Tuesday June 18, 2024

Biden’s China doctrine

By Beelam Ramzan
September 02, 2021

As Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the US on Jan 20, 2021, he took over a cataclysmic course of events – from the devastating surge of Covid-19 to pressing issues like climate change, inequality and racism.

He inherited four years of escalating trade tensions with China, leading to a bitter trade war and sanctioning of Chinese technology companies. Now all eyes are set on Biden. Will he continue with the painfully hawkish policies of Trump’s era, or take a conciliatory policy of engagement in relation to China?

Many hope the president will bring order to disorder and lay down the rules of engagement but it seems even though Biden may sound less belligerent in tone but he is tough on policy, taking coercive measures and building strategic alliances to counter China.

Biden, like his predecessor, is mainly concerned about cyber security, protecting US user data, national security, reinvigorating the US economy and human rights issues in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In his first six months, his administration has continued with Trump’s coercive policy of prohibiting business with Huawei and a long list of technology companies, blacklisting them on national security grounds. It has likewise pressed other governments to cut Chinese technology from their next generation 5G telecommunications system. It has sanctioned Chinese and Hong Kong officials over Beijing’s repressive policy in Hong Kong and left Trump-era tariffs in place, testing optimism that US-China relations would improve under his term.

To the dismay of many, the Biden Administration has officially affirmed the label of ‘genocide’ applied by the Trump administration on the persecution of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and consequently banned imports of solar panels material from Xinjiang over allegations of forced labour curtailing relationship with Chinese companies further. In a calculated move, the US enlisted the support of allies like the UK, EU and Canada to exert maximum influence and sanction China on alleged human rights issues. Biden’s crackdown on China has dimmed hopes for Chinese companies and disappointed investors who had hoped that deteriorating relations would improve under Biden.

China is fighting back with a counter-retaliatory approach. It has denied any cooperation on investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak, beefed up military incursions into Taiwan airspace, and moved ahead with its actions in Hong Kong.

The Biden Administration has based their doctrine on the belief that China is “less interested in coexistence and more interested in dominance’’ and the task of American policy is to blunt Chinese ambitions. Beijing has urged Washington to stop ‘demonizing’ China and change its ‘misguided and dangerous’ policy which is a thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in her first major meeting between the world’s leading economies in China raised issues of media freedoms, cyber security, human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and China’s military action in Taiwan Strait and claims to the South China Sea. Beijing has demanded lifting of sanctions on Chinese officials and visa restrictions on Chinese students as well as stopping the ‘suppression’ of Chinese firms. Both are looking for constructive ways of engagement and responsible management of US-China relations after the tumult of the Trump years.

Despite this friction and rancor, it is hard to disentangle the world’s two largest economies. Imports and exports are at all pace high and China asserts its authority to dominate critical technologies – some analysts say ‘globally’. China’s economy is set to become the world’s largest within 10-15 years with investment in research and development increasing formidably. The number of countries trading with China is more than the US; they now look to China for their prosperity. Business and financial institutions oppose a tough stance and are lobbying for easing of imports and export controls.

America cannot contain China as it did the Soviet Union, experts say, so Biden wants to counter China’s influence by increasing America’s own. Biden’s emerging strategy is to restore America’s greatness and invest in itself so it can deal with China from a position of strength. Hence the United States Innovation and Competition Act 2021 passed in June to increase funding for the US technology industry to compete with Chinese tech supremacy. To counter Chinese influence diplomatically, economically and militarily, the Strategic Competition Act 2021 was enacted to sustain the US global leadership role envisaging more aid to Indo-Pacific countries to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Similarly, Build Back Better World or B3W, a response to China’s BRI, was announced at the G7 Summit recently by Biden.

The challenge is to keep the relationship in the realm of competition, not conflict. If there can be cooperation on climate, trade is not impossible. Instead of trumpeting the bandwagon of China threat, Biden needs to win partnerships, resurrect the multilateral system, invest domestically, end protectionism and be the leader of an open world economy engaging constructively with an emerging economy of the world.

The writer holds an LLM degree in international economic law from the University of Warwick.