Biden's China policy is about to be just as assertive as Trump's, but much more effective

A man watches a report of Biden's inauguration in Hong Kong
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  • Before the end of its term, the Trump administration tried to paint the incoming Biden administration as soft on China.

  • The thing is, Trump's team and Biden's team agree that it's time to take a more aggressive posture on competition with China.

  • It's just that Biden's team has more effective ideas about how to engage in that competition.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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If you expected there to be some kind of "reset" between Beijing and Washington as the Biden administration took over, you are about to be disappointed. America's China policy under President Joe Biden is likely to be just as assertive as it was under President Donald Trump, but much more effective.

In Trump's final weeks in office, officials made it clear that they were trying to enact as many hardline China policies as possible. On January 9, for example, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo terminated restrictions on contact between US and Taiwanese officials.

Those restrictions had been in place since Beijing and Washington restarted relations 1970s. China considers Taiwan a part of its territory - making Taipei's leadership illegetimate in Beijing's eyes - and has said that any US interference with that is a "red line."

These moves were made, in part, as a way to force the incoming Biden administration's policy onto a more aggressive path. But that was likely unnecessary. Biden has already signaled that he will continue working with Taiwan by inviting Taiwan's envoy to the United States to his inaugeration - the first time a Taiwanese envoy has been invited to the swearing in since 1979.

"Trump was right to take a tougher approach China," said incoming Secretary State Tony Blinken in his Senate confirmtion hearing last week. Blinken said he also agreed that China's treatment of Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang province should be considered genocide, a designation the Trump administration made on its way out the door.

This is where team Trump and team Biden meet. Over the last four years the geopolitical landscape has shifted. China has taken a more aggressive posture, partly driven by a belief that the US aims to destroy the Chinese economy, and partly driven by a belief that the US in decline.

There are no more China doves in Washington either. What once seemed impossible - a decoupling of the US and Chinese economies - is now discussed as something to be taken seriously.

Biden understands that we've moved from supporting China's rise to competing with it, but it's also clear he plans to engage with that reality using a very different strategy than Trump's team did. It will be a more effective one.

A world without Hong Kong

Trump's China policy was defined by bellicose posturing and unilateral action, but that didn't get us very far. The Trump administration was unable to coerce China to end the crackdown in Hong Kong. It failed to curb China's military build up in the South China Sea. And it failed to talk our allies in the Europen Union out of signing a new bilateral trade deal with Beijing.

What was supposed to be Trump's hallmark achievement - a "Phase 1" trade deal with China - has also been a failure. According to trade expert Chad Bown at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, China's purchased only 42% of the US goods it promised to buy in 2020 as part of the deal. And the preliminary deal did almost nothing to move the structure of China's economy away from state control and toward free market capitalism, which was the supposed goal of Trump's trade war.

This brutish approach is about to change. Earlier this month the Biden administration announced that it would create an Asia-focused role on its National Security Council to be filled by Kurt Campbell, a longtime diplomat and founder of consultancy, The Asia Group. That appointment was a sign to some memebers of the foreign policy establishment that Biden would be continue to be assertive China.

In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, Campbell compared dealing with China's rise to the task to maintaining peace between powers in Europe during and after the Napoleonic era - a time of shifting alliances and constant diplomatic acitivity to maintain stability in the region.

Campbell argued that we will need the same kind of flurry of acitivity and coalition building to manitain peaceful relations in Asia during China's rise. The key to keeping stability will be ensuring that regional power is balanced militarily, reinforcing the legitimacy of a rules-based global order and - when China inevitably pushes back on that - leading a multi-lateral coalition of countries that can coerce Beijing into more predictable behavior.

The best China policy starts in America

Some of our ability to engage with this strategy was harmed during the Trump administration. Trump pulled us out of international organizations like the World Health Orginization, where - instead of taking our ball and going home - we could have rallied countries to put pressure on China to allow scientists into the country to investigate COVID-19. But now it's unclear if we'll ever have a full accounting of the virus's spread.

Our allies will need to be reminded that we are good partners. We will need to listen to them again - something Trump's diplomats were not known for doing. Where it makes sense to work with Beijing, we will have to include them in rulemaking. We need to be realistic about China's role as a rising power.

But the most important thing that Biden understands is that the best China policy starts in the United States of America. One of the defining features of the Trump presidency was that there was no plan for anything, we lurched from crisis to crisis, jeering at our allies and winking at our enemies every step of the way. The US will not win a great power competition that way.

Biden has constantly said that the US does not lead "by the example of its power, but by the power of its example." If you spend even a few minutes reading Russian or Chinese propaganda you know that this is true. Our adversaries wish to paint a picture of democracy as a failure, of a declining US - and over the last four years that hasn't been hard. A good plan to revitalize America would make it hard.

Biden on Friday laid out his plan to get emergency relief to American suffering in the coronavirus pandemic. After that, he explained, he will push Congress to pass another plan to invest in American industry from technology to manufacturing. This kind of investment in our economy and our people is the most important part of how we take aggressive, effective action to counter China. We start by looking in the mirror.

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