China unlikely to find Biden a soft touch

David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk
·4 min read
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the closing session of the US-China Climate Leaders Summit in Los Angeles, California
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the closing session of the US-China Climate Leaders Summit in Los Angeles, California

By David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In his unsuccessful campaign for re-election, President Donald Trump repeatedly warned that a victory for Joe Biden would be a win for China and that Beijing would "own America."

Despite that rhetoric, there is little to suggest Beijing will find Biden a soft alternative to Trump, who dramatically shifted the U.S. narrative to confront the world’s second-largest economy in his final year in power.

Even before Trump took office, the last Democratic administration of President Barack Obama and then Vice President Biden had significantly hardened its attitude towards China.

After initial efforts to engage Beijing, Trump's administration took this further, pushing back forcefully against China's efforts to spread its influence globally, earning some grudging praise from Biden advisers despite a bitterly fought election campaign.

Biden has not laid out a detailed China strategy, but all indications are he will continue the tough approach to Beijing.

Diplomats, analysts and former officials who advised the Biden campaign do though expect a more measured tone after Trump’s hip-fired threats, and an emphasis on “strategic competition” rather than outright confrontation.

That said, Biden has at times gone even further than the outgoing president in attacking China.

He has referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a "thug" and vowed to lead an international campaign to "pressure, isolate and punish China." His campaign has also labeled China’s actions against Muslims in Xinjiang "genocide" – a step further than current policy, with significant implications if that designation is formalized.

"The United States does need to get tough with China," Biden said in an article published in March as the coronavirus pandemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, took hold.

"The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations."

In the same sentence, Biden also wrote of seeking "to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, non-proliferation and global health security."

'GOING TO BE BIG DEBATES'

Reconciling those aims will be the key challenge, with the potential to touch off the sort of disputes between hard-liners and pragmatists seen in the Trump administration.

"There are going to be big debates," said a former senior Obama administration official who worked closely with Biden in the past.

"You will have folks in the Biden team who will say China represents a systemic threat to the United States and we have to treat them as such, and there will be pragmatists saying, 'We're in the middle of a pandemic, climate change is accelerating, we have to work with them.'"

Whereas the outgoing administration's tendency has often seemed to be to launch unilateral attacks on Beijing then to browbeat allies and partners into supporting them, Biden will aim to engage allies at the outset and reassert U.S. leadership via international institutions Trump disdained.

Top Biden advisers told Reuters he would immediately consult with key allies before deciding on the future of tariffs on China, seeking “collective leverage” to strengthen his hand.

"A Biden administration’s China policy will be more predictable and strategic," said Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. diplomat and trade negotiator.

"The days of advisers scrambling to implement what they learn through presidential tweets will be in the past. The days of throwing one sanction after another at the wall and seeing what sticks without a strategic framework will be over as well."

While analysts say much of the detail of future China policy will depend on who Biden names to key positions, the focus on rebuilding bruised alliances will be a fundamental tenet.

Contenders for top positions and Biden himself stress that to work, the approach must be underpinned by domestic investment to ensure a U.S. competitive edge over China in key technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence and 5G.

Michele Flournoy, a hawkish contender for defense secretary, has warned that the economic damage caused by the pandemic mean future defense budgets will be flattened or worse, while stressing the need for U.S. forces to be able and willing to carry through on any deterrent threat.

"If the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan," she wrote in the June edition of Foreign Affairs.

Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia in the first Obama administration, told London's Policy Exchange think tank on Oct. 28 Washington faced "a period of deep strategic competition" with China and it was vital to have a united approach at home to dispel the notion that America was in a "hurtling decline."

"We have to convince other countries we have our own house in order, which we do not right now," he said. "Some degree of bipartisanship as we think about China and Asia is going to be essential ... Without it, we will, in all likelihood, fail."

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)