As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to take a hard line on China. But Biden’s foreign policy track record, along with the domestic circumstances surrounding his coming presidency, paints an altogether different picture.
As late as the summer of 2019, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden dismissed the notion that China poses any kind of threat, economic or otherwise, to the United States: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. They’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us,” he said at a political event in Iowa City. This can hardly be dismissed as a poorly-phrased or off-the-cuff remark— Biden has espoused identical sentiments, in remarkably similar phrasing, throughout his political career.
Later that summer, Biden conveniently discarded his long-held views for an entirely different set of talking points. He was now Biden the China hawk, gravely concerned over the rampant expansion of Chinese power under the Trump administration: “While Trump is attacking our friends, China is pressing its advantage all over the world . . . you bet I’m worried about China—if we keep following Trump’s path.” He went on to label China a “competitor” several times in the months leading up to the election.
There is nothing to suggest that Biden’s China volte-face is anything more than an election stratagem to secure his flank from accusations of being soft on Beijing. Consider that, at the same time as he called China a “competitor,” he consistently referred to Russia as an “opponent.” Biden has made no secret of his intention to confront and punish Moscow across numerous policy fronts, from U.S. election interference to the ongoing war in Ukraine. The implication for U.S. grand strategy is clear: as part of its overriding goal to roll back Moscow, the coming Biden administration has every reason to try to drive a wedge in the growing Sino-Russian “strategic partnership” by seeking a limited reset with China. This core strategic logic is reinforced by domestic partisan forces. The Democratic Party leadership has indicated no appetite for continuing a wide-ranging conflict with China, a policy approach that has become increasingly associated with Donald Trump’s foreign policy outlook over the past four years.
Further still, the tech giants and major business interests that overwhelmingly supported Biden’s campaign stand to lose from any efforts to decouple the U.S. economy from China or to prosecute a “trade war” against Beijing’s anti-competitive market behavior. Not only do many of America’s major tech players operate supply chains that are deeply integrated with China, but they also benefit from Chinese inflows of skilled foreign workers. Even more crucially, some of these companies are so deeply reliant on Chinese consumer markets that even the slightest disruption of bilateral trade risks cutting deep into their bottom lines. If anything, Biden may be tempted to promote further Sino-American economic convergence by scaling down, if not eliminating outright, the Trump administration’s tariffs. Whether on security or economic issues, there is scarcely any political or strategic incentive for a Biden administration to meaningfully push back against China.
This is not to suggest that Biden would do nothing at all—but rather, that there are many shades of nothing. There will almost certainly be a great deal of posturing, most of which has already been foreshadowed by Biden. There will be more targeted sanctions against Chinese Communist Party functionaries over ongoing human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, though it’s difficult to gauge whether or not the ones already signed into law by President Trump have had any tangible effect on Chinese behavior. In keeping with longstanding U.S. policy, there will be more calls for a global united front against unfair Chinese trade practices and additional steps taken to enforce intellectual property (IP) laws in response to widespread reports of IP theft by state-connected Chinese firms. Elsewhere, Biden may quietly continue some other Trump-era policies: for instance, the practice of engaging India to balance against Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific region may very well survive the transition to a Biden administration.
There is nothing original about these policies; most of them harken back to the old neoliberal consensus that closer engagement with multilateral economic institutions, and prolonged exposure to international norms, will eventually bring China into the liberal-democratic fold. In point of fact, multilateral institutions have proven incapable of meaningfully influencing Chinese behavior. As most recently demonstrated through the World Health Organization’s pandemic response, it is Beijing that has leveraged its economic pull to exert its influence across multilateral institutions.
Donald Trump conducted his 2016 campaign on the position that the old Washington orthodoxy toward Beijing had failed—that a fundamentally new approach was needed to check the exponential growth of Chinese influence across the world. Whether or not this new approach materialized over the next four years is a matter of debate, but there was at least an open discussion about the need to chart a new direction in Sino-U.S. relations. Under a Biden administration, that discussion is likely to end.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.