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Comparative Politics Foreign Policy

Biden’s China Agenda: Two Missteps Require Repair

The US should do better on supporting countries that are both aligned with it in values and actually doing the standing up to China.

It is not surprising that American president-elect Joe Biden wants to reverse much of the incumbent Donald Trump’s shambolic and disruptive foreign policies. But on at least one aspect of Trump’s foreign policy – China – Biden should be building on and staying the course. 

The only change required is to forego Trump’s propensity to cut deals with the Chinese in favour of short-term gains. Biden can bring in consistency and firmness and be willing to make it costly for China to renege on promises. But there are already at least two Biden moves with implications for China policy that raise some concerns about how well the incoming administration understands China or America’s partners. 

The first is the appointment of former US Secretary of State John Kerry as special envoy on climate.[1] As a Democratic Party heavyweight, Kerry will have the ear of the president and likely have the freedom to drive the agenda while Biden is busy with other challenges. Kerry, however, is also believed to think cooperation with China on climate change mitigation efforts will be fruitful.[2]

This belief though, flies in the face of all recent evidence of the US or any other country trying to cooperate with China. The Chinese under Xi are no longer willing to look like they are bowing to foreign – least of all, American – pressure. Like Trump’s trade deal with China that went nowhere, any “deals” the Biden administration signs with China on the environment are likely to be ignored by the latter in practice.

A China-centric climate change approach also ignores another important trend within China – the increasing commitment towards environmental clean-up, sustainable growth and green technologies. In other words, China is serious about Communist Party of China General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for a “Beautiful China” and it will thus in any case, contribute to climate change mitigation even without US pressure. This is driven by self-interest and supported by a consistent reliance on scientific rationality – a quality that the US and India have often been lacking in at various times. If China does not move at the pace the Americans and Europeans want, then it will not be for want of trying. Note, for example, China’s recent promise to have carbon-dioxide emissions peak by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2060[3]; even the US has not made such a commitment yet.

In this context, to privilege bilateral climate change efforts with the Chinese is actually a waste of American effort. What Kerry should be focusing on is the Chinese sale of old and polluting technologies to other countries under the Belt and Road Initiative. Even here, though, pressure on the Chinese will be less effective than assistance to recipient countries to understand what is on offer and to demand better. The US might also consider being more generous with green technologies and collaborating on this front with populous, growing economies like India, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria and Bangladesh among others if it is serious about climate change. This it should do, if nothing else to prevent Beijing from setting the standards or monopolizing markets for environment-friendly technologies as part of its mercantilist approach to global trade and as it has sought to do in 5G, for example. 

The second big concern observers watching the incoming Biden administration’s China moves have is about the return to the use of the expression “Asia-Pacific” instead of “Indo-Pacific”. The switch was made by no less a person than Secretary of Defense nominee, Gen. Lloyd Austin (retd)[4]. While, Biden did subsequently use “Indo-Pacific”,[5] a less than fulsome commitment to the concept is worrisome for a number of reasons. 

One, while the semantics do not ultimately matter to the Chinese who have decided they are in an existential conflict with the US, the expression “Indo-Pacific” provides a US-supported spine to incipient Asia-centred counters to China, linking Japan and India and potentially many others. For this reason, it has both worried and irritated the Chinese no end. Not only has it taken up a lot of their energies to badmouth, it also forced them to look in two directions at once when evaluating their threat environment. One could also argue that it allowed the PLA Navy to knit its maritime strategies better together and to justify presence in the Indian Ocean but this was always going to happen. The public articulation of the “Indo-Pacific” concept actually only forces this strategy out into the open. 

Two, dropping “Indo-Pacific” or using it interchangeably with “Asia-Pacific” also signals a lack of commitment to the initiatives and concerns of allies and partners despite Biden’s talk of taking them along. The “Indo-Pacific” as a strategic concept has its origins in India and Japan and both countries have made much intellectual and material investments accordingly in recent years despite constraints. 

This investment should inform the Biden team that these countries believe the US has declined in relative power and will continue to do so, and that their problems with China are theirs to face and deal with by themselves. The US should not make this more difficult than it already is.

What the incoming US president should then do is course correct and base American global leadership more on better supporting countries that are both aligned with it in values and actually doing the standing up to China.

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Two missteps in Joe Biden’s China agenda that require repair’, Moneycontrol, 8 January 2021.


[1] https://twitter.com/Transition46/status/1331422411208732673

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/12/23/the-risk-of-john-kerry-following-his-own-china-policy/

[3] http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0925/c90000-9764441.html

[4] https://buildbackbetter.gov/speeches/remarks-as-prepared-for-delivery-by-general-lloyd-austin-in-wilmington-delaware/

[5] https://buildbackbetter.gov/speeches/national-security-agency-review-teams-briefing-remarks-as-prepared-for-delivery-by-president-elect-joe-biden-in-wilmington-delaware/

By Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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