So far, the White House has undertaken a flurry of activity designated to back up President Joe Biden’s pledge to be tough-minded on China. He has warned that Beijing will face “extreme competition” from the United States. Taiwan’s top representative was invited to the presidential inauguration on January 20 and the Biden team has promised to continue US arms sales to Taipei.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he agrees, conceptually at least, that former President Donald Trump “was right in taking a tougher approach to China” and that he supports the prior administration’s finding that Beijing’s treatment of Uighur minorities in Xinjiang constitutes “genocide.” In early February, the new administration conducted naval maneuvers to contest Chinese dominance in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the US security commitment to defending the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
Yet all of this cannot conceal the two major fault lines threatening to undermine President Biden’s promise. The first centers on the heavy presence of Obama-era veterans on his national security team, particularly those associated with that administration’s “strategic pivot” toward the region. Two of President Biden’s top staffers were key architects of the much-touted initiative: Kurt M. Campbell, who was in charge of East Asian affairs in the State Department under President Barack Obama and is now the White House’s Asia policy czar, and Jake Sullivan, who was deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and is now Biden’s national security adviser.
The rhetoric of Obama’s pivot to Asia simultaneously antagonized Beijing while its actual track record largely failed to impress other Asian governments. According to one assessment, the pivot’s hype caused a marked increase in Chinese military spending at the same time that sharp cuts in the Pentagon budget were hampering US military operations in Asia. During a visit to Japan in 2013, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted that “We are going to have to think about how to remain a global power with fewer resources. I think we are going to have to find ways to accomplish almost the same things but with smaller force structures.” In early 2014, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief publicly stated that budget constraints were forcing a reconsideration of the initiative.
As Obama’s coordinator for North Korea policy has acknowledged, the effort “was ill conceived and bungled in its implementation.” In late 2013, the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, noted an “increasingly widely shared view in Japan and the region that the Obama administration may not have enough political capital or the financial assets to implement” the pivot. It added that some have even come to see it as no more than a “bumper sticker.” Similarly, a leading Australian analyst observed, “There is a growing perception in Asia that the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed ‘pivot to Asia’ has run out of puff.” By late 2014, a foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times argued that most of Asia had concluded the pivot was nothing more than hot air.
Memories of this track record persist. A commentator focused on Asian affairs observed last year that “Officials in Tokyo, Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore and other capitals have grown relatively comfortable with Trump and his tough approach on China. The prospect of a Biden presidency, by contrast, brings back uncomfortable memories of an Obama era that many Asian movers and shakers recall as unfocused and soft toward Beijing.”
Just before the 2020 election, The Washington Post noted that current and former officials of the Taiwanese government and ruling party had “privately expressed concern that a return of Obama-era foreign policy advisers in a potential Biden administration could mean a U.S. approach that is more conciliatory toward China compared with the Trump administration’s — and less supportive of Taiwan.” The Financial Times also reported along similar lines.
The personnel problem extends to Biden himself, as he is a late convert to the tough-on-China crowd. Prior to his becoming the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, he had regularly dismissed the notion that China mounted much of a geopolitical challenge. His campaign staffers were reportedly troubled by his naivete, and one adviser later admitted that for the rest of the campaign, Biden had to be “deprogrammed” on China. While this was going on, Robert M. Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary, reaffirmed to CBS News his earlier judgment that Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The second fault line running through Biden’s approach to China is the irreconcilability between maintaining a hard line and his administration’s insistence on the pressing urgency of securing Beijing’s cooperation on climate change. Biden officials claim they can somehow manage this tension and will not have to make significant concessions in other policy areas in order to fulfill its global climate ambitions.
John Kerry, President Obama’s secretary of state when the 2015 Paris climate agreement was signed, is now Biden’s special climate envoy with a spot on the National Security Council. He insists, for example, that climate is a critical stand-alone issue that can be compartmentalized on the US–China bilateral agenda. Administration officials believe that collaboration is so self-evidently in Beijing’s interest that it will naturally sign on to Washington’s new push for significant climate action.
The Chinese government so far is not much impressed with this logic, with its foreign ministry stating that climate could not be separated from other issues “unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill.” A Chinese government Twitter account also declared that “China is willing to work with the US on climate change. But such cooperation cannot stand unaffected by the overall China–US relations. It is impossible to ask for China’s support in global affairs while interfering in its domestic affairs and undermining its interests.”
Given the White House’s fervor on the issue, one suspects the Biden administration will be making the concessions in the end. During the presidential campaign, Biden asserted that climate change is an “existential threat” and the “number one issue facing humanity.” Now that he is in the Oval Office, Biden believes “we can’t wait any longer.” He signed a directive making the issue the “center of our national security and foreign policy” and ordered government agencies to factor “climate considerations” into their assessment of international priorities. Kerry uses similar language, declaring that “the stakes on climate change just simply couldn’t be any higher than they are right now. It is existential.” He added that Biden “is deeply committed — totally seized by this issue.”
In shutting down construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, as well as freezing new oil and natural gas leases on federal lands and waters, the administration has also shown it is willing to subordinate important domestic goals, such as energy security and employment stability in the middle of a job-killing pandemic, to climate priorities. It has written off large job losses as inevitable and is accepting of a backlash from important labor unions that aided its electoral victory just a few months ago.
It is also telling that Susan Rice, the national security adviser during Obama’s second term, has returned to the White House as President Biden’s top domestic affairs coordinator. Bilahari Kausikan, the former senior Singaporean diplomat widely regarded in East Asia, recently exclaimed that Rice “was among those who thought that the US should deemphasise competition to get China’s cooperation on climate change, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of international relations.” Another observer has made the same point, noting that “Obama and Rice wanted to work with China on issues such as climate change, but they did so at the cost of treating Beijing with kid gloves.”
Influential members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment have advocated the same thing. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the head of an influential think tank in Washington and a former director of policy planning in the Obama-era State Department, recently argued that “Biden should prioritize global issues over geopolitical competition” and that the president’s focus on climate “should guide his foreign policy as well.”
Rank-and-file party members also share this view. In a recent public opinion survey, Democrats by a wide margin believe climate change to be a more critical threat than the rise of China as a peer competitor to the US. Indeed, according to Democratic respondents, China did not even rank among the top seven challenges facing the country.
Something will have to give in the new administration’s approach toward China. There is already an early indication of how things will play out. Notwithstanding the protestations about Beijing’s egregious human rights abuses, the Biden team continues to support holding the 2022 Winter Olympics in that city.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.