U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration’s early actions and statements indicate little desire to revert to a policy of engagement with China. The administration, much like the one before it, views China as a “strategic competitor” and is intent on implementing policies to better compete with Beijing. The main contours of the Biden administration’s China policy thus far include investing in U.S. competitiveness, strengthening U.S. alliances, and recommitting to multilateralism. As National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has explained, the administration is putting “less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves.”
Early overtures to U.S. allies and partners—such as the first executive-level Quad summit along with renewed multilateral commitments like the Paris Agreement—are the first of many that will be needed for the United States to reclaim international credibility and leadership. These efforts appear to already be paying dividends. Since entering office, the Biden team has issued joint statements with Japan, the UK, and the EU condemning Chinese actions on issues including the South and East China Seas, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. At home, the administration has focused on containing the pandemic and stimulating the economy with the American Rescue Plan. Biden has also proposed an infrastructure initiative that aims to “position the United States to out-compete China.”
Rather than roll out ad-hoc, one-off policies directed at Beijing, the administration is devising a long-term strategy to compete “without catastrophe.” Critical to this effort, Biden is focused on accumulating as much leverage as possible to deal with China from a position of strength and to dispel the growing Chinese perception that the United States is a power in decline.
Trump 2.0 or a Smarter Approach to Strategic Competition?
Despite his stated desire to change the U.S. approach toward Beijing, Biden has been hesitant to quickly undo several of his predecessor’s China policies. Instead, he has opted to conduct thorough strategic reviews within several federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Defense and the U.S. Trade Representative. There is still considerable bipartisan support for maintaining a competitive relationship with China, and any attempt to undo Trump-era policies would likely expose the administration to accusations of weakness.
On issues like tariffs and export controls, for example, the Biden administration has yet to initiate substantive rollbacks, going so far as to institute new export controls banning U.S. sales of sensitive technologies to China. On matters that Beijing considers sensitive core interests, the administration has picked up where Trump left off, most recently easing restrictions governing U.S. officials’ engagement with Taiwanese counterparts. The delayed reversal of Trump-era policies signals an attempt to maintain as much leverage as possible while trying to achieve reciprocal concessions. However, there is also a case to be made that the rollback of several of these policies, which Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris described as shortsighted during the campaign, could help the United States compete even more effectively. While no one expected the administration to make drastic changes to the bilateral status quo right away, the danger moving forward is that the Biden administration could fail to meaningfully differentiate its approach from that of the Trump team and may end up with little flexibility to adjust course.
The Biden administration has also sought to improve the overall tenor of the relationship. Administration officials have toned down the antagonistic and adversarial rhetoric while maintaining a competitive tone, indicating that the administration wants to avoid continuing further down the road of tit-for-tat escalations while still appearing tough on China. There has been a purposeful movement away from the provocative Cold War–style rhetoric that dominated the Trump administration’s lexicon and a shift toward a more nuanced competition of systems framework. This shift has manifested itself in the Biden team’s focus on human rights and its emphasis on maintaining the global rules-based order.
Setting the Table for What?
The Biden administration is using its first one hundred days to consolidate its leverage and try to establish the terms of prolonged strategic competition with China. The president is setting the table for a series of negotiations that allow for competition, confrontation, and cooperation while minimizing the risk of conflict.
The first high-level dialogue in Anchorage, Alaska, gave a glimpse of what these negotiations might look like. Chinese official Yang Jiechi’s “sixteen-minute tirade” in Anchorage brought to mind the oft-memed “mad as hell” speech by the browbeaten fictional newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. Beijing has emphasized that the United States does not have the authority to unilaterally set the terms of the rules-based order. Instead, according to Yang, China will seek to build an international order free from supposed U.S. “hegemony,” while securing its core interests, such as territorial sovereignty and economic development. Washington, on the other hand, appears resolved to confine competition with Beijing within the rules-based order, which disincentivizes China from pursuing a might-makes-right approach.
The broad contours of the Biden administration’s approach to China have begun to emerge. But as Biden and his team seek to strengthen the United States domestically and shore up relations with allies and partners, they will inevitably face difficult questions on specific issues defining bilateral competition. How will they coordinate with Chinese leaders on climate change while simultaneously confronting them on human rights abuses? How will they advance negotiations on structural trade and economic issues without risking unnecessary, damaging decoupling? How will they deter China’s military adventurism without risking conflict in the Asia-Pacific? While answers to these questions have yet to materialize one hundred days in, Biden’s approach to these difficult balancing acts will determine the course of U.S.-China relations for the next 1,360 days of Biden’s first term, if not longer.
The author is grateful for research assistance provided by Nathaniel Sher and Ryan Featherston.