Joe Biden Signals China that He Won't Be a Pushover. Will Beijing Believe Him?

Joe Biden DNC Mask 2020 Democratic nominee
2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden put on his mask after his speech accepting the nomination at the Democratic National Conventiion. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump's rage over the circumstances in which he now finds himself—trailing in the polls as the November election approaches; on the defensive over his handling of the pandemic— has been directed mainly at one target: the government of the People's Republic of China.

The list of grievances seems endless.

Of course, one of Trump's greatest hits is that China is to blame for COVID-19. On July 23rd, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a remarkably hawkish speech, even for him, arguing that nearly 50 years of engagement with the People's Republic of China (PRC) had been a mistake. The administration then intensified economic pressure, in ways that critics say are untethered to any recognizable long-term term strategy. On August 17, the administration announced it would further tighten restrictions on Chinese telecommunications company Huawei's ability to buy foreign computer chips. Some two weeks earlier Trump announced that he wants to force a sale within 45 days of the U.S. operations of TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social media app. He also wants to ban We Chat, a communications app that everyone uses in China, but is used in the U.S. mainly by Chinese people talking to friends and family back home. Neither company is a national security threat.

A consistent Trump theme since the campaign began has been that a President Joe Biden would be soft on China, as was his boss, Barack Obama, during their eight-year administration.

So you would think that Biden would be on the defensive, avoiding the topic of China as best he could. To the contrary, Biden now plans to turn a potential weakness into an opportunity. The Biden campaign will paint Trump's China policy as reckless and ineffective, particularly on trade—delivering nothing to American workers and consumers. Trump's red hot China rhetoric, advisers to Biden believe, gives the former vice president a chance to present himself as the grown-up in the room when it comes to the PRC.

''[Trump's] rhetoric and the policy seem increasingly unhinged," says an influential Biden foreign policy adviser not authorized to speak on the record. "There's a difference between being tough and being unhinged."

In the coming weeks Biden will likely deliver a serious speech outlining his own views on the PRC. He will emphasize the need to work much more closely with allies in presenting a united front to Beijing on a range of issues, including predatory trade practices, intellectual property theft and cyber espionage. "It's one thing to talk tough about China, which Trump has done, it's the other to be effective in dealing with Beijing to advance our interests. We think we can do that, and we'll lay out how," says the senior adviser.

A Biden Weakness?

The guiding presumption was that Biden would spend a lot of time defending an Obama administration record that critics believe did little to deter Beijing from a variety of economic abuses. "Obama seemed to care mainly about climate change when it came to dealing with Beijing," says Derek Scissors, a senior fellow at the conservative leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. "They put a lot of other things, like trade, like [Beijing's] expansionism in the South China Sea, on the back burner."

There's some truth to that. China signed the 2013 Paris Accord—which Obama views as a signal achievement—but didn't agree to any serious enforcement mechanism. China's carbon emissions hit a record high in 2019—accounting for the entirety of the globe's increase in emissions— while its investment in renewable energy has been plummeting. No surprise then that on August 7, the U.S. intelligence community reported that it felt Beijing would prefer a Biden victory in November.

As far as Biden's advisers are concerned, Beijing's leadership might be careful what they wish for. They acknowledge that early on in the campaign, the candidate messed up when he dismissed China as an economic competitor—-"China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!" he said last May while campaigning in Iowa.

Ever since, they've been trying to reassure Americans—and signal to Beijing—that he would not be a doormat when it comes to trade.

That effort gathered momentum last month when the candidate issued a fairly detailed set of policy proposals on economic relations with Beijing; it criticized the Trump administration's approach but mimicked its stated goals: stiffer trade enforcement, tougher sanctions for intellectual property theft, penalties for cyber espionage.

Key foreign policy advisers to the campaign, Jake Sullivan, Biden's National Security Adviser when he was vice president, and Kurt Campbell, the former assistant secretary of state for east Asia, had previously called for specific reforms of weak World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, including subsidies to state owned industries.

In a high profile Foreign Affairs article late last year, Sullivan and Campbell wrote bluntly that the era of the era of "engagement" for engagement's sake—which was effectively U.S. policy for four decades—''has now come to an unceremonious close." But they also argued that China remains "an essential partner" on issues like the environment, global health (including the prevention of pandemics) and nuclear proliferation.

Biden will also seek to increase military-to-military contacts and "to build personal ties as well as understanding of each side's operations." Cooperating on those issues, while deterring Beijing's territorial expansion in Asia and its economic aggression, is what Biden seeks to do, advisers say.

Unintended Consequences

It's not simply electoral politics that has prompted the campaign to highlight Biden's approach to China. There was another audience in mind: advisers say he wanted to make sure Beijing understood that in no way was he going to be a pushover. While the PRC may still prefer Biden to Trump, as the recent intelligence assessment maintains, that message has no doubt been received. Cui Tiankai, the longtime ambassador to Washington—and who is close to President Xi Jinping—could obviously see how quickly the bilateral relationship was deteriorating.

An outside but influential adviser to Trump on China policy, who has a relationship with Cui, says: "The ambassador is smart enough to understand that no candidate could afford now to be seen as soft on China. And no president can, either. He's no doubt passed that on to the leadership."

There have been some unintended consequences as a result of Biden's "no pushover" stance. In fact, some China watchers believe, it may have given a boost to Beijing's hardliners.

The PRC's crackdown in Hong Kong is intensifying. Recently, for example, the pro democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai and his two sons were arrested. The repression of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang has ratcheted up and there's been a continuing build-up of China's military in east and Southeast Asia. The goal? Driving the U.S. out of the western Pacific.

According to one U.S. academic with contacts in the Communist Party, the hardliners are essentially saying, "The U.S. election doesn't matter. [Trump and Biden] are both the same. Don't bother trying to preserve any space for a reset, don't wait to find out what Biden will do. Just go for it."

Battle Plan

It is clear that, if elected, Biden will have to walk a fine line with the People's Republic. Confronting China on trade—which Trump has done—while seeking to cooperate on issues like the environment and global health (which Trump has not) is tricky. It's not at all clear Beijing will play along.

Biden's China advisers run the gamut from perceived doves—Susan Rice, a possible secretary of state—to relative hawks like Ely Ratner, a vice president at the center for New American Security, a Washington think tank. Should they join a Biden administration, they and others will be focused on the same thing: preventing a dangerous escalatory spiral between Washington and Beijing.

China's leaders may not think Biden will be a patsy, but they probably think he'd be steadier and more predictable than Trump. Biden believes it's possible to compete with China and cooperate with it when it suits the interest of both sides. As a guiding principle for Sino-American relations, that's reasonable, but it works only if Beijing plays along. If it doesn't, Team Biden will need a backup plan, and it's not clear what that might be.