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Foreign Policy

Abiding Biden

Sep 20, 2021

“There has been frustration for the business community at the lack of concrete China economic policy,” opined veteran China hand Charles Freeman, speaking for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not as if this crowd came in without any experience or any preconceived thinking about China.” 

President Joe Biden, bestowed with a decidedly more diplomatic demeanor than Donald Trump, has left China watchers wondering if his policy is really any different from the anti-China stance of his predecessor. He has added to Trump’s list of sanctioned officials and widened the list of companies in which investment is banned due to alleged links to China’s military. 

Biden has a better track record in the diplomatic realm, especially in collaborating with allies. This works to counter China’s interests as he is capable, in a way that Trump wasn’t, of bending allied will in a pro-U.S. direction. In doing so, he has garnered some support in Europe for his tough-on-China policy that the go-it-alone, tone-deaf Trump administration was unable to do.

However, members of Biden’s own administration seem to be taken aback by the hardball approach to China. “Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellentold The New York Times that tariffs were hurting American consumers and the National Association of Manufacturerssent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to “act as quickly as possible to finalize and publicize” a China strategy.”

Biden has little political incentive to reduce tariffs with China despite the protests of the pro-trade business community. Anti-China posturing is one of the few areas that puts Democrats and Republicans on the same page, and this shared bellicosity has the potential to shore up fractured U.S. unity at home. Furthermore, anything that smacks of a concession to China may present the media and opposition politicians with the optics of weakness in the face of China’s documented military expansionism and wolf warrior rhetoric. 

There are some minor indications of reconciliation between the two rival powers. Huawei, a company singled out for ritual humiliation under Trump, got a smallreprieve from the Biden administration. Even though the sale of auto-related microchips is not deemed a strategic technology, the move prompted a quick counter-thrust by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. "It's unacceptable for the Biden administration to ease the pressure campaign against Chinese spy companies like Huawei." 

Wiser, more seasoned observers such as Charles Freeman, who was present at the historic Mao-Nixon talks in 1972 as a translator, take the long view with China. Indeed, despite the deserved opprobrium attendant to both Mao and Nixon in other areas of political life, the February 21, 1972 talks offer a good template for looking at U.S.-China relations in the long-term through a long lens. As Nixon said at the time, “We can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own way on our own roads.” 

Mao’s personal doctor Li Zhisui recounts in his memoirs that Mao agreed to disagree at the time of the pivotal talks, and expected Nixon to do the same. Their candid exchange of views was private at the time, because countries had sizable constituencies opposed to U.S.-China rapprochement, and both leaders had to tread carefully not to give away too much in advance of public opinion. 

“Mao explained to Nixon that even though relations were better, the Chinese press would still carry articles attacking the United States,” Li Zhisui explains. “And he expected the American press to keep up its criticisms of China. The peoples of both countries were so used to the criticisms that readjusting to the new friendship would take time.” 

This tradition of talking tough, while seeking accord on points of common interest, lives on in various guises today. So-called track two diplomacy serves the vital purpose of keeping lines of communication open and a private conversation going even when the public airwaves are filled with vituperative rhetoric, emotional accusations and mutual recriminations. 

Some of the better-known discrete efforts at presenting an olive branch look good in retrospect. Nixon’s “nothing leaves this room” chat with Mao, now declassified, is an example where private rapprochement served the very public function of getting the two nations on the track to establishing formal relations. Other conciliatory efforts, such as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft’s under-the-radar meeting with Li Peng in Beijing in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, functioned to keep the ruling-class happy with one another despite dissipating public goodwill among each side’s constituents. 

In either case, the stakes between two contending nuclear powers are nail-bitingly high and track two conversations, back-door negotiating, and even secret talks have their place in maintaining the peace. 

While the Biden administration has been more vociferous in its criticisms of China and retained a reflexive anti-China stance, not unlike the nadir of U.S.-China relations under Trump, there is some evidence that the bark is worse than the bite. 

A pivotal moment, one that could have plunged U.S.-China relations into a hard-to-repair free fall, came and went this past August as the U.S. intelligence report on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic was deemed inconclusive and stripped of sensationalism. The official statement was carefully hedged not to pin too much blame on China. Presumably this less-than-accusatory tone is backed by a dearth of evidence in real-world investigation, but it is also worth remembering that intelligence findings are often ambiguous, and it’s left to politicians to argue whether the glass is half empty or half full. 

The ambitious, rambunctious Mike Pompeo was prone to pounce on the tiniest sliver of evidence to excoriate China while he served as Secretary of State, whereas his successor Antony Blinken, while maintaining a “tough” anti-China tone, has not unduly upped the stakes where evidence is spurious, partial, or entirely lacking. 

While the Biden administration has failed to revoke some of Trump’s more ill-considered policies, such as limiting the types of Chinese students who can study in the States, there are signs of amenability to exchange. Applications for visas to study in the U.S. are being approved at a much higher rate than last year and have already reached the 2019 high point after a dismal year due to the pandemic and political posturing. 

Considering the xenophobic influence of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, who advocated banning all Chinese students, and the ideological anti-China rhetoric of Steve Bannon, which had a profound influence on the previous administration, a de facto return to something close to normal educational exchange is a positive achievement of the Biden administration, quietly implemented without froth or fanfare of Trump China policy.

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