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Foreign Policy

Biden’s China Policy Quagmire

Jul 25, 2022
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, met again at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali on July 9. Keeping the gears of conversation going might be one of the few highlights in the Biden administration’s China policy — which, however, hardly covers the fact that the policy is mired in deep trouble.

First of all, President Joe Biden and his team haven’t walked out of the Trump-era China relationship morass, despite repeated criticism. Hence, even though Trump stepped down, the China policy of the United States has failed to return to rationality. The Biden administration has not only done nothing to reverse the country’s political ecology and public opinion toward China but flunked the test of finding a remedy for Trump’s mismanagement.

For instance, the Biden administration hasn’t scrapped tariffs on Chinese imports imposed during Trump’s presidency. Prohibitive tariffs constitute a main driving force of America’s recent roaring inflation. The CPI rose to 8.6 percent in May. Experts from the Peterson Institute for International Economics say that cutting tariffs will not just lower the cost of imports and raw materials but also prompt domestic manufacturers to trim their markups to compete. A slash in tariffs on Chinese goods will eventually result in a 1 percentage point reduction in inflation, which means savings hundreds of dollars for every American family.

In a May 26 speech on China policy, Blinken continued Trump’s aggressive way of differentiating “the Communist Party of China” and “the Chinese people.” Just imagine: How can a ruling party with 97 million-strong social elites be separated from the masses? It’s obvious that such a statement is flimsy, but it plays to the hawks and causes Beijing to be vigilant about so-called peaceful evolution.

In the second place, the Biden administration has sunk into a new strategic myth on its China policy. If Biden’s policy toward Beijing is milder compared with that of the late Trump era, it has still failed to vanquish the egoistic mentality.

On one hand, the Biden administration underlines, more than ever, the superiority of U.S. ideology and magnifies ideological confrontation in dealing with China. The ideological confrontation, while helping Washington reconfigure its Western camp, is far from provoking a new cold war against Beijing in the international community because of China’s unprecedented development achievements and open cooperation mechanisms.

From racial and ethnic tensions and bipartisan political polarization to gerontocracy, the democratic system on which the U.S. has long prided itself has lost its traction among young Chinese. If we say ideology failed to stop China-U.S. relations from defrosting in the 1970s, then playing the same old tune is nothing short of self-deception. 

On the other hand, the Biden administration focuses too much on great power competition with China. As the world’s two most influential nations, China and the U.S. have developed differences and disputes — something that is so natural that it doesn't have to lead to a zero-sum game. While the Biden administration has reiterated that it has no intention of engaging in a new cold war with China, the strategic competition it is shaping is pushing the world to an uncertain, disconcerting edge.

From all perspectives, the alliances the U.S. has been reconfiguring based on so-called common rules and values amounts to a strategic loop whose purpose is to surround China. Such a modus operandi will inevitably lead to Chinese resistance, in addition to sabotaging the liberal international order the U.S. went to great lengths to construct after the end of the Cold War. It may even trigger new global upheavals.

Biden’s window of opportunity for improving America’s China policy is slipping away. Democrats, with only a marginal advantage in Congress, will probably lose in the upcoming midterm elections. According to the Rasmussen Reports daily presidential tracking poll, Biden ended the first polling week of July with a job approval of 37 percent — which is below Trump’s lowest — and 61 percent disapproved. If the Democratic Party loses the midterms, the Biden administration will become a lame duck and will face more restrictions in its foreign policy.

Furthermore, the U.S. is feeling the consequences of its sanctions on Chinese high-tech companies. The sanctions are prompting the Chinese side to work hard to catch up despite the headwinds, which results in American businesses losing market share. Four Chinese airlines ordered a total of 292 planes from Airbus in a deal valued at $37 billion earlier this month, which serves as a warning for the U.S. There’s no doubt that for multinational corporations, the Chinese market means not just greater profits but also investment and competition for innovation and sustainable development.

In short, over a year and a half into his term, Biden has not yet struggled out of the China policy quagmire. And it seems he and his team have little time to heal bilateral ties. 

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