One thing should be clear now. With the currently colliding crises of global pandemic, world-wide economic distress, and racial and social injustice at home and abroad, China is not America’s biggest problem. Likewise, America is not China’s greatest challenge. The only question in this U.S. political season is, “Who will have the guts to blurt out this truth?”
President Donald Trump has taken his distracting and deflecting position—China is the biggest problem. Why do American leaders and citizens who reject this president’s judgement in every other policy domain follow his lead on China? Conceding that Beijing is doing almost all within its power to produce a hostile U.S. foreign policy by bullying neighbors and much else, will former Vice President Joe Biden articulate a more productive approach now? Or alternatively, will the former vice president deploy expedient, campaign-driven rhetoric, thereby making a national-interest-based policy toward China more difficult should he be elected? Bill Clinton rode to power in 1992 in part on the horse of anti-China rhetoric, the “Butchers of Beijing,” only to have the first part of his presidency consumed with shoveling-up the mess. The next mess will not be so easily sanitized.
Most Democratic Party cognoscenti assert that candidate Biden will not (and should not) permit Trump to paint him as “soft on China” during the remainder of this campaign. Their advice likely will be taken, setting the stage for the post-election problem of squaring election rhetoric with post-election necessities and national interests. Biden should not engage in a rhetorical race to the bottom on China with Trump now, not only because he doesn’t need to, but more importantly because threads of his current campaign and his past personal experience provide a more intelligent alternative. In so doing, he avoids having to modify policy later at great potential cost to his credibility.
Odd to say, candidate Biden should rip a page from Deng Xiaoping’s immediate post-Cultural Revolution playbook in China. Mao Zedong, Deng’s erratic predecessor, left an unmitigated disaster for his successor, as is Trump’s legacy to America. Upon gaining power in the late-1970s, Deng prioritized stabilizing the international environment in order to focus on system-threatening internal challenges—the economy, jobs, social justice, education, and health care. Deng did not ignore foreign policy. Rather, he made it serve China’s needs for internal change and renewal.
In a June 2 speech in Philadelphia, Joe Biden in effect re-launched his presidential campaign, focusing on social and economic justice and rebuilding America. In so doing, inadvertently perhaps, he has created space to avoid being trapped or boxed-in by a Trump blaming China for most of America’s ills. While clearly calling-out Xi Jinping and his political allies in Beijing for their many domestic and foreign transgressions, not least Hong Kong and Xinjiang, former Vice President Biden’s strategic objective should be to avoid making the “China problem” worse in order to focus on America’s core challenges once he is elected—making America a stronger, more competitive, and more just society. How might he do so? Biden has extensive past experience dealing with China’s current paramount leader.
The first thing to do is what already seems to be a subtext of the Biden campaign—call attention to the fact that Trump creates phony punching bags to deflect attention from his own blunders. China is not blameless, there is much for the Chinese people and the international community to hold the Beijing elite accountable for, but America’s problems are generally of its own making—certainly within our power to ameliorate. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” If we manage our own house in an orderly, admirable fashion, we can have more influence globally than any combination of sanctions and opprobrium can exert. Symbolic, unanimous congressional resolutions about China often are an excuse for domestic inaction. I will never forget the Chinese intellectual who told me that for many Chinese America had been a role model for sound governance—no more. So, job one is simply to say, “China is a problem, but it is not our key problem.” We need to manage the international environment and relations with China so that we can restore our power, increase citizen welfare across the board, and reclaim our civic virtue.
Second, Biden should defend and strengthen the national security decisionmaking structures that have been assaulted by Trump and his know-nothings. The absence of any systematic decision making has resulted in flip flops on Taiwan, Hong Kong, trade, and allies. All this reflects the personality of a mercurial president and the absence of a stabilizing China policymaking process. The first step in restoring and improving such a process would be pledging to fill key foreign and security slots that Trump has either failed to populate at all or into which he has inserted persons in “acting” capacity, individuals who can avoid Senate confirmation and who have little or no credibility within the bureaucracies over which they nominally preside.
Regardless of what Beijing may wish to communicate to Washington, it is a disastrous state of affairs when high-level Chinese officials after high-level Chinese officials say that they “don’t even know who to call” in the U.S. government to address issues outside of the trade area. Because of this vacuum, at the onset of the Trump administration, Beijing desperately reached out to the Trump family, Jared Kushner in particular, only to find that the first son-in-law quickly became toxic in American politics because of his real estate and other entanglements and conflicts of interest, including those involving China.
Third, to be effective, America has to say what it wants from Beijing that is remotely feasible—incidentally, we should want a lot. Trump’s de-facto regime change stance toward Beijing is something no government on earth would accept as a backdrop for negotiation. Instead, Biden should advance an achievable general objective and then be steadfast in its pursuit. The posture of a hopefully new administration should be: “We are more than willing to make room for China in the international system, but we demand reciprocity, fair relations in bilateral dealings in the context of observing global norms.” That is what we should relentlessly pursue. Instead, beyond demanding more U.S. exports to China, Trump has articulated no consistent and achievable purpose in bilateral relations and, indeed, has cut off all the meaningful dialogues that existed under both the Obama-Biden and George W. Bush administrations. Moreover, to be credible to Beijing we have to reclaim our friends and allies, not drive them away.
Above all, a new administration should use the “strategic window of opportunity” that the above steps would provide to increase America’s comprehensive national power, by which I do not principally mean military hardware. The areas needing attention that are fundamental to the nation’s future well-being and influence are obvious: nurturing a healthy and well-educated citizenry; reducing inequalities and creating a sense of social justice; renewing and modernizing infrastructure; and, vastly expanding research and development programs. Public-private partnerships like Space-X and NASA are just one facet of what we can do to seize this generation’s “Sputnik Moment.” These are elements of a policy that are consistent with national interests, practicality, and decency. They are consistent with the stance that Biden articulated in Philadelphia on June 2.
In short, Biden needs a China policy that won’t be at cross purposes with his domestic aims, serves our strategic requirements, wins friends, and does not trap him in a dead-end of Trump’s devising.
David M.Lampton is Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute's Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, and Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins-SAIS.