Biden’s 100 days: China’s hawkish approach stirs up friction from Beijing

This is part of a series on Joe Biden’s First 100 Days in Power

From his first appeal with President Xi Jinping to a extraordinary spitting Between American and Chinese diplomats in Alaska, Joe Biden’s hawkish stance on China has been much closer to that of his predecessor Donald Trump than experts predicted.

During his first 100 days in power, Biden lambasted China for suppressing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, persecuting Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and military activity near Taiwan that has raised the specter of war.

In Alaska last month, its secretary of state and national security adviser raised the issues in a public opening remarks, triggering a 16-minute rant from the Chinese that underscored just how important Sino relations – Americans were doing badly.

“What the Biden team has tried to do is set a new standard in the relationship where the leaders in Beijing understand that there is going to be friction and that Chinese pressure on the United States or their allies and partners are not going to back down the United States, ”said Zack Cooper, an expert on Asia at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Biden has shown little interest in engaging with China on a range of critical issues as he works to strengthen the United States nationally to demonstrate the resilience of its democracy and strengthen alliances. The aim is to create additional leverage that will eventually force China to change its behavior.

“[China] came up with an idea of. . . reset things. . . either go back in time in a certain way or simply blame the Trump administration for all the evils, ”a senior US official told the Financial Times. “It was important to be able to say clearly from the start that this was not the way to go.”

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said Biden’s team would stand firm in their approach to Beijing.

“The goal is not to contain China. It is not to start a new cold war. It’s not to conflict, ”Sullivan said. “It’s about competing vigorously and pushing back in the service of our values ​​and what we believe to be universal values.”

Beyond his human rights stance, Biden maintained a strong military presence in the South China Sea, reaffirmed “rock solid” support for Taiwan and reaffirmed his commitment to defend Japan, an ally of the American Defense Treaty.

But in areas such as trade, Biden has shown no signs of lifting the tariffs Trump has levied on Chinese exports. His team is examining the technological advancements of the Trump era, but most measures have not been reversed. He also placed Chinese companies on an export blacklist, a tool often used by Trump.

“I’m not surprised that Biden emphasized democratic values ​​when criticizing China for Hong Kong or Uyghur politics because Democrats tend to emphasize values,” Ling Chen said, an expert on China at Johns Hopkins University. “But I’m surprised that when it comes to economic and technological policy, Biden has broadly embraced Trump’s tradition.”

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Alex Wong, a former Trump administration official now on the Hudson Institute think tank, said he was glad Biden had “shown great continuity” with his predecessor. “China and our partners in the region needed to hear that this is not just a phenomenon of the Trump administration,” he said.

Yet there are also significant differences. Biden has worked hard to mend alliances which weakened during Trump’s presidency. Stressing the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, the first foreign leader to visit the White House was Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will become the second next month.

Biden called the first leadership-level summit of the Quad, which includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia, although the widely acclaimed vaccine diplomacy strategy it has crafted has been hit by the coronavirus crisis in India.

“When America shows up and we roll up our sleeves and work with allies. . . we can still galvanize like-minded democratic nations, ”the US official said.

Following their summit, Biden and Suga issued a joint statement that included support for Taiwan, the first time the two nations had done so since 1969. The United States has also coordinated with the United Kingdom, the EU and Canada to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for China’s crackdown on Uyghurs.

“[The Biden team] has done an incredibly good job of initiating the process of building alliances, ”said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the US German Marshall Fund, noting that Beijing has long feared the formation of anti-China coalitions. “The Chinese are worried,” she added.

Yet while Biden has won praise, he hasn’t articulated a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish in an engagement phase. The US official said that, for now, cooperation will be limited to tackling climate change and nuclear security challenges posed by Iran and North Korea.

“It’s largely the immediate menu. But we certainly have been. . . make an effort to methodically browse our interests, what their interests are and where might they overlap, ”she said.

In addition to questions about how Biden will handle the technology-related national security challenges, experts are waiting to see what other steps he will take against Xinjiang after calling Uyghur abuses “genocide.”

Jessica Chen Weiss, an expert on China at Cornell University, said it was also unclear whether actions such as coordinated sanctions would cause Beijing to change its behavior.

“It remains to be seen whether this had the ultimate effect of changing Chinese behavior in the areas the Biden administration has chosen, particularly on human rights,” she said, noting that the Chinese response had not been to change course but to impose retaliatory sanctions.

While the allies have welcomed the overall U.S. decision to re-engage, they have some concerns, including that Biden’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific is too focused on security and not enough on security. economy. Biden is unlikely to join major trade pacts due to domestic political pressure and his view that foreign policy should help America’s middle class.

“Middle class foreign policy is unclear [strategy] is going to be compatible with the trade and investment approach desired by most of our allies and partners in Asia, ”said Cooper.

Political dynamics in the two countries also suggest it may be some time before Washington and Beijing reach a detente, according to Craig Allen, chairman of the US-China Business Council.

“In November 2022, Biden faces a tough-to-win midterm election. In October or November 2022, Xi is facing a difficult National Party Congress, which could very well re-elect him for another five-year term, ”he said.

“Until these two political events take place, there may not be much room for compromise.”

To pursue Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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