From climate change to responding to the pandemic to relations with the Middle East, President Joe Biden has fundamentally different political priorities than his predecessor. But Biden and Donald Trump fully agree on one point: China is now the only geopolitical rival truly capable of threatening America’s position at the top of the world order.
This is a view shared across all levels of the Biden administration. With that in mind, the White House has launched a strategic review of U.S.-China relations, calling on key administration officials to review U.S. policies toward China and come up with proposals on the future direction to follow. Three different approaches have already started to be sketched out.
The first approach is containment, advocated by extremists within the White House and the national security establishment. This group sees a cold war with China as inevitable, given the number of zero-sum issues facing the two countries, including, but not limited to: the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Uyghurs and, the most crucial question of all, technology.
In all of these areas, China’s growing assertiveness has come at the expense of Western influence, especially the United States. This is of particular concern when it comes to 5G and semiconductors, the foundation of the next global economy. According to this view, it is crucial that the United States confront China on an equal footing in all aspects of competition between the great powers.
Trump’s approach could also be described as a ‘hard line’, but there are key differences between Biden’s version of containment and Trump’s. For starters, Team Biden wants to deal with the Chinese threat in coordination with its allies, not unilaterally.
Second, Biden will not just focus on China – he will also invest more in American innovation. This approach is based on the idea that it will not be the aggressive actions of the United States and its allies that bring Beijing to its knees, but rather the policies of state capitalism and the authoritarianism of China itself. , which they consider unsustainable in the long term. given China’s debt and its continued risky investments in developing countries.
The second option is interdependence and is offered primarily by economic decision-makers in the Biden administration. For them, no one will really win if the dispute between the United States and China escalates to the point of fundamentally threatening the global economic and financial architecture.
Instead of falling into a cold war, they want to engage constructively with China, using the existing multilateral architecture, reforming it if possible to better adapt to China, and creating new institutions if necessary. to get China to act more multilaterally.
They see no problem in allowing China to expand its international presence with investment programs like the Belt and Road (the “New Silk Road”) – although roads and other infrastructure works are underway. construction courses are not of as high a quality as one would like, they recognize that China is helping to raise the standard of living of people around the world.
It’s a more “plus-sum” view of the world – one in which everyone can benefit from competition – not surprisingly, coming from people who have studied economics.
And there’s the generic option led by Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry and senior administration figures who see climate change as the greatest threat to the United States, including China. Instead of promoting a policy of restraint or interdependence, they want the American-Chinese relationship to be at the service of the fight against global warming, a fight that must necessarily include China, the world’s largest broadcaster.
That Kerry has a good working relationship with the Chinese authorities helps, but, in all ways possible, it’s the one that is less clearly articulated. It’s part of this approach, not a bug; for its advocates, the US-China relationship will evolve along the way, as the threat of climate change evolves.
What approach will Biden choose? Knowing Biden and his willingness to seek consensus, it is likely to be a combination of the three, with Biden seeking to empower employees in his administration while moving forward with as many goals as possible over the next several years. .
It makes sense in the short term, but without a comprehensive strategy, the United States will still find itself faced with a China with a fundamentally different set of values and norms and with increasing means of exporting its own worldview. A strategic review of US-China relations is absolutely the right step for policymakers in Washington. The real question is what Washington will do with the review once it is completed.
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