Everyone learns, sooner or later, when doing business with Communist China, that it is better to be in a strong position if you hope for any measure of success.
Raw power trumps the law, justice, ethics and even friendships. The strength of the Chinese economy, its growing regional military strength, and effective management of the pandemic have showed its neighbours how mercilessly it can deploy its strengths to get its way.
As the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden proceeds in less than optimal fashion, the first order of business for America is regaining strength. In a column before the United States elections, I noted that successful presidents usually do best when they attempt only two or three major objectives in their first terms.
Now we know that Biden will also be beginning without the benefit of a friendly majority in the Senate, his need to focus narrowly is all the more crucial.
Biden is already signalling his intention to tackle the dominant issues of the campaign: grappling with the pandemic, boosting the economy and addressing racial injustice. He needs to restore internal processes that will permit his administration to stay focused on these goals and cannot afford to be uselessly diverted.
So what does that mean for the China policy? The first thing is to recognise that George W. Bush’s “forever wars”, Barack Obama’s failed “pivot” and Asia-Pacific trade policies, and Donald Trump’s diminishing of alliances and collective action have all reduced American power and influence.
While the US was wandering in a wilderness of its own, China took advantage of an opportunity that is given rarely to fill the vacuum of leadership.
So, rebuilding America’s competitiveness at home and leadership abroad are the first order of business, and China must come later.
Reversing the pandemic tide, strengthening fiscal tools, stimulating the return of middle-class productivity and incomes, encouraging research and development all provide precisely the means to begin the process of addressing the challenge from China to the US in the Asia-Pacific region.
Since we live in a globalised economy, Washington needs to relearn the art of pulling nations together, as in the recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global recession. Integral to recovering the economy at home is a return to a concerted, collective effort by advanced industrial economies.
Biden should charge his top economic and health officials with the responsibility to cooperate with their international counterparts to stem the drift towards protectionism, promote global growth and mount common efforts to defeat the pandemic.
This should be explored first among a coalition of willing nations with common values and objectives. If China shows a genuine interest in cooperating, it should also be invited in time.
The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) this week was a reminder of how far the US has drifted from its previous role in developing standards and values after it abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The RCEP also reminds us of how weak the agreement is without US participation, and how much better regional economic integration and common growth might be with a more ambitious agenda.
The vitriol exchanged between Beijing and Washington in recent months has sounded more like schoolyard taunts than sober diplomacy among potentially conflicting powers. This must be corrected. But calls for a summit between the leaders or new “national security strategies” to focus on relations with China are premature.
The first order of China business for the Biden administration should be a return to routine. Nominees for senior positions can state the new president’s policy preferences in the ordinary course of their being approved by the Senate. Naming a competent ambassador to Beijing can help the return to civil dialogue and management of disputes.
These nominees can restate the fundamentals that provide crash barriers for US-China relations, such as the “ one China policy ” and the “three communiqués,” while reminding China of America’s red lines in an era of greater potential conflict.
As they are dragged out the door, the Trump administration’s China hawks are signalling that they want to leave as much wreckage behind as possible.
Trump has already signed one reversible executive order banning investment in 31 Chinese companies because of alleged ties to China’s military. Sources have told reporters that there is more to come in the effort to leave a permanent legacy of Trump’s China policy.
These people are actually “chicken hawks”, because in their tough talk about China and Taiwan, they have been careful not to cross the reddest of China’s red lines regarding Taiwan, probably out of fear that they would be held responsible for the lives and treasure that might be lost.
Rather, these officials want to put Biden in a position where he will have to reverse these last-minute decisions and be criticised for being soft on China or a panda hugger.
The Trump hawks will feed this to their political base to sustain their cause out of office. To the extent possible, Biden should delegate responsibility for cleaning up this mess to lower ranking officials.
The US needs – and its friends and allies want to see – a revitalised American vigour at home and in the region that China will have to reckon with. The Asia that Biden will deal with is not his grandfather’s, nor his father’s, nor even younger Joe’s Asia. China stands taller and is stronger.
The US day of unchallenged hegemony in the western Pacific is over. But the US, and the nations of the region that share its values and ambitions, will do much better holding on to what they have achieved in the post-World-War-II era if America comes back strong.