Biden’s China Problem: Resisting a New Cold War in Asia

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Illustration by Adrià Fruitós.

There is a story that Washington policy-makers like to tell about America’s relationship with China, a narrative of the betrayal of naive hopes that is closer to a fairy tale than a sober analysis of history. The fable goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a hermit kingdom called China, poor, angry, and isolated. Two visionary statesmen, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, visited this unhappy land and opened it up to the world. With diplomacy and trade, successive American leaders helped build up China, with the dream that, as it grew richer, it would join the United States in upholding a harmonious global order. But engagement proved a false dream: As China grew richer, it remained despotic, undercutting America with sharp trade practices, repressing its own people, and threatening its neighbors. Suddenly America found itself confronting a monster. Shortly before he died in 1994, Nixon told The New York Times, “We may have created a Frankenstein.”

Nixon’s invocation of the Frankenstein monster reveals the emotions underlying this historical myth: the creation that betrays its creator. To get a glimpse of Dr. Frankenstein at the height of his hubris, it’s worth revisiting former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s 2005 speech calling on China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the American-led international order. The paternalistic assumption was that the United States and China had no deep-seated disagreements, and provided China put aside any ambitions to challenge US hegemony, it could evolve into a junior partner in empire.

All myths have a social function. The myth of China-as-Frankenstein is designed to assuage the American conscience: We meant only to improve the world—and created a monster by accident.

A more realistic view would note that the recent history of America’s relationship with China, far from being a story of benevolent intentions that misfired, is instead a record of policies that served a narrow economic elite at the expense of broader democratic interests. A bipartisan neoliberal consensus governed China policy from Nixon’s presidency to that of George W. Bush. China was not only a marvelous new growth opportunity for corporate America but also, with its race-to-the-bottom wage scale, an excellent tool for taming labor unions and environmental activists. China’s adoption of state capitalism and the ripple effects this had on the global economy were the defining economic facts of neoliberalism.

The embrace of China also served America’s strategic interests at the tail end of the Cold War. The United States opened up to China not for China’s sake but to foster a counterforce against the Soviet Union. Eager to enrich big business, successive American governments turned a blind eye to China’s exploitative labor practices, minimal environmental protections, and lack of democracy. It wasn’t excessive optimism about China that prompted President George H. W. Bush’s muted response to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, but rather a desire to keep on good terms with a lucrative trading partner.

President Barack Obama also valued integration with China, though he was more mindful of its costs. As he notes in his new memoir, A Promised Land, “Back in the early 1990s, leaders of organized labor had sounded the alarm about China’s increasingly unfair trading practices.” In recalibrating US China policy, Obama and his administration tried “to thread the needle between too tough and not tough enough…by presenting [then-President Hu Jintao] with a list of problem areas we wanted to see fixed over a realistic time frame, while avoiding a public confrontation that might further spook the jittery financial markets.” The key tool Obama wanted to use to nudge China was a new US-Asia trade agreement “with an emphasis on locking in the types of enforceable labor and environmental provisions that Democrats and unions complained had been missing in previous deals.”

Obama’s needle-threading proved too subtle for the public. Donald Trump rode to electoral victory in 2016 in no small part by harnessing anti-trade emotions and promising to get tough with China. As president, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama had negotiated, ending the strategy of using agreements with China’s neighbors as a way of checking the rising Asian power. Instead, Trump pursued a bilateral trade war, seasoned with xenophobic rhetoric and amplified after the pandemic with tirades against “the China virus.”

Trump’s buffoonery is easy to ridicule, especially since his trade war only marginally changed America’s vast web of economic ties with China. But his antics were merely the most visible part of a larger sea change in which the bipartisan neoliberal consensus of ever-deepening ties with China gave way to a new bipartisan get-tough-with-China consensus. This turn went well beyond labor unions, environmentalists, and human rights activists and now includes the national security establishment (which is increasingly inclined to frame China as America’s leading global rival) and even corporate America (which has been disenchanted by China’s continued commitment to economic nationalism and state-directed enterprise).

As an erratic demagogue, Trump is dismissible. Far more worrying is the extremist rhetoric that became commonplace in his administration. This past July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an alarming speech at the Richard Nixon Library that was a veiled but unmistakable call for regime change in China.

