Biden’s China policy: balancing engagement with deterrence

The success of Biden’s foreign policy will largely depend on how he handles the China challenge.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Vice President Joe Biden raise their glasses in a toast during a luncheon at the State Department, in Washington, September 25, 2015. [Mike Theiler/Reuters]

After being declared as the President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, a scion of the American foreign policy establishment, has predictably vowed to restore his country’s global leadership and its commitment to a liberal international order.

In an unequivocal repudiation of the Trump administration’s “America First” neo-isolationism, the incoming US president has promised to “lead the world, not retreat from it”.

Boasting the world’s largest navy and second-largest (for now) economy, China represents the primary challenge to Biden’s hopes to “reassert [America’s] role in the world”. The success of his foreign policy will thus largely depend on how he handles the China challenge.

As president, Biden will not only be aiming to prevent the brewing “New Cold War” between the US and China from transforming into a catastrophic global conflict, but also keep the Asian powerhouse’s desire for increased regional and global influence in check.

To achieve these twin goals, his administration will need to engage Beijing on areas of global concern such as trade, climate change and public health, while simultaneously taking a firm strategic stance against its aggressions towards its smaller neighbours and internal minority populations.

Strategic folly

Washington has been getting China wrong for a very long time.

In the last few decades, until Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to power, both Republican and Democratic presidents have naively tried to tame China’s hegemonic ambitions and transform it into a more democratic, open and friendly power through a combination of diplomatic engagement and extensive economic interdependence.

In response, China’s authoritarian leadership not only challenged the US-led order, but also leveraged the country’s new-found prosperity to further centralise power, crush dissent at home and abroad, build a formidable military to flex its muscles in neighbouring waters, and launch transcontinental infrastructure investment programs that drove countless nations into a debt trap.

Though renowned for its analytical acumen, like its predecessors, President Barack Obama also haplessly clung onto to the delusion that direct engagement and personal diplomacy would alter China’s behaviour.

His stubbornly risk-averse and excessively methodical approach to foreign policy, however, proved too predictable and unimaginative for Beijing, and he ended up inadvertently paving the way for China to move forward with its plans to reshape the global order in line with its interests during his eight years in power.

The Obama administration repeatedly failed to protect its allies in the Asia-Pascific region against China’s aggressions, most notoriously in 2012 during the months-long standoff between Manila and Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal. It also failed to take meaningful action a year later, when China began an unprecedented geo-engineering project in the contested South China sea, rapidly transforming rocks and atolls into a massive military complex.

With Trump’s election as president in 2016, the US foreign policy towards China changed significantly – but not necessarily for the better.

Promising to “Make America Great Again”, Trump embraced a confrontational approach towards Beijing, casting the US and China as antagonists in a new Cold War and ending Washington’s decades old and largely ineffective engagement policy towards China.

But while Obama’s over reliance on engagement at the expense of firm deterrence emboldened China, his populist successor’s overcommitment to jingoist posturing, trade wars and naval showdowns in Asian waters also led Beijing to double down on its predatory policies. Moreover, Trump’s geopolitical unilateralism, incendiary rhetoric and trade protectionism alienated key US allies in Europe and beyond,  strengthening Beijing’s hand against Washington in the international arena.

In short, neither Trump, nor any of his recent predecessors managed to come up with an effective China policy that could keep this growing global power in check while keeping the possibility of a major conflict at bay.

This means, if he wants to succeed against Beijing, the incoming American president will have to abandon the discredited China policies of not only his immediate predecessor Donald Trump, but also his former boss, Barack Obama. Instead, Biden will need to embrace a goldilocks approach towards this powerful rival that combines strategic conviction with diplomatic finesse.

Drawing the line

Nevertheless, there will likely be a certain level of continuity between the China policies of the Trump and Biden administrations. After all, there is now a bipartisan consensus in Washington on the need to “get tough” on Beijing.

Biden himself has made it clear that he no longer seeks to assume a stance of “strategic empathy” towards China – a position he famously adapted during his earlier stint as Obama’s vice-president.

Instead, Biden now argues, “the United States does need to get tough with China” on a whole range of issues, including anti-competitive trade practices, which are “robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.”

Hence, Biden will likely retain and perhaps even add to the sanctions his predecessor imposed on top Chinese officials who were involved in mass atrocities against minorities in mainland China and the attempts to suppress the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. To demonstrate that he is no longer “soft” on China, Biden will also likely continue conducting joint naval operations with America’s allies in Asian waters and supporting Taiwan’s struggle against the irredentist administration in Beijing.

But Biden cannot afford to simply continue with Trump’s reckless and overly aggressive China policies, which recently led President Xi to call on Chinese troops to “put all (their) minds and energy on preparing for war”.

Finding common ground

With Xi emphasising the need for his country to “prepare for war”, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned Biden that he may preside over a “catastrophe comparable to World War I” if he does not take the necessary steps to stop the US and China from sleepwalking towards a massive confrontation.

Biden has clearly recognised the danger, as he is already laying the ground for a China strategy that combines Trump’s commitment to deterrence with Obama’s desire for coalition-building.

He swiftly assembled a cabinet full of consummate multilateralists and clear-eyed realists, such as Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin and Jake Sullivan, who believe in the value of alliances and are determined to build a robust coalition against China’s predatory practices.

Unlike Trump, Biden knows that on many pressing global issues, from trade to public health and the environment, China has become an indispensable stake holder and cannot be ignored. Hence, his administration will need to adopt a multilayered approach towards the Asian powerhouse, employing tough-minded deterrence when necessary but pursuing cooperation on issues of global concern.

After Trump’s disastrous presidency, the world is in desperate need of global cooperation and leadership, especially in the face of a devastating pandemic. But if Biden wants to reassert his country’s role in the world and prevent a new global conflict, he needs to successfully balance engagement and deterrence in his approach to China.

What Biden should realistically aspire for is a “cold peace” with Beijing – building a robust international coalition to contain China’s aggressions, but still leaving space for China to act as part of the international community when cooperation is urgent and feasible.

This goal can only be achieved if the incoming American president can successfully rebuild his country’s frayed democratic institutions and revive its devastated economy. Without convincing the world that the US can once again lead, Biden cannot establish an effective China policy that protects the interests of both Washington and its allies.

In short, if he does not want to lose this game of chess against China, Biden should hurry to “build [America] back better”. If he fails, China will author history’s next chapter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.