President Joe Biden was elected on a platform of change from the divisive rhetoric and haphazard policy-making process of the Trump administration, and on a promise of American renewal. But not all areas of policy are likely to change substantially. In fact, in the most consequential and pressing foreign-policy area – America’s relations with China – there is likely to be more continuity than change. While there will an attempt to seek cooperation on areas such as climate change and non-proliferation, any modifications that do come about are more likely to be in style than in substance.
The new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, admitted as much in an interview with CNN. Blinken noted that “in fairness to President Trump, he was right to take a tougher approach to China…The way he went about it, in my judgment, was wrong across the board, but the basic principle was the right one.”
Blinken’s comments reflect the fact that there is now a strong bipartisan consensus in the US for a more hawkish policy toward China. Both sides of the political aisle now agree that trade limitations may be necessary, military deterrence is essential and more investment is needed to counter China’s regional and global ambitions.
To demonstrate this, Biden launched a review of the military strategy and posture in the Indo-Pacific region in order to outline how the US will “meet the China challenge.”
The review will be completed within four months, but given the rhetoric around China from the administration thus far, it will probably aim to ensure a distributed, networked force throughout the Indo-Pacific to complicate China’s defense planning and deter and react to any Chinese aggression.
At a strategic level, therefore, there is likely to be little daylight between the Trump and Biden administrations’ China policies. The defense review is unlikely to signal a weakening of US presence; this month, the US conducted a dual carrier group exercise in the South China Sea in a pointed show of force. It was the second dual carrier exercise in the sea in six months in that disputed body of water. Before that, the last time the US had conducted such a substantial exercise in the South China Sea was back in 2014.
On key issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, similarly, the Biden administration has been keen to demonstrate its uncompromising position. Also this month, the first freedom of navigation operation under this new government occurred, with a guided-missile destroyer, the USS John S McCain, transiting the Taiwan Strait and sailing near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Biden administration officials have already been sharply critical of China’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, with Blinken using the term “genocide” to refer to Beijing’s relationship to the Uighurs.
Further, constrained by public opinion and a Democratic caucus unwilling to support significant new trade deals, the Biden administration will most probably be unable and unwilling to end the tariff war with China.
Still, there are going to be key differences with the Trump-era policy. First up is a laser-like focus on allies and alliances. Biden and his senior staff have repeatedly indicated that there will be a renewed emphasis on shoring up the US’s key allies and partners, in an attempt to reverse any damage done by Trump’s insistence on payment for forward-deployed troops, trade wars and doubts about US resolve.
The national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has suggested that the US would try to foster a “chorus of voices” to counter China, while Biden in his first foreign policy address on February 4, stated that “American alliances are our greatest asset.”
Second, the Biden administration is actively looking for areas of cooperation with China, from climate change to non-proliferation. Beijing appears to recognize this fact – it has brought in veteran climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua to be its climate tsar. Xie previously negotiated China’s entry into the Paris agreement and accepts emissions cutting, a process that was also driven by John Kerry, then the US secretary of state and now special presidential envoy for climate. In terms of non-proliferation, there is little chance of negotiations on limiting China’s nuclear weapons, but coordination on curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is feasible and likely to be a priority in bilateral discussions.
Finally, Biden will look to take some of the heat out of the relationship by avoiding the Twitter tirades and undiplomatic language that at times characterized the Trump administration’s relations with China. More diplomacy and policy making will be done behind closed doors and fewer high-profile events that could upset Beijing, such as the visit of then Health Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan in August, will take place.
Overall, though, the direction of travel for the US’s relationship with China is likely to remain the same – toward more intense Great Power competition. Although it may lack the sound and fury of the Trump administration, the Biden government will continue to pressure China and challenge its rise.
Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. @c_lemiere.