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign never challenged Trump’s saber-rattling on China. Rather, in a move that echoed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign accusing Nixon of being soft on the Soviet Union, Biden’s main line of attack was that Trump was too weak to stand up to Beijing. In April, the Biden campaign ran a TV ad arguing that, in praising the success of China’s coronavirus response early in the pandemic, “Trump rolled over for the Chinese. He took their word for it.” In July, Antony Blinken, since nominated by the president-elect as secretary of state, spoke at the hawkish Hudson Institute, claiming that “China, as a result of the last three and a half years, is in a stronger position [because of Trump], and we’re in a weaker position.” Blinken argued that a Biden administration would have to work to strengthen the United States for competition with China

As Biden unveils his foreign policy team, it’s clear that Blinken represents the new generation of China hawks in the Democratic Party. Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, is another. In a May 2020 article for the Foreign Policy website (coauthored with the historian Hal Brands), Sullivan argues that China is “pursuing global dominance.”

Michèle Flournoy, initially floated as a possible secretary of defense, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in June 2020 arguing that the US military had to be strengthened so it could “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.” Even though she wasn’t nominated, Flournoy continues to command respect in Democratic foreign policy circles. Other prominent China hawks in the running for senior policy positions include Jeffrey Prescott, Ely Ratner, and Kelly Magsamen.

There’s every reason to believe that Biden will have more China hawks setting policy in his administration than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson. What makes them all the more dangerous is that they present their arguments in mainstream and even progressive terms that could win a wider popular legitimacy than Trump’s xenophobia.

For progressives, the rise of the Democratic Party’s China hawks poses a real dilemma. On the one hand, there’s no reason to be nostalgic for an economic order that hurt labor, the environment, and human rights. The end of the neoliberal consensus opens up possibilities for refashioning the global trading order in a spirit closer to Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren than George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Yet trade is only one dimension of the relationship. The China hawks around Biden also see the Asian superpower as a military rival that must be thwarted. The question facing progressives is whether it’s possible to work with them on areas of agreement, like trade, while also resisting a new Cold War in Asia.

One reason to fear the new China hawks is that they habitually engage in the type of hyperbolic rhetoric that has often been a prelude to shooting wars. China has the world’s largest population and second-largest economy, but it remains very much a regional military power with a global economic sway, not an aspiring global leviathan. In terms of military bases, cultural reach, and alliance systems, China is nowhere near being able to challenge the United States. All the potential flashpoints between China and the West involve either internal human rights problems or disputed territories that have historically been within China’s sphere of influence: Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, and islands in the South China Sea.

Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University, tells me that for a Biden administration, “the most difficult issues are going to be in the realm of human rights and Taiwan. These are issues over which the Chinese Communist Party feels very strongly. It is concerned fundamentally about the security of the regime. Threats to national sovereignty are ones where the Chinese Communist Party has basically brooked no opposition. Chinese efforts around the world have really been designed to intimidate dissent on these issues.”

It’s important to understand how tightly circumscribed by “national sovereignty” China’s ambitions are. This is not to deny that these are important issues on which outside nations have a right, and sometimes a duty, to rebuke China. Still, they are all within what we can recognize as China’s national ambit.

Yet to hear the US national security establishment talk, China aspires to world conquest. And it’s not just the Trumpian right: Robert Gates, the secretary of defense under George W. Bush and Obama, is a pillar of the national security establishment. In his new book, Exercise of Power, Gates argues that Deng Xiaoping, who presided over the economic opening of China to American capitalism, had the “objective of unchallenged Chinese dominance in Asia and someday matching and then overtaking the United States in terms of global power.”

Gates lists the Chinese initiatives currently worrying the national security establishment: muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, the Belt and Road Initiative (an ambitious project to build a continent-spanning infrastructure linking China to Europe and Africa), and the robust use of loans and foreign aid to win friends in the Global South. This sort of dollar diplomacy is, of course, no different from what the United States and other Western nations practice. The only novelty is seeing an Asian nation engaged in great-power politics. Gates also seems anxious about the achievements of Chinese high tech, which he credits with “cloning a monkey—and a human.” In fact, no nation has yet cloned a human. But China’s rise keeps policy-makers like Gates awake at night nursing Dr. Moreau fantasies.

In the March-April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner argue that with China, “Washington now faces its most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history.” Sullivan and Brands come to a similar conclusion, claiming that China is in many ways a more serious adversary than the Soviet Union, which “never had the ability, or the sophistication, to shape global norms and institutions in the way that Beijing may be able to do.”

Progressive advocates of foreign policy restraint reject this portrait of China as an existential threat to the United States. They note that the main issues of contention with China are in Asia, not all over the world. Progressives ask whether America needs to remain a hegemon in Asia—a legacy of World War II that seems increasingly anachronistic given the rise not just of China but of other, more democratic nations in the region.

