’s claims and increased the risks to US military lives and taxpayers’ money in the South China Sea. It was largely because of the US “pivot” policy that China accelerated weapons development and production.
Trump’s trade war against China slowed US economic growth, put farmers in dire financial straits and increased poverty.
These are just two of the many disasters anti-China policies brought to America.
The “getting tough on China” stance failed and will likely continue to do so because the posture was based on fake news. The Asian giant did not commit a fraction of the “sins” that the US accused it of doing.
China did not “hollow out” US manufacturing or “steal” its jobs; it was American businesses’ decision to relocate production abroad and automate manual- and skilled-labor jobs at home that were largely responsible. The side effect of this stance was the displacement of workers and closing factories at home, culminating in the US losing its skilled labor force and manufacturing prowess.
As for the allegations of “widespread theft” of US intellectual property, they were just that, accusations without any solid credible evidence. The charge, indeed, seemed to be based on US firms teaching their Chinese joint-venture partners how to use the former’s technology. While the goal of teaching Chinese partners on the use of advanced technology and management methods was to improve productivity and increase profits, it was inevitable that China would gain from this strategy.
On Beijing’s alleged human-rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang, how can providing employment and vocational and language training be interpreted as “genocide”? The workers got paid, affording them and their families to sustain a reasonable standard of living.
Providing skills and language competence will broaden Uighurs’ economic opportunities, allowing them to find employment in industries and increase mobility because Mandarin is spoken and understood in every corner of the country.
Yes, it is true that the purpose of “forced” vocational and language training was to counter the radicalization of young Uighurs to rebel against the Chinese government. Perhaps that might be the reason the US was so keen to denounce China is committing “genocide” – it effectively derailed any external attempts to destabilize the country.
Native Americans should be so fortunate, the government offering them a path to improve their socio-economic well-being. For all the US harping of how wonderful it is and how it looks after the people, most native Americans are still confined in god-forsaken regions of the country worse than those in Third World nations, living in hopelessness, poverty and misery.
Black Americans must still endure systematic racism, as seen with the way law-enforcement officers treated the Black Lives Matter movement, while failing to stop white “insurrectionists” storming the Capitol in Washington, DC.
These are just two examples on a long list of US hypocrisy.
Furthermore, Biden needs China’s cooperation to help fulfill his campaign promises of addressing climate change, economic recovery and other issues. Being the world’s two largest economies, trading nations and greenhouse gas emitters, such issues cannot be addressed without both countries on the same page.
Rejoining the Paris Accord on Climate Change on his first day of office, Biden demonstrated sincerity in combating global warming. But to achieve that goal, China’s cooperation is crucial, thus precluding any “get tough on China” policies.
The US and Chinese economies are not only the world’s largest, but are deeply entwined, explaining why although Trump’s crazy trade wars did hit China, they hurt the US more.
China not only served as America’s “factory,” but also its most lucrative market. Chinese manufacturing’s comparative advantage increased US productivity and competitiveness. Its increasingly huge market of 1.4 billion souls offers US enterprises huge opportunities. Since the US business community is keen on putting the US-China relationship back on track, it will be difficult for Biden to get “tough” on China.
Finally, China has the resources and political will to hit back at US policies as the sanctioning of the 28 former Trump officials showed. The Chinese are increasingly turning anti-America, demanding that their government push back against US bullying.
And as mentioned earlier, US allies in the Asia-Pacific and EU are unlikely to cooperate, because China is important to their socio-economic well-being, particularly during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Taking the debate to its logical conclusion, a continuation of Trump’s China policies would be folly.
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.