The Great Reset

Joe Biden set to walk tightrope with China

Mr Biden has already signalled a less strident approach.
Mr Biden has already signalled a less strident approach.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Gone will be the "China virus" and "kung flu" slurs that US President Donald Trump deployed to wildly cheering crowds at his rallies; public rhetoric and megaphone diplomacy will be dialled back.

Conventional diplomatic dialogue will be put together again, in areas where the Joe Biden administration would like to work with China, notwithstanding deeper and wider strategic competition.

Arms sales to Taiwan will continue, but there will be no senior-level visits to unnecessarily provoke China, Mr Biden's advisers say.

Yet, while the temperature will be lowered, those looking for signs of a reversal in the United States' approach to China will be disappointed.

What a Biden administration will do is to refine and moderate the style, but the substance of the US pushback against China will continue, with the administration also ratcheting up pressure on human rights issues.

Moderation

Mr Biden has already signalled a less strident approach. Asked on Thursday about punishing China for allowing the Covid-19 pandemic to break out of the country, he said: "It's not so much about punishing China, it's about making sure China understands they've got to play by the rules. It's a simple proposition."

In the meeting with a bipartisan group of governors in his hometown in Wilmington, Delaware, he said that is one of the reasons his administration is going to rejoin the World Health Organisation and, on day one as well, the Paris climate accord.

"And we have to make sure the rest of the world and we get together and make sure there are certain right lines the Chinese understand.

"We have to not only deal with this pandemic, we have to deal with the next one," he added.

Certainly, there is a consensus in the US strategic community that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - described this week by Mr Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, as a "Leninist empire" - is the primary strategic threat to the US.

A State Department strategy paper titled The Elements Of The China Challenge, soon to be released but revealed by news website Axios this week, warns in its preamble: "The CCP aims not merely at pre-eminence within the established world order... but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People's Republic of China at the centre and serving Beijing's authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions."

The paper lays out 10 ways the US should approach China, some of which are not different from what Mr Biden's advisers prescribe.

They include, for instance, strengthening its alliance system, which the foreign policy strategists have always seen as the US' inherent advantage, whether against Russia or China.

The US must "in cooperation with the world's democracies and other like-minded partners" reform international organisations where possible and, where necessary, build new ones "rooted in freedom, democracy, national sovereignty, human rights and the rule of law", the strategy paper says.

And it should "promote American interests by looking for opportunities to cooperate with Beijing, subject to norms of fairness and reciprocity".

Strong hand

Mr Biden will inherit a strong suite of measures against China, including tariffs, curbs on technology and investments, curbs on visas for Chinese media, and increased scrutiny of students from China for state links.

The US Navy is also flexing its muscles. Its Battle Force 2045 plan envisages adding around 200 ships to its fleet. A strategic partnership with India is solidifying. The Quadrilateral Dialogue grouping - India, the US, Australia and Japan - held its first joint naval exercises this month, featuring all four powers.

Essentially, Mr Biden's advisers say, while there will be a marked shift in tone, there will be more continuity than change in US policy towards the Asia-Pacific in general.

"Strategy is stronger than politics. China policy will continue unchanged under Biden," foreign policy guru and China expert Edward Luttwak predicted on Wednesday.

Competition without catastrophe

It is about "competition without catastrophe", said Dr Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute. "The Biden administration aims to put a floor beneath the US-China relationship as a basis for moving forward."

Apart from investing in US fundamentals - working with allies and partners, advancing network security - there will be two added elements, Dr Cronin told The Straits Times.

"One of them is a renewed strategic dialogue to avoid inadvertent escalation, to basically reinforce coexistence and avoid non-existence," he said.

"The other is areas of cooperation. And there may be more hope than reality, but from the pandemic to climate change to other issues, clearly there's greater scope for cooperation than we've seen under the Trump administration."

Long-time Biden aide Antony Blinken, who is tipped to be secretary of state or national security adviser, said at an event last month that the Biden administration would actually reassert American leadership but act with some humility and confidence.

"America, at its best, still has a greater capacity than any country on earth to mobilise others in positive, collective action," he said.

"When we're not engaged, when we're not leading, then one of two things (happens): Either some other country is and tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values; or, maybe just as bad, no one is, and then you've got chaos, a vacuum that tends to be filled by bad things before it's filled by good things, and, either way, bad for America."

Test for Biden

Mr Biden will have to contend with an erosion of trust in America abroad in general, and in Asia, some wariness over hard positions on democracy and human rights.

At home, he has to deal with a deadly pandemic and a severely fractured body politic. Differences even within the Democratic Party have surfaced already.

On Thursday, climate and environmental groups, along with New York City congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other progressive lawmakers, held a demonstration at the party's offices in Washington, decrying Mr Biden's hiring of staff with connections to the oil and gas industry.

In the case of China, much depends on how Beijing responds and whether it tests Mr Biden.

"Broad diplomatic engagement with China might have a prayer if we had a different China, but we don't," said Dr James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"If there is a Biden administration and they try this, (China's President) Xi Jinping will eat their lunch."