“These two powers are jostling for influence,” Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute tells me, “and China clearly has gotten significantly stronger in its own region in military terms, which to my mind doesn’t threaten the US as such but does threaten the US pursuit of military primacy in East Asia. And that’s why there was such a fuss about China’s claims in the South China Sea.” He adds, “For many political leaders in Washington, it’s OK for the United States to have a sphere of influence that is global. It’s not OK for China to have a sphere of influence that is regional.”

Daniel Bessner, who teaches US foreign policy at the University of Washington, acknowledges that China is a “rampant human rights abuser” but thinks the proper Western response is to open immigration for the Uighurs and for citizens of Hong Kong. These immigrants could be provided with the capital needed to resettle. This is much more likely to be effective than human rights lectures.

“I don’t think the US should retreat without a plan,” Bessner adds. “The United States is simply not going to fight World War III over Taiwan. My goal would be to foster a security transition where the United States helps regional allies like South Korea and Japan to achieve capabilities that allow them to defend themselves from Chinese expansionism. My major philosophical point is that the countries and states [in the region] have a better sense of what’s going on and have much bigger capabilities to decide what to do than the United States.”

Yet foreign policy analysts closer to the China hawks reject the notion that the United States could offload responsibilities to South Korea or Japan. Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution asks whether Japan going nuclear or becoming more nationalistic would really be a positive development. He argues that an American withdrawal from the region, however calibrated and gradual, will be destabilizing.

But even if we accept the argument that it’s in the United States’ best interests to remain an Asian power indefinitely, such a decision only underscores how limited China’s ambitions are. Its attempt to carve out a sphere of influence in Asia is perfectly normal great-power behavior, especially in light of its size and its history in the region. Far from being the Frankenstein monster of Nixon’s imagination or the would-be world dictator feared by the hawks, China is an ordinary great power. The question remains why so many policy-makers want to inflate it as a threat.

A rising China is the convenient foil needed by the American elite to hold its own increasingly divided nation together. In retrospect, World War II and the Cold War were powerful structuring experiences that helped subsume national divisions. Since the end of the Cold War, the American consensus has been fraying, with the brief exception of a few years after 9/11. Increased political polarization has in turn led to gridlock.

China hawks often talk about how the Chinese government sees America as a nation in crisis. As Campbell and Ratner note in their Foreign Affairs article, “This strategic distraction has given China the opportunity to press its advantages, further motivated by the increasingly prominent view in China that the United States (along with the West more broadly) is in inexorable and rapid decline. Chinese officials see a United States that has been hobbled for years by the global financial crisis, its costly war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and deepening dysfunction in Washington.”

It’s possible that the China hawks share this bleak assessment of American prospects but hope a new Cold War with China might help reverse the decline. Bessner says, “I see the turn to China as a result of the failure [of the] Global War on Terror to actually construct an enemy appreciably existential enough to justify the continuation of all these structures. China is the existential threat du jour.”

In the September/October 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, Campbell and Sullivan fantasize about a “Sputnik moment”:

The notion of a new “Sputnik moment”—one that galvanizes public research as powerfully as seeing the Soviet Union launch the world’s first satellite did—may be overstating the point, but government does have a role to play in advancing [US] economic and technological leadership. Yet the United States has turned away from precisely the kinds of ambitious public investments it made during that period—such as the Interstate Highway System championed by President Dwight Eisenhower and the basic research initiatives pushed by the scientist Vannevar Bush—even as it faces a more challenging economic competitor. Washington must dramatically increase funds for basic science research and invest in clean energy, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and computing power. At the same time, the federal government should scale up its investments in education at all levels and in infrastructure, and it should adopt immigration policies that continue to enhance the United States’ demographic and skills advantage. Calling for a tougher line on China while starving public investments is self-defeating; describing these investments as “socialist,” given the competition, is especially ironic. Indeed, such strange ideological bedfellows as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, are making a convincing case for a new U.S. industrial policy.

This is perhaps the final and most powerful temptation of the China hawks, a dream that even some progressives might fall prey to: that China can serve as the convenient enemy America needs, a foe serious enough to rally the nation. Gridlock in Washington would end, opening the way for much-needed spending on infrastructure and education. As in the Cold War, battles over culture would be subsumed under the imperatives of national unity.

This fantasy, of course, is based on a rosy depiction of Cold War America. Just as the original Cold War ushered in McCarthyism and Cointelpro, it’s not hard to imagine a new Cold War fueling its own instances of horrific xenophobia—some of which we’ve already seen in the scapegoating of Asian Americans during the pandemic.

If the more militarized forms of China hawkishness can and should be rejected, that still leaves genuine areas of dispute. The draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong and China’s ruthless suppression of its Uighur population are among the major human rights crimes of our time. As Jessica Chen Weiss notes, these are areas where, “unfortunately, the US and other external actors have relatively little leverage. I think you’ll see a prospective Biden administration doing more to draw attention to these concerns, but hopefully without leading to the same kinds of veiled or not-so-veiled calls for regime change in China.”

