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Foreign Policy

Re-Evaluating Strategic Competition

Feb 12, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Joe Biden was sworn in as the President of the United States on January 20, delivering a traditional inaugural address, a stark contrast to his predecessor's bombastic style. He did not roll out a list of policies, but called for unity among fellow Americans, hoping to sow love and hope to heal a deeply divided nation. Biden made no mention of China throughout the speech, and with little remarks at all regarding America’s foreign policy. However, with Biden’s administration focusing on domestic affairs, China-U.S. relations will also face new changes. 

The key challenges for the Biden administration will inevitably originate from within, and China-U.S. relations will not be a top priority for Biden in the first year or two, at least. The two Senate seats won in Georgia by the Democrats ensures Democratic control over the House and Senate to start the Biden administration. But Biden faces a far greater challenge of domestic crisis and division than Trump did when he took office in 2017, amplified by the sudden but long-lasting pandemic and economic crisis, as well as the long-existing, intensifying political crisis. 

Dealing with the pandemic will be the top priority and the most demanding domestic agenda item for Biden in the short term. Making good on campaign promises, Biden has rolled out policy initiatives to address the pandemic, consulting experts, increasing testing, advocating masks, and promoting vaccine distribution. On January 14, Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package which included a new round of direct subsidies to American families, funds for school safety, and a nationwide vaccination program. Still, Biden's agenda will be hampered by a federal system of state-by-state fragmentation, growing partisan gridlock, a politicized response to the pandemic, as well as glaring inefficiencies in vaccine distribution. 

Biden's inauguration address reflected the challenges at home and the important task of stopping America's decline and restoring its international leadership. While Biden's main focus will be on the domestic front until the 2022 midterm elections, foreign policy is still a part of his purview, and altering the course of Trump's "America First" policy is the top priority. Biden is expected to spend the first two years in a gradual pullback of Trump-era foreign policy, restoring America's image as a beacon of democracy, restoring relations with its allies, and returning to the track of multilateralism. 

China-U.S. relations will also usher in new changes under Biden's adjustment of domestic and foreign policies. First, the U.S. will stick to its strategic positioning towards China in Trump's tenure, but will revise its strategic goals. Based on a series of statements made by nominated Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, the Biden team believes that it is not wrong to view China as a "strategic competitor", but the competition must feature vigilance and humility. America should rethink its strategic goal of "changing China" and reevaluate its China policy. It should pay more attention to its own strength and actions as well as that of its allies and partners, rather than isolating, weakening, and changing China. 

Second, the U.S. will likely adjust the approach to strategic competition with China, and attach more importance to the role of the alliance system. Diverging from from the pursuit of an anti-China coalition under Trump’s cold war mentality, Biden's administration is more likely to establish alliances in different fields, such as inviting Australia, India and South Korea to G7, setting up D-10 group in the field of ideology, and including Australia, India, Japan to upgrade QUAD in the field of regional security. Some American scholars suggest that the Biden administration should build an alliance with clear goals and diverse allies in the four fields of geo-strategy, economy, science and ideology. The purpose here is to transform the bilateral competition between China and America into multilateral competition and transfer part of strategic competition burden to its allies. 

Third, there is still room for China and the U.S. to cooperate and build mutual trust. While Biden's team agrees with Trump's reflection on China-U.S. relations, it also believes that bilateral relations should not slide into direct confrontation, which would only hurt both sides. It is evident that under Secretary Blinken, Sullivan, Campbell, and other establishment figures, the contact and cooperation in the new China policy are expected to increase, which can hedge the competition to some extent. In the field of people-to-people exchanges, the Biden administration may restore some part of the exchanges by resuming visa approvals and scholar visits. In the field of global governance, China and the U.S. are expected to work together to tackle climate change, COVID-19, and coordinate macroeconomic policies. 

At the same time, Biden's actions on the domestic front will also affect the development of China-U.S. relations. If he still struggles to make progress domestically in the second half of his presidency, then showing strength externally will become a priority, and the Indo-Pacific region, including China, will be the main focus. During Trump's campaign, Biden has always been portrayed as "weak" on China. After Biden takes office, he will have to balance stabilizing diplomacy with domestic political calculus.

A worse possibility is that, with lack of progress on domestic policies, Biden will cast part of the "Trump legacy" as his basis for his China policy, absorb the "effective" strategies and approaches in his perspective to curry favor with Republican hardliners and push forward his domestic agenda. This way, the window of mitigating China-U.S. relations will not be open too wide or too long. If Biden, under pressure from all sides, intensifies the strategic competition in China-U.S. relations and continues to pressure China to make concessions and changes, the risk of China-U.S. confrontation will continue to rise.

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