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Two Candidates, Two China Policies

Biden has been matching Trump's rhetoric on China, but his approach to our top rival is likely to look very different in practice.

Despite the focus on domestic issues (well, COVID) there is still a world out there the next president will have to deal with. And there’s a very significant difference between Trump and Biden that was only lightly touched upon during the recent Vice Presidential debate: China policy.

First, a quick look back at 2016. Syria was a major point of contention between candidates Trump and Clinton. Remember how “boots on the ground” was a catch phrase and ISIS the baddies? Clinton was going to war. Trump wanted little part of it, and broadly stopped looking for buckets of gasoline abroad to throw matches into. Four years later no politician is talking much about terrorism and the wars which dominated the past two decades are background noise for most voters.

(Knock knock. Who’s there? 9/11. 9/11 who? Aw, you said you’d never forget.)

The thing is, America does always need a foreign enemy, enough (but not too much) to fuel defense spending, to justify a global imperial stance, to blame for our economic woes, and to serve as a rallying point for American jingoism. The Russians did well in the role for many years but are hard to see as a rising global threat. “The Terrorists” had a good run until disappearing in a fast fade.

The problem of needing a standing enemy finds its solution in China. The sword rattling had already begun in Late Obama. As president, Trump built on those brewing animosities to chip away at long-standing U.S. policy. Since 1979 China was characterized as a rising autocracy with occasionally aggressive but containable behaviors, a competitor but not an enemy. Not so to Trump: he saw the U.S. and China as enemies across a multiverse of economic, intellectual, technologic, and military issues.

Inflamed by the COVID crisis, Trump continued what, in a second term, may develop into a policy of real Cold War. Trump imposed trade sanctions. Trump cut back on student visas and academic exchanges, and turned up the heat on Chinese espionage inside the United States. Trump is selling F-35s to Japan and South Korea as part of a broad military check on Chinese ambitions. Administration officials portray China as an existential threat to the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mocked “the old paradigm” and accused President Xi of seeking “global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Don, Jr. says China “represents the greatest threat to the hegemonic status of the United States since the Cold War.” Given the chance in November, Trump will likely continue to accelerate the process of “decoupling.”

What about President Joe Biden? Biden has learned beating up on China is a cost-free way to prove his toughness, and has oddly even called out Trump for being too weak. It seems very likely Biden, if elected, will continue near, but not in, Trump’s footsteps with Target China. The difference will very likely be found in Biden himself, who with decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will pay attention to the actual state of affairs between the U.S. and China, versus Trump the ideologue and populist. So, more challenges amid more economic realism, fewer problems and threats. Money talks.

The economic relationship alone is staggering. China purchased $165 billion in goods and services from the United States in 2015, such that China is the third-largest destination for American exports. China holds the most U.S. government debt of any foreign country. Much was made when one McDonald’s opened in Red Square during the Cold War. Yet the numbers for China represent a whole lot more of a relationship for two supposed enemies.

China’s military ambitions are both overstated and misunderstood. Beijing has made strides toward a real blue water navy but it is not there yet. Claims China might best the U.S. in the Pacific are mostly excuses to increase defense spending. The PLAN is just the latest bogeyman for the military industrial complex.

China does not yet have one modern carrier. The U.S. has 11 nuclear carrier groups, plus nine amphibious assault ships which can launch the F-35 as a strike aircraft. Japan, Korea, and Australia have similar amphibious ships to add to the fight. That of course is all just in the first-responder category; land-based American aircraft from Japan, Korea, Guam, and the U.S. mainland assure air dominance. More importantly, America’s military is fully blooded, a sad legacy of the last 19 years of war. The modern PLAN has yet to fire a shot in anger, and learning under fire is expensive.

Even more important is understanding that China holds few territorial ambitions in the traditional sense of competing with the U.S. for control of landmasses and populations. Nearly any place the U.S. might call a target—Japan and Taiwan stand out—is instead a major trading destination for China. Attacking a partner? War is bad for business. The Chinese do have nationalist fixations on security and on a global order safe for their autocracy, but embarking on ideological or imperial crusades to remake other countries in one’s own image is reserved for the United States.

It’s not hard to see the difference in action. As head of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, I was tasked with improving water supply for the Iraqis. Fruitlessly driving through small towns looking for some place to create a project, we spied a large stack of crated water pipes and pumps. Upon inspection, all had come from China. The locals told us the Chinese had sold them the stuff and left months ago. The U.S. sent the 10th Mountain Division; the Chinese sent a sales team.

There has been some saber-rattling and fusses over tiny islands, of course, but always within boundaries. This is how it has worked regionally for decades. For example, Japan has challenged Russia for control of some northern islands for 75 years without violence (or progress). Much the same for Taiwan and the Spratlys, claimed by multiple nations. The last real shooting between Taiwan and the Mainland was in the 1950s.

President Biden will need to cooperate with China as he returns to America’s traditional international agenda. Transnational issues like climate change demand active engagement between the world’s two biggest economies. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil and key to any effective sanctions. A sleeper transnational issue is North Korea. Any serious change in the North requires Chinese cooperation. Or imagine the need to work together following a massive earthquake or Chernobyl-level nuclear accident in the North, as China struggles with a refugee crisis on its border under a drifting cloud of radiation.

That doesn’t mean Biden can’t have a little of everything. Talk tough at home, do little abroad is something the Chinese have come to understand and expect from the U.S., a kind of necessary tax on the more important parts of the relationship.

So, during the primaries Biden called President Xi a thug for having “a million Uyghurs in reconstruction camps meaning concentration camps.” After Beijing imposed new national security laws in Hong Kong, Biden vowed to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” At the same time Biden is respectful of how the great game is played. Expect fewer tariffs via Tweet, less nasty jabs against things like student visas and cell phone apps. There are well-known soft spots that the U.S. must be cautious of, and Biden has long been a champion of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. Biden’s will be a pragmatic China policy compared to Trump’s emotive, populist one.

A significant danger will come from Obama alums like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, perhaps even Bloody Hillary as some sort of elder statesman/special envoy, who will try to press Biden into the kind of open conflict they bluntly championed across the Middle East. Biden will have to resist them, as well as the defense intellectuals who see war between the Dragon and the Eagle as inevitable. The NYT, out front as always, reviewed scary Chinese military propaganda videos on YouTube as a way of warning us, not even getting the irony that one video is pieced together from borrowed Hollywood blockbuster footage.

But if Biden holds steady, it won’t be cold war; let’s call it lukewarm at worst. The ties that bind the two nations are important enough that Biden and the Chinese will always be careful to color inside the lines. It is likely Biden will sound like a version of Trump but act much like Obama’s predecessors. China understands this game; the rules were established long ago over things like the multi-administration tsk-tsk response to Tiananmen and the One Child Policy. Look for semi-tough words even as the cargo ships crowd each other out crossing the Pacific.

Peter Van Buren is a former diplomat. His 24 years with the U.S. State Department included service in Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. His career ended following his becoming a whistleblower, exposing waste and mismanagement in the Iraq War reconstruction program in his book We Meant Well.