Biden & China: Burgeoning Animosity

CSPS Fellow Dylan Crawford discusses US-Chinese relations and the continuing competition between the two states under the Biden administration.

Two years ago, then Presidential Candidate Biden seemed to disapprove of the Trump administration’s stance on China, “Eat our Lunch?” he joked, “They’re not competition.” Yet President Biden recently stated the opposite in strikingly similar words; that our lunch was at risk from the Chinese, “if we don’t get moving”. This reversal in concern is reflected in the Biden administration’s developing policy on China, which seems to be heading towards a more aggressive posture than that of the Trump administration’s. Evidently, there seems to be bipartisan consensus that China is no longer a candidate for friendship but a competitor to be subdued.

When President Biden entered office one of his first actions was to rescind many of his predecessor’s executive orders, including one targeting the Confucius Institute’s presence in American universities. This step was interpreted by opponents as the first among many concessions to Chinese influence, but instead will likely soon be replaced by a more comprehensive bipartisan bill. Criticisms gave the executive order in question more weight than it deserved- it only called for universities to reveal their ties publicly rather than initiate an effort to combat Confucius Institute influence. 

The true first step in Biden’s approach to China was demonstrated not by action but inaction: leaving the Trump administration’s tariffs on China in place. Biden left sanctions on Huawei similarly untouched after entering office and has actually moved towards a stricter attitude. Biden also announced his agreement with Trump’s departing policy shift to allow U.S. government officials to visit Taiwan formally. Combined with the inaugural invitation Biden extended to Taiwan’s de facto ambassador, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is closer than ever to full diplomatic recognition.

The next sign of a punishing China policy was Biden’s nominations for high level administration positions. For example, Biden’s pick for CIA director—William Burns—told the Senate that he would recommend shutting down the aforementioned Confucius Institute. More important is Biden’s Trade Representative Katherine Tai, whose selection was doubtless a slap in the face for China considering she is ethnically Taiwanese. Having served as chief council for China trade enforcement, she brings experience with China combined with expertise in law. Whereas Trump attempted to leverage trade to pull concessions in unfair trade practices, Biden seems to be setting a foundation to sue those like China who would violate U.S. trade law.

The Biden administration has also escalated criticism surrounding China’s human right’s abuses, focusing on the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang while bringing attention back to Hong Kong and Tibet. These judgements contributed to an exceedingly hostile first official meeting between the Biden administration and Chinese representatives in Anchorage. Another cause for the animosity might have been the U.S. leveling of sanctions against Chinese officials, or China’s likely retaliatory sanctions on U.S. officials. Regardless, if the Chinese representatives’ mood reflects Beijing’s, then it is clear that China is already frustrated by the new administration. 

Feelings of resentment also likely stem from Biden’s maintenance of sanctions on Iran—which was once a leading energy supplier for China—and his deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups to sail through the South China Sea. Taken together, the Biden administration has built upon Trump-era policies to thoroughly constrict China economically, diplomatically, and militarily. While the pressure has drawn the ire of the Chinese Communist Party, this does not imply that the Biden administration should loosen their approach. On the contrary, it implies that the policies are working. Given this, there is not only no reason to stop but also incentives to continue a campaign of pressure until Chinese indignation gives way to acquiescence on contentious issues.

China has been open about having their eyes on ‘our lunch’ for years and the U.S. has, until recently, done little to dissuade their desire. Relations with the Chinese Communist Party were made in hopes that friendship would lead China away from human right’s abuses and authoritarian control but have failed to do so. If the carrot will not work, then it is time for the stick. The alternative is to let China continue to undermine the rules based international order with impunity as they have been doing for decades. President Biden is in a position to leverage his international popularity and China’s record low international standing to turn partner states against China. To this end, combating China’s vaccine diplomacyshould be the next step of the Biden administration’s punitive campaign, which should continue until China’s threat to Taiwan, unfair trade practices, and human rights abuses come to an end.

Dylan Crawford is a graduate student studying international security at the Schar School of Policy & Government. His interests include American foreign policy and regional issues surrounding China.

Photo can be found here.