For the second issue back from hiatus, I offer some thoughts on the type of courage and boldness the Biden administration needs to summon in the coming year. It won’t be easy, but a balance must be struck. And the Trump administration’s China antagonism on the way out the door is not a valid starting point.
Back next year with more traditional issues tracking specific events and analysis. May 2021 be a better year. –Graham
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The Biden administration cannot be afraid to reverse Trump’s China excesses
The Biden team certainly has its work cut out for it, and U.S.–China relations are both central and secondary to the most urgent tasks. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the incoming administration faces a catastrophic fire burning out of control and a political opposition crowding around to cheer for the fire and spit on the fire brigade. I am certain, however, the new administration will persevere and move assertively to bring this human-assisted disaster to a close.
I am less certain they will have the drive and political courage to head off the disaster with China that the Trump administration seems determined to set in motion on the way out the door.
For several years it has been a truism that there is a new bipartisan U.S. consensus on China, often summarized as an agreement that competition is the dominant feature of bilateral ties. That consensus is real, as far as it goes. But competition is vague, and there is nothing even resembling a consensus on the nature of that competition, let alone on what to do about it.
The Biden team’s prescriptions for what to do about real problems in China ties—from the vulnerabilities related to tech interdependence to evolving military competition and human rights atrocities—are very different from the Trump approach, and the Trump team knows it. That’s why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others have led a chorus of speeches and almost ritual affirmations to cement their frame of a contest to the death with China and the Communist Party. And that’s why the administration has rushed to implement more and more export controls, visa restrictions, and other measures that can unravel even the healthy parts of bilateral ties. The Trump administration is trying to lock in enduring conflict that doesn’t yet exist, knowing they will soon be out of power.
The Biden administration must counter these excesses, and it will have to muster the courage to reverse large numbers of Trump actions en masse to do so.
The temptation to leave Trump’s astrategic China antagonisms in place will be strong, but it must be resisted. Politically ambitious Republicans have deployed Cold War muscle memory, with China substituted as the rival of our time, and they will try to smear as appeasers those who deviate from their messianic zeal. Biden’s team must realize this name-calling will happen regardless of what they do and resolve to do what’s right.
It will also be tempting to use measures that hurt the United States as much or more than they hurt the Communist Party as bargaining chips in negotiations with China’s government, but Chinese officials would see through this gambit and give little. Instead, the Biden team must isolate the existing policies that they actually support and keep or strengthen them, while rolling back the numerous excesses. Chinese negotiators will then face the resolve of an administration serious about its punitive measures—whether on trade and economic practices, human rights, or security. They will not be able to play on U.S. officials’ ambivalence about their own position, as they have with the divided Trump administration.
Pull back, but don’t fall
Over the last five or six years, U.S. political elites and much of the public have become far more conscious of the risks of the prior status quo. U.S. supply chains for crucial products were over-reliant on China, potentially jeopardizing supplies in case of confrontation and raising concerns about espionage and sabotage as more and more products are Internet-connected. U.S. businesses and officials were ill equipped to navigate human rights implications throughout bilateral ties. The reflex to pull back and regroup is well grounded.
However, there has been precious little deep thinking about the downstream effects of efforts to pull back—or, in the Trump administration’s style, to lash out. As Yan Luo, Samm Sacks, Naomi Wilson, and Abigail Coplin documented for DigiChina in August, in the area of science and technology alone, the aggregate of measures to “decouple” or otherwise unravel from China is larger, and the collateral damage more consequential, than it may seem if examining the polices individually. Since then, and even today, the Trump team has only piled on.
At the extreme, of course, the side effects could add up to a slip toward total U.S.–China rivalry resulting in catastrophic war. While we can be hopeful that both countries can avoid an old-fashioned conflagration, there are dire possibilities short of war. If the United States and China sink into an arms race mentality and duplicate, rather than share, production capacity across all industries, the global costs in terms of carbon emissions could quietly doom humanity to a creeping cataclysm. Unknown opportunities could be lost if scientific collaboration is stymied. Avoiding these outcomes calls for pulling back from a troubled entanglement while careful not to fall into destructive mutual isolation.
The era of U.S.–China relations that stretched from Nixon and Mao to recent years needed revision, but Trump and Xi cannot be allowed to set the tone for the next half century. Biden’s team must summon the courage and wisdom to reverse irrational policies that hurt U.S. interests and risk a slip toward uncontrolled conflict. They must reinforce U.S. leverage and use it where it’s most needed, and fix their gaze on a horizon where the United States, China, and the world can meet collective challenges far more effectively than we have managed this year.
The Transpacifica newsletter is produced by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and editor of the DigiChina project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. I launched Transpacifica as a blog on the U.S.–Japan–China triangle in 2006, and this newsletter is the successor to the U.S.–China Week newsletter that ran for three years from 2015–2018. Beginning in November 2020, it will appear about once or twice a month, delivered by free e-mail subscription. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.