Unraveling Joe Biden’s Approach to China

CSPS Fellow Tim Bynion discusses the Biden’s policy approach to China and how Biden’s position differs from that of Trump.

During presidential election years, it is rare to hear substantive discussions on foreign policy during debates between the major candidates.  We did, however, get a brief discussion on foreign policy during last week’s Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Senator Kamala Harris (D) when they were asked to define the nature of the United States’ relationship with China.  Unsurprisingly, the candidates failed to provide complete answers to this question.  While we have witnessed the Trump administration’s antagonistic approach to China over the past four years, Senator Harris’s remarks did not provide us with a clear picture of how a Biden administration would handle our relationship with China.  Thus, it is important to explore Joe Biden’s record on China in an attempt to evaluate how Sino-American relations might change if Biden is elected next month. 

On his campaign website, Biden cites the threat of a rising China and states that the U.S. must “stand up to strongmen and thugs on the global stage to rally the world to meet these challenges.”  Other than this sweeping sentiment, his website fails to include a more detailed plan on how his administration would posture itself toward a rising China.  However, one issue that distinguishes Biden from President Trump is the issue of trade.  As a U.S. Senator, Biden was a leading advocate of creating a strong economic tie between the U.S. and China, saying in 2001 that “The United States welcomes the emergence of prosperous, integrated China on the global stage, because we expect this is going to be a China that plays by the rules.”  Even as Vice President, Biden continued to embrace the notion that that the U.S. could eventually bring China into the liberal world order and transform it into a “responsible stakeholder” through trade and diplomacy.  Granted, this view was held by most of the foreign policy establishment at the time, but the fact that Biden was one of its leading proponents means that we should critically examine his positions with the gift of hindsight.

In recent years, it has become clear that this approach has proven quite fruitless in changing China’s behavior to our liking and interests.  While China has become integrated into the global economic market, it has not become a “responsible stakeholder” by any definition of the term.  From China’s continued aggression in the South China Sea, its repression of democratic movements in Hong Kong, and its ongoing brutality toward the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the prospects of the U.S. being able to transform China into a country that embraces liberal ideals have all but evaporated. Perhaps it is an acknowledgement of this reality that led Biden to adjust his rhetoric on China during his latest presidential campaign.  In a piece written for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden argues the need for the U.S. to “get tough with China,” and his plan to do is to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”  This approach offers a clear distinction from President Trump’s approach to foreign affairs in which he has consistently denigrated U.S. allies and downplayed the need international cooperation to achieve American interests.  On this issue, Biden should be commended, as one of the most short-sighted aspects of Trump’s foreign policy has been his willingness to demean democratic allies and devalue the liberal world order the U.S. worked to create after World War II. 

However, we must also be careful to avoid thinking that restoring our relationships with allies will serve as a grand solution to every global problem that faces the U.S.  Despite Biden’s campaign rhetoric, it remains unclear how reaffirming our commitments to existing allies will lead to China changing its behavior in any substantive way.  As the world’s 2nd largest economy, China has extensive trading ties with countries across the globe, and some of its largest trade relationships are with U.S. democratic allies like South Korea, Japan, and Germany.  While democracies like these often speak of the need to protect and promote human rights, the fact is that there has been little indication up to this point that they are willing to take concrete action to do so against rising global powers like China.  Indeed, China was committing illiberal actions during the Obama-Biden administration, a time which Biden often invokes as an era where the U.S. had productive relationships with its allies.  While it is indeed crucial for the next president to reaffirm America’s commitments to its democratic partners, we should not mislead ourselves into thinking that doing so will serve as a panacea for all of the world’s problems, including human rights abuses by great powers.  Taking a tough stance on China is a great way to score political points in a time when most Americans hold negative views on China, but the next president still owes the American people a realistic vision of what can be accomplished through diplomacy and alliances. 

Tim Bynion is a PhD student in Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, majoring in American Government and International Relations.  He holds a B.S. in Political Science from Towson University.  His research interests include the domestic sources of American foreign policy, specifically issues of public opinion and national identity.