Biden’s New Chinese Doctrine | The Economist
OLONG PTIMISTS hoped that China’s welcome into the global economy would make it a “responsible stakeholder” and lead to political reform. As president, Donald Trump called this weak. Today, Joe Biden converts Trumpian exaltation into a doctrine that pits America against China, a struggle between rival political systems that he says can only have one winner. Between them, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden staged the most dramatic break in U.S. foreign policy in the five decades since Richard Nixon visited China.
Mr. Biden and his team base their doctrine on the belief that China is “less interested in coexistence and more interested in domination.” The task of American policy is to blunt Chinese ambitions. America will work with China in areas of common interest, like climate change, but thwart its ambitions elsewhere. This means building up its strength at home and working abroad with allies who can complement its economic, technological, diplomatic, military and moral weight.
Much of Mr. Biden’s new doctrine makes sense. The optimistic arguments for engagement have collapsed under the realities of Chinese might. Led by President Xi Jinping, China has garrisoned the South China Sea, imposed party rule in Hong Kong, threatened Taiwan, fought with India, and attempted to subvert Western values in the forums. international. Many countries are alarmed by Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
But the details of the Biden Doctrine contain a lot of cause for concern, including that it is unlikely to work. One problem is how Mr. Biden defines the threat. Because politics in Washington are broken, he seems to feel he needs the spirit of Pearl Harbor to help rekindle a sense of national purpose. This is a miscalculation.
It is true that Republicans jump at anything soft they can present to China (although every time they say the presidential election was stolen, they are doing the job of Chinese propagandists). However, Republicans are unlikely to start supporting Mr. Biden’s national agenda simply because it has the word “China” stamped on the cover.
Worse, the more Mr. Biden uses shrill rhetoric to galvanize Americans, the harder he makes it his job to galvanize his allies and emerging major powers like India and Indonesia. By presenting the relationship as a zero-sum contest, he presents them with a Manichean struggle between democracy and autocracy, rather than the search for coexistence. Alas, in this he overestimates America’s influence and underestimates how much potential allies have to lose by turning their backs on China.
Through many economic measures, China will become a dominant force no matter what America does. It will have the largest economy in the world and is already the largest merchandise trading partner of almost twice as many countries as America. Germany, Europe’s export powerhouse, aims to maintain trade ties with China even if political ties are severed. In Southeast Asia, many countries look to America for their security and China for their prosperity. If they are forced to choose between the superpowers, some might choose China.
Rather than forcing a decision on other countries today, Mr. Biden needs to convince them. And its best chance for that is for America to demonstrate that it can prosper at home and be the leader of a prosperous and open world economy.
Here, too, the details of Mr. Biden’s project are troubling. Rather than relying on America’s strengths as a champion of global rules, the administration is using the threat from China to advance its national agenda. Its doctrine is full of industrial policy, government intervention, planning and controls. It’s uncomfortably like the decoupling pursued by China itself.
For a glimpse of what this could entail, check out the administration’s report on four crucial supply chains – for semiconductors, batteries, rare earths and vital pharmaceutical ingredients – released last month. The report does more than defend national security in favor of government intervention in these industries. It also encompasses union representation, social justice and pretty much everything else. More such reports will come later. If that is a guide, Biden will suggest using subsidies and regulations to ensure jobs and production stay within U.S. borders.
Inevitably, Mr. Biden’s plans involve trade-offs. At the heart of its attack on China is its abuse of human rights, especially of Uyghurs, subjected to internment and forced labor in Xinjiang. The switch to renewable energies is at the heart of its climate change policy. Yet the two are entwined, at least in the short term, as Xinjiang is the source of 45% of the silicon used in solar power generation.
A more fundamental problem is the soft protectionism of Chinese doctrine. This favors incumbents over competitors and risks weighing on the economy rather than overburdening it. The country’s New Moon program is popular largely as a way to show that America has an advantage over China. Yet it is dynamic precisely to the extent that it enables the kind of competition in which private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin can shine.
A third problem is that Mr. Biden’s doctrine will make America’s allies even more suspicious. If the purpose of severing ties with China is to create good union jobs in America, the allies will wonder what they get out of it.
Mr. Biden’s plan is a missed opportunity. If America is to prevent China from rebuilding the world order in its own image, it must defend the kind of globalization that has always served it well. At the center of such an approach would be trade and the multilateral system, embodying the belief that openness and the free flow of ideas will create an innovation advantage.
If America was serious about countering China in Asia, it would join the Pan-Asian trade deal it pulled out of in 2016. It’s highly unlikely now, but it could seek new environmental and digital trade deals. . It is also expected to put money and weight behind new ideas that bolster the Western order, like a vaccine program against future pandemics, digital payment systems, cybersecurity, and an infrastructure program to compete with it. Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative. Rather than copying Chinese techno-nationalism, a more confident America should assert what made the West strong. ■
For more information on Joe Biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Biden’s New Chinese Doctrine”