Tobita Chow, the director of Justice Is Global, worries that “very valid concerns around human rights are being weaponized by the national security hawks and turned into a rationale for this new Cold War style of politics.” Under Trump, Hong Kong became the “site of a proxy struggle,” with the United States using it “to build anti-China nationalism” and President Xi Jinping using it “to build anti-Western nationalism.”

“These two things are mirror images of each other,” he adds, arguing that an aggressive stance on China will only polarize the relationship in a way that supports the reactionary forces on both sides.

There are alternatives to this embrace of conflict. Chow cites the example of Sanders, who “took very clear stances against the Cold War style of politics with China, Russia, and Iran,” instead emphasizing “the need for international cooperation around climate change.” And apart from climate change, a host of other issues, ranging from pandemics to nuclear proliferation, require the two largest economies on Earth to work together much more closely than ever before.

Cooperation and competition define the two poles of the Democratic policy debates over China. If doves like Chow worry that cooperation on climate change will be sacrificed by hawks making cynical use of human rights, the hawks worry that human rights will be sacrificed in a futile search for cooperation.

Tarun Chhabra, former director for strategic planning on the National Security Council and a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, is a leading advocate for prioritizing human rights.

“Human rights cannot be ‘put aside,’ as Beijing recently proposed, or otherwise compartmented in the US-China relationship,” Chhabra insists. “The deepening horror of Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang, the betrayal of its commitments in Hong Kong, and the development and export of the surveillance state will drive the US-China relationship as well as [fuel] China’s plummeting relations with the broader free world. It is also galvanizing cooperation among democracies on issues from trade to security to technology. And it will, and should, circumscribe a broad array of interaction and cooperation with China, in ways that many on both sides may not yet have come to terms with.”

Coming from different ends of the spectrum, Chow and Chhabra share the underlying assumption that cooperation and competition are an either/or choice. However, there’s a third path that, instead of treating China policy as a holistic entity requiring a single approach, sees a range of issues that can be separated. This was Obama’s approach, which combined a military pivot meant to restrict China’s rise in Asia with negotiations on climate change that paid off with the Paris Agreement.

The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright is a leading proponent of the idea that cooperation and competition can be combined. Best described as a moderate hawk, he argues that selective economic decoupling would allow China and the United States to more cautiously engage each other.

Decoupling is often seen as a policy advocated by protectionists like Trump. But in the age of Covid-19, decoupling—or disconnecting supply chains, especially for pharmaceuticals and medical equipment—is simply prudent policy. Rather than concentrate industries in one country, there is a sound rationale for distributing production more evenly around the world so that supply chain bottlenecks don’t form.

With decoupling, Wright thinks, the United States could work “cooperatively and in a coordinated way with China,” based on the recognition that “interdependencies produce vulnerabilities” and that both sides need to “strategically disentangle.” Such a policy would be “rooted in accepting the reality that there are these differences.” The end result would be “equilibrium” or “like détente.” In the future, he adds, “one could imagine a sort of point where the two systems are engaged, but maybe less so than currently and [with a] better sense of the red lines on both sides. Each side is a little bit more independent of the other.”

The precise mixture of competition and cooperation depends on China also agreeing to compartmentalize its relationship. But what if one side demands a trade-off? What would happen if the Chinese government says, “We really want to cooperate on the pandemic—but if you pass this sanction on Xinjiang, then all bets are off”? Wright acknowledges, “That’s a big dilemma…. My answer is, ‘These are things we’re going to proceed on regardless, [things] we feel really strongly about. If you want to hold that in jeopardy, then we’ll proceed with others and hope you come back, because it’s in your interest to do so. But we’re not going to sit down and talk to trade off one against the other.’”

Wright’s idea of selective cooperation offers a useful model for how progressive foreign policy advocates could handle the China hawks. There’s no need for progressives to sanction everything Biden’s hawkish team does, and there’s plenty of room to criticize them on threat inflation. But on selective areas like human rights, environmental protections, and labor rights, progressives should take advantage of the fact that they’ll have willing partners in the White House.

The most important role progressives can play is to continue offering a realistic view of China, in contrast to the myths that dominate the national security establishment. China was never going to be the mimic of America that neoliberals dreamed of, but neither is it a Frankenstein monster out to rule the world. Rather, China is a great power with a range of ambitions and flaws. If progressives can keep emphasizing these facts, then the path will remain open for an American foreign policy grounded in reality.