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Foreign Policy

Inflection Point: Biden’s Challenge to Restore Sino-America Relations

Feb 04, 2021

The advent of the Cold War in the mid-20th century introduced a major element in American politics, namely the so-called “imperial presidency.” In a remarkable departure from centuries of divided and diffused governance, American chief executives began to assume a growing prerogative over the conduct of foreign policy, with the full consent of an increasingly pliant Congress in an era of modern, instantaneous warfare. 

Yet, party politics also exerted a major influence on the foundations and overall direction of American foreign policy. In the simplest terms, Republican presidents adopted a more hawkish approach towards external affairs, culminating in Bush era neo-conservatism, while adopting a tough ‘law and order’ position at home. 

In contrast, Democratic presidents were more insistent on promoting human rights and democracy overseas, displaying this vis-à-vis armed interventions abroad. For example,  former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter engaged in public spats regarding human rights with authoritarian allies,  including the Shah of Iran. We also see this when former President Obama refused to intervene in the Syrian conflict. 

The victory of Donald Trump four year ago, however, triggered a massive transformation in American foreign policy, especially in regards to China. Despite Trump’s electoral defeat, 2020 might still be considered the year when Trumpism and the embrace of “great power competition” became a permanent feature of American foreign policy. And this geopolitical dynamic will significantly shape Biden’s effort to reorient his country’s foreign policy, avoid unnecessary confrontation under a “New Cold War” mindset, and restore its global leadership. 

Make America Hyperpower Again 

The West’s anxiety over the rise of China is nothing new. If anything, it’s an age-old phenomenon, extending back to the days of ‘yellow peril’ racist paranoia and outright xenophobia. The fictional character of “Dr. Fu Manchu”, a villainous product of Anglo-Saxon Sinophobia, is one of the most potent expressions of this long standing concern. 

But it was not until the 1920’s, when the sheer speed and magnitude of China’s rise became painfully apparent to the post-recession West. The economic indicators are staggering: In 1990, China’s nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was equal to only six percent of the U.S.’. By 2016, only half a generation later, China’s nominal GDP was roughly three-fifths of the U.S.’ and even more astonishingly, 60 percent larger when measured in purchasing power parity. 

This seismic economic rebalancing, which accelerated following the 2007-08 Great Recession, was soon followed by China’s incredible strides in other fields of competition, from Artificial Intelligence and 5G network to the development of state-of-the-art warships and the world’s largest naval fleet. Thus, Trump’s populist march to power was not only built on ‘whitelash’ status anxiety among working class white Americans, but also a more generalized popular concern over America’s imperiled status as the world’s preeminent power. 

In short, Trump’s victory in 2016 was built on, both consciously and subliminally, a quest to return America to its once hegemonic “hyperpower” status, which quickly followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is why the American populist’s anti-China message  resonated not only among traditional hawkish Republican headquarters, but also the scions of Obama-era national security elite and countless others who resented the strategic reticence of Trump’s predecessors.  

Ideologically malleable and politically opportunistic, the American populist effectively commenced a “New Cold War” with the Asian superpower this year by expanding his anti-China policies to practically all realms of first-order competition, from trade and the South China Sea to 5G network and the big tech industry

Trumpism is expected to become an enduring feature of American foreign policy, because it taps into a deeply ingrained tradition of American isolationism, as well as widespread strategic status anxiety in ways that have  unexpectedly transcended party lines.. As American foreign policy expert, Michael Beckley, explains in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, “[any] hope that once Trump has left the Oval Office, the United States will resume its role as leader of a liberalizing world” is an illusion, “an artifact of the Cold War’s immediate afterglow.” 

“Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy,” Beckley argues, “has been the norm for most of U.S. history”, extending to heydays of imperial expansion in the late-19th century, thus “Trump’s imprint could endure long after Trump himself is gone,” since it “appeals to many Americans today.” 

More Trump, Less Obama 

President-elect  Joseph Biden’s central message in his  presidential campaign  was a supposed return to a semblance of ‘normality’. Trump, according to this liberal narrative, was nothing short of an aberration, which can quickly be rectified through the democratic process. 

What tends to be overlooked by the American left  is the crystallization of Trump’s China policy. In fact, nowhere is the enduring impact of the Trump administration’s foreign policy towards China more palpable than in his  Democratic successor. 

In grand strategy terms, what the 2020 presidential elections achieved is precisely the institutionalization of ‘great power competition’ with China. This is especially evident in the public position of President-elect Biden’s top foreign and defense policy picks. 

To begin, the most strident criticism of the Obama-era ‘engagement’ strategy towards China came not from Republicans, but from cardholding Democratic wonks. In an oft-cited essay in 2018, former top Obama administration officials, Kurt Campbell, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (2009 to 2013) and Ely Ratner, Deputy National Security Adviser to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (2015-2017), effectively endorsed a strategy of ‘constrainment’ against China. 

The two former Obama era officials argued that after the decades-long strategy of engagement, the broader “liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected,”, since “China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.” 

Biden, who has argued for a tougher stance on China vis-à-vis numerous areas of strategic competition, has picked national security veterans, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, as his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, respectively. Though not as visibly hawkish as Trump’s chief lieutenants, both Blinken and Austin are expected to oversee the creation of a robust alliance against China. 

As for Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser and a rising star of the Democratic establishment, there is almost an open rebuke of Obama era policies on China, especially supposed soft-pedaling on the South China Sea.  

“We should be devoting more assets and resources to ensuring and reinforcing, and holding up alongside our partners, the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” argued Sullivan during a recent interview, signaling the Biden administration’s commitment to continue Trump’s expanded and increasingly aggressive Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. 

There are also indications that Trump’s Taiwan policies, which have irked Beijing, are shared by his Democratic successors. During a recent conference in Taiwan, Kurt Campbell, recently named Biden’s pick for the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator,  argued, “There is a broad group of people across the political aisle that understand the profound strategic significance and our strategic interests in maintaining a strong relationship with Taiwan.” 

The Biden administration will likely de-escalate trade and tech wars as well as seek Chinese cooperation on climate change and global public health. But it will likely retain Trump era defense policies on China, especially regarding the South China Sea. In fact, the U.S. Congress’ newly-proposed bill, allocating $740.5 billion for defense spending with expanded budget for the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, reflects the bipartisan consensus on a more anti-China foreign policy. 

In the words of Biden himself,  “This [his administration] is not a third Obama term…President Trump has changed the landscape.” And 2020 was the year this New Cold War landscape began to take shape. 

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