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Foreign Policy

Biden’s China Policy Dilemma

Mar 11, 2021
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

I was lucky to listen to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield when I was a visiting scholar at Harvard University in the spring of 2019. I was deeply impressed by her speech on the prospect of China-U.S. cooperation in Africa to benefit communities there. Unfortunately, in February this year, to demonstrate “toughness” against China during the congressional hearing for her appointment as U.S. ambassador to the UN, she overthrew that previous position. No matter what was behind her change of tune, the facts show that even though Trump has left the White House, diplomacy between the United States and may not necessarily return to the track of reason. 

First, the public opinion biosphere and social foundation for U.S. China policy have suffered substantial damage. So far there has been no study or evidence proving that the U.S. has benefited substantially from its trade war against China. Yet the Trump team seriously poisoned the public opinion biosphere and social foundation of China-U.S. relations by manipulating such topics as the trade war.

According to polls the Pew Research Center published in July and October, the U.S. public’s “negative evaluation” of China rose from 16 percent to 74 percent, far exceeding positive opinions (22 percent), which had dropped to a post-Cold War nadir. The American public’s negative perceptions of China surged fastest in 2018, which was naturally due to the Trump administration’s trade war.

Similarly, the Chinese public’s good feelings about the U.S. also dropped to the lowest point in 20 years, and the Chinese Dream had solidly supplanted the American Dream, which was all the rage in the 1980s and 90s in China. In short, the public opinion basis formulated since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations faces severe challenges. 

Second, the political biosphere of America’s China policy has suffered serious damage. There have always been voices that praise or criticize China in U.S. politics, which to a great extent guaranteed that the country’s China policies would generally be rational and stable. However, as ambassador Charles Freeman said, no matter what motivated Trump, he opened the door to malicious vilifying attacks on China.

On one hand, after Trump assumed office, a number of experienced career diplomats, such as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, were removed from the federal government, and some speculators and radicals of zero experience were welcomed into his policy circle. The chilling effect of this continues to haunt the federal government system even now.

On the other hand, because of a tactical need to pressure China, the Trump administration pushed certain China hawks to push the single-minded “tough on China” posture to center stage, which allowed them to create excessive panic at home through various vile means, and hence hijack U.S rhetoric. Such moves not only have made U.S. policy on China increasingly radical, but also have made rational policy discourse increasingly difficult.

Last, the Biden team may be facing the temptation of a fatal “alliance dilemma” not seen since the end of the Cold War. Although cultivating allies is a normal part of international politics, it also presents pitfalls. The larger country in an alliance hopes to expand its own interests and influence, even as it worries about entrapment by the smaller one. The weaker side, lives in constant fear of abandonment.

Such examples abound in history. Biden wants to break from the Trump administration’s single-minded unilateralist policies, and is attempting to cooperate with allies and partners to cope with a rising China. Since China-U.S. relations are at a significant inflection point, however, plenty of people stand to profit from a fierce confrontation. To some shortsighted Washington politicians, it is a tremendous temptation to contain China by taking advantage of such anti-China rhetoric. This may give the U.S. some temporary advantages, but at the same time it brings huge potential risks, including dragging the two parties into direct political and military confrontation.

In fact, China isn’t the past Soviet Union, and absolutely not a natural enemy of the U.S. The foremost problem facing the U.S. isn’t China but rather how to overcome its own over-expansion and over-militarization, as well as such issues as a hegemonic mindset and a crisis of domestic governance. On the contrary, cooperating with China is the solution to many of the problems. It was precisely the choice to forsake personal bias and make a grand strategy based on the national interest, not personal preferences, that helped President Richard Nixon open the door to diplomacy and lead the U.S. out of its Cold War impasse.

Ridiculously, political circles in Washington seem to be bogging down in the political pitfall of “attacking China for attacking’s sake.” In a political climate where attacking China is a new form of political correctness, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see rational motives behind U.S. foreign strategies. Despite its repeated criticism of U.S. diplomacy under Trump, the Biden team has yet to toss out the policy framework the previous administration had built.

We’ll have to wait and see whether Biden administration can successfully do away with Trump’s toxic legacy and rebuild the political and social basis of China-U.S. relations. We haven’t yet seen much reason for optimism.

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