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The White House and China: Will Biden Dare to do Nothing?

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Napoleon Bonaparte once mused “China? there lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes, he will shake the world”. As if we needed reminding, a year has now passed since the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic, and the famous French military commander’s prediction could not be more applicable. But what is Biden to do to limit China’s superpower status, prevent further expansion into the South China Sea, counter their controversial One Belt One Road policy, and bring an end to the horrific human rights abuses against the Uyghurs once the pandemic subsides? He would be wise to consider the paradoxical answer – nothing. 

Donald Trump has been criticised for overturning the post-World War II international order by rejecting America’s interventionist habit in favour of ‘America First’. However, for the decade and a half before Trump’s presidency Obama and Biden, among others, were reluctant to deal with Chinese authoritarianism, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to fulfil Napoleon’s prophecy of shaking the world. Furthermore, more recently, effective competition with Xi Jinping’s policies is one of the few things Nancy Pelosi and Trump could agree upon. For once, then, let us review whether Trump has actually been right about China. 

The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated that Obama-era hyper-globalisation has caused a dependence on China, most notably for crucial medical equipment, key drug ingredients and the production lines of America’s best performing companies, which has caused the overly outsourced West to rely on the political goodwill of a statist nation with which it is now engaging in an intensifying geo-political feud. So, as Biden continues to present himself as Trump’s antithesis, it poses the question as to whether he has been wise to drop this anti-Trump rhetoric in the realm of Sino-American relations. Whilst his appointment of Tony Blinken, Obama’s deputy secretary of state, to Secretary of State might say otherwise, it seems as though he is considering the policies of Trump that sought to ‘correct’ Obama’s era of hyper-globalisation in more favourable terms than we might expect. 

From this perspective, the Biden campaign and administration’s continued talk of working with allies and pledge to hold China “accountable for its abuses of the international system” appears very promising. But by trying to ‘out-Trump’ Trump by showing he is even more willing to oppose the aggressive foreign policy of the CCP, there is a very real danger that Biden will reinforce the conviction of Chinese leaders that their problems arise from Washington’s hostility rather than Xi Jinping’s hard-liner rejection of liberal reform. As such, there is a growing call for Biden to resist the temptation to differentiate himself from Trump in this manner. Rather, if Biden really wants to differentiate his policy on China, events of the last 12 months, unrelated to coronavirus, suggest Biden should sit back and allow history to carve its course and see its rival return to the trajectory of slow liberalisation that most commentators argue that China was following, prior to Xi Jinping’s assumption of power in 2012. 

China is beginning to find itself clashing with an increasing number of countries unconnected to U.S. pressure, proving it is not just America that holds stringent reservations about Chinese hegemony. Indeed, the South China Sea dispute, which pits five of China’s neighbours against itself, Australia and Japan’s maritime standoffs against Chinese encroachment of in the South China Sea and India’s military engagement with China over disputed land borders, reflects the implications of Xi’s provocative behaviour. Moreover, beyond their immediate region, China is arguing with European countries over human rights abuses, as well as with African nations over developmental debts related to the One Belt One Road Initiative, which, too, is beginning to grind to a halt. Taken together, there is a growing backlash against Chinese aggression, so, surely at some point it will dawn upon the CCP and China’s general population that this has little to do with American policy, yet everything to do with their government’s own behaviour. With Japan, Taiwan, India, Vietnam and South Korea all modernising their military in response to the potential Chinese threat, there is a strong case that now is the perfect time for Biden to pursue a policy of ‘masterly inactivity’, relying on China’s continued aggression to further isolate it from the rest of the world. 

By no means does this mean that I, nor this perspective, wants China to be defeated. The reality is quite the opposite. This perspective understands that short of another world war, there is no way to dislodge the Chinese Communist Party from power, a credit to their incredible development and internal popularity. Rather, this position proposes that by allowing for a natural growth in the intolerance of Chinese aggression, which is slowly beginning to show, a return to the pre-Xi Jinping liberalisation trajectory is more likely, for change can only be enacted from within. This, however, requires Biden to do the hardest thing for any U.S. president – do nothing. The extraordinary power the president holds generates an irresistible temptation to use it, and a more critical public and media when decisive leadership isn’t visible. Yet in the current climate, the decisive leadership which Biden appears to be embodying could only delay peace in East Asia and the end of the abhorrent human rights abuses within China. The dilemma Biden faces is complex. 

Robert Gates, the secretary for defence under Bush and Obama, has said that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”. I hope for his, America’s and the international world order’s sake that he gets this decision right.

Will Biden stand by and do nothing?

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