When he enters the White House as president of the United States, Joseph R. Biden may find it hard to make any fundamental revisions to America’s China policy. It is more likely for his administration to change the way pressure is exerted on China, or to add more engagement or cooperative elements. This is a rather widely held view among U.S. strategists, reflecting both the long-term impact of the Donald Trump administration’s China policy and the possibility for the traditional Democratic worldview to reshape it.
This framework for analysis is particularly useful where U.S. military policy toward China is concerned. On one hand, the military questions have always been sensitive and served as a touchstone for the state of China-U.S. relations.
The Trump administration has fundamentally changed U.S. policy toward China, with clear military and security implications. Over the past four years, the U.S. has launched a new round of military action targeting China, leading to a visible cooling down of mil-to-mil interactions across the board. On the other hand, the military is the key to peaceful co-existence or the lack of it between China and the U.S. On this point, both Republican and Democratic administrations agree. But there are subtle differences between them in the approaches and strategies for military competition with China.
The Biden administration may adopt a “cautious containment” military policy toward China. This policy will have two prominent features. First, containing or hedging China’s military modernization drive will top the Biden administration’s agenda in dealing with China. This is determined by the basic American perception of China’s military development. In recent years, the U.S. has developed an increasingly grave evaluation of China’s military modernization and about the military balance between the U.S. and China. The DIA’s 2019 Chinese military power report and the Pentagon’s 2020 report on China’s military and security developments both discussed the rapid breakthroughs in various systems in Chinese military modernization and their impact on America’s overseas military deployment, training and logistical support.
From the U.S. perspective, a local balance of military power with China may soon emerge, particularly in the Western Pacific, threatening U.S. regional dominance. In this connection, for the U.S. it is imperative to contain China’s rapid military development. With wide bipartisan agreement on this point, the Biden administration is very likely to carry on the Trump administration’s policies and prioritize containment in its military strategy. More attention will be paid to reach the policy goal through more comprehensive means, such as better distributed military deployments in the region, technological research and development and greater reliance on alliances.
Second, while pursuing containment, the Biden administration will, with extreme caution, also make attempts to avoid major military frictions with China. In this connection, Biden may re-emphasize the role of military exchanges with China, which will mean opportunities for bilateral military dialogue and exchanges at all levels to restart.
That is a major point of departure from Trump. During the Obama administration, with strong pushes from China, mil-to-mil exchanges developed significantly to become a highlight and stabilizer in China-U.S. relations. As a witness to the warm exchanges between the two militaries, Biden declared during his campaign that China was a “competitor rather than a threat,” indicating a desire to bear in mind military competition with China while managing competition to prevent it from triggering friction or even conflict.
Biden’s national security nominees include Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan and Lloyd Austin, all former Obama administration officials with policy views similar to those of Biden himself. They are traditional and professional in foreign and military policies, emphasize the role of rules and allies and advocate caution with regard to the use of military means, which may add an element of caution to the American view of military frictions and the risk of an arms race.
The China-U.S. relationship has experienced a sharp decline over the past few years, and today it is at a new historical juncture. In his congratulatory message to Biden on his election, President Xi Jinping reiterated the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation and argued for healthy and stable development of relations. He hoped that the U.S. side will recognize again the significance of a stable China-U.S. relationship, that the two countries will move toward each other on major sensitive issues such as military security, take concrete measures to ensure peaceful coexistence and healthy competition, avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations through resumed mil-to-mil exchanges and secure a generally stable global security situation through practical cooperation.