These three purposes made sense as remedies to the unpredictability and highly charged Trump years of disruptive diplomacy by Tweet, disorganization and a lack of coherence and evidence-based policy making. Connecting domestic conditions in the US to its capacity for global leadership in this hyper-complex world of new threats particularly from China is a useful principle to guide policymaking at a time of near-record-low public trust in the US government.
As it happens, negative views of China in the US increased nearly 20 percentage points since Donald Trump became president in 2017. Public opinion and the numerous sanctions that the previous administration had imposed on China have given Biden the motivation and political capital to continue the Trumpian approach to Beijing, pending a declared strategy review, including the creation of a task force at the Defense Department to evaluate the US stance towards China and an assessment of the implementation of the “phase-one” agreement meant to resolve in part the US-China trade war. The interim “guidance” is clearly the first fruit of these consultations.
The measures taken by Trump included tariffs on most imports, the inclusion of over 300 Chinese companies including a top chipmaker and drone manufacturer on the government’s Entity List (which among other things bans exports of technology to those listed), and prohibitions against American companies (including pension funds and financial firms) and individuals from owning stakes in enterprises deemed to help advance the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). (Soon after taking office, Biden delayed from January until May the implementation of the bar on investment, which had already resulted in the New York Stock Exchange delisting China’s three biggest telecoms companies.)
In addition, the outgoing administration took Beijing to task on the issues of Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. On January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency, the US State Department determined that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. Blinken agreed with this judgement in his Senate confirmation hearing. Also in January, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo lifted restrictions on contacts between US officials and Taiwan counterparts. This had set the stage for a visit to Taipei by Trump’s UN ambassador Kelly Craft on January 13, but the trip was called off at the last minute because Beijing threatened to have fighter jets intercept Craft’s charter flight and follow it into Taiwan airspace, according to one report from a Taiwan media outlet.
The Trump administration had imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland officials including the Chinese special administrative region's Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for “implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes”. On March 17, Biden emulated Trump, blacklisting an additional 24 officials after China's legislature approved Hong Kong electoral reforms days earlier. In upping the penalty on Hong Kong on the eve of the US-China talks in Alaska, the new US administration must be reckoning that, with his kitchen-sink decoupling moves and repeated diplomatic salvos against Beijing, Trump had bequeathed to them substantial leverage that could prove handy as they take on China. Why not pile on the punishment?
But while this perceived embarrassment of bargaining chips might give impetus for a tough tack with Beijing, Biden will need to square his evolving China strategy with the promise of rationality as an antidote to Trump's volatility, if he is to match his pledge to conduct trade and investment policy for the middle class. Biden decried the Trump tariffs (arguing that American consumers were paying the costs, not China) in his election campaign, yet his administration is resisting pressure (including legal action) from American businesses to lift them, preferring instead to retain whatever advantage they may give as it sets a new working relationship with Beijing.
In this case, Biden is calculating that continuing bad Trump policy may have its benefits. But therein lies the conundrum for the new president – does he carry on wielding Trumpist tools, or does he take the more pragmatic, rational path that he promised, which will involve both competition and collaboration with China?
For now, the strategy is muddled. Biden has emphasized the need for the US to work with allies and partners in forging a common or coordinated approach to Beijing. Repairing tattered relationships including with some of Washington’s closest friends will benefit the US position and will also strengthen the cause of multilateralism. During the Trump presidency, allies and partners were just as vexed by how to deal with the Americans as they were with how to engage a "wolf-warrior" China, with many efforts to get around, bypass or simply ignore the temperamental Trump.
The conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was perhaps the most prominent example of an end run around the US. But there were other such anxious consultations and improvised initiatives including efforts to get around the hobbling of the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement mechanism due to the US blocking of appointments to the appeals panel.
The US, however, will have difficulty rebuilding the broken trust and allaying fears in allied and partner capitals that the next president could be Trump himself or a Trumpist who would revert to scorched-earth diplomacy. Biden may want to be bolder in making amends. Take the relationship with Canada. In his call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the president discussed the cases of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor whom China arrested in apparent retaliation for the detention in Vancouver on December 1, 2018, of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese technology group Huawei and daughter of one of Huawei’s founders. Canada had acted on a request from the US Department of Justice for Meng to be extradited to face wire and bank fraud charges. When US Vice President Kamala Harris later had her own phone conversation with Trudeau, she brought up the issue without prompting.
With Trudeau ruling out negotiating with China over Meng and the “Two Michaels", who are both accused of espionage, the pathway to a solution goes through Washington. Biden could spend some of his political capital as a gesture of goodwill to its “collaterally damaged” ally and help Ottawa break its two-year impasse with Beijing. One possibility: a plea bargain or some other arrangement with Meng, or perhaps an adjustment of the charges against her and Huawei. Spavor is set to go on trial on March 19, while Kovrig will be in court on March 22. This development should focus American minds and possibly prompt the US to act.
While casting the relationship with China as one of “extreme competition”, Biden professes to want a cooperative working relationship with Beijing on pressing global and regional issues that would require US-China collaboration to address such as the pandemic and public health, climate change, security on the Korean Peninsula, the updating of the multilateral trade system, and countering nuclear proliferation and violent extremism.