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Transatlantic Take

Biden and What to Expect from an “Ally-centered” China Policy

December 16, 2020
5 min read
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Over the course of the last year, advisors to President-elect Biden and potential appointees in the new administration have laid out versions of their preferred China policy in some detail. Essays by Jake Sullivan, Ely Ratner, Kurt Campbell, Mira Rapp-Hooper, and others made arguments that are relatively widely shared among the leading Asia hands in the Democratic Party.

The points of critique are clear. The Trump administration talked about competing with China but then focused its energies on confrontation rather than on how to do that most effectively. Its approach was too unilateral and failed to mobilize allies and partners behind a common stance. The values message espoused by many administration officials on Hong Kong and Xinjiang was undercut by the president. The structural agenda on trade was also undercut by the president, particularly his fixation on the bilateral deficit, which worsened anyway. The U.S.-China relationship needs to be sufficiently stable to navigate hot-button issues without risk of escalation and maintain a few limited areas of cooperation, and it was not.

But it is not all critique. There is also a sense that the rebalancing in the approach to China that the administration pursued was necessary, and reflects deeper, bipartisan shifts in U.S. analysis. The reconceptualization of Asia around the Indo-Pacific represents part of a longer-term adjustment that places the region as the most important theater for U.S. strategy in the coming decades. There has been a wider reappraisal of the excessively optimistic premises that had underpinned U.S. China policy, in light of how far results have fallen short of those aspirations, all the more so given the intensifying recent concern about China’s trajectory under Xi Jinping. The administration’s key actors appreciate the extent to which geo-economics, technology, and security now have to be addressed in an intertwined fashion. There is also a growing sense that China policy is now defined at least as much by a domestic agenda as an international one. U.S. technology leadership, for instance, will ultimately rely more on industrial policy, innovation policy, support for STEM, and the capacity to attract talent than it will on denying China access to semiconductors. As the Biden administration prepares for the possibility of having to work with a Republican-controlled Senate, China is seen as one of the few factors that might provide grounds for any bipartisan agreement.

Biden has made many of these arguments himself, most recently in an interview with Tom Friedman, where he stated that “The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our allies on the same page” and that leverage over China comes from “investing in America first.” Advisors on other regions of the world, such as my former GMF colleagues Julie Smith and Ellison Laskowski, have detailed how some of this international coalition-building work could most usefully be focused.

What Stands in the Way

Yet while the China agenda seems relatively well-defined, it leaves many inherent uncertainties. This is partly by design: A more ally-centered China strategy means that those allies get a say in the outcome. Biden has described the process of consensus-forging as a “major priority for me in the opening weeks of my presidency,” and his advisors have indicated that this will not simply be a U.S.-crafted agenda around which others are just supposed to get in line. Even if this was simply the China-specific issue set—agreeing, say, a better-coordinated stance on human rights, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, putting together some joint WTO cases, and lining up approaches to Chinese investment—it would still be a challenging task to reach anything resembling a joint approach.

There is an understanding, however, that the most important thing to get right is not the classic China agenda alone—if anything, excessive focus on the “counter-China” approach will result in bad policy and make it harder to marshal allies. This means that, beyond the most obvious areas, such as supply chain security, export controls, and investment screening, figuring out better coordinated approaches to a host of other issues—data and privacy rules, technology regulation and standards, carbon border adjustment mechanisms, WTO reform, and industrial policy cooperation—will consume considerable attention, with China reconditioning the urgency of those exchanges. It also means that a stronger positive sum offer, incorporating trade, infrastructure, development finance, green, and digital issues need to be agreed and put on the table for the developing world.

The perceived necessity of getting at least parts of this agenda squared among U.S. partners and allies does not make it any more obvious where the total set of trade-offs involved—domestic and international—will come out. Underlying differences in thinking on issues ranging from the WTO appellate body to data protection do not go away simply because China now looms larger, and there are areas where the choice will still be to pursue divergent paths. But the direction of flow is clear. The continued capacity of the democratic world to set the rules of the road will depend on bridging some of these differences, and it is clear that the window in which to do so is closing. The EU has already put a version of its own proposals on the table, where the relative paucity of explicit mentions of China in the document belies the centrality of its role. On the one hand, there is still a degree of trepidation—as one European official put it, “there are things that we may not want to do on China where if Biden asks we’ll find it harder to say no.” But there is also an opportunity for allies: to help craft the framework for a wider coalition-based approach to China that will result in a U.S. China policy they can live with, real collective leverage on shared priorities, and a chance for the liberal democracies to get on the front foot again.