If those concerned about the increased tensions between the U.S. and China are expecting that Joe Biden, if elected, will hit a reset button, they are likely to be disappointed. First of all, he will inherit a domestic mess of unprecedented dimensions, sure to command much of his attention. He is likely to recall the strategic mistake former President Barack Obama made by spending his political capital on pushing through a health care reform, when the nation was reeling from a major economic recession. This time, the economic crisis is even more severe, and Americans continue to die in large numbers because there is no national strategy in place to curb the pandemic. Moreover, the political pressures on Biden from the left, highlighted by demonstrations, do not concern foreign policy but social injustice at home.
The views Biden has expressed so far about China suggest that, far from choosing to confront the increasing anti-China sentiments in the U.S., he seems to share the prevailing public view.
He is critical of China’s human rights record:
- With regard to China’s repressive regime over Hong Kong, he stated that “Beijing’s new national security law – enacted in secret and sweeping in scope – is already dealing a death blow to the freedoms and autonomy that set Hong Kong apart from the rest of China.”
- He vowed to “prohibit U.S. companies from abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.” He also promised to “impose swift economic sanctions” in the event that Beijing “tries to silence U.S. citizens, companies, and institutions for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
- He pledged to “take stronger steps to prevent imports from [the] forced labor” of the estimate one million Muslims confined by the Chinese government in camps in Xinjiang.
Biden’s strongly critical view of China is not limited to human rights:
- “The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs. “If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.”
Biden parts with Trump not by calling for a major attempt to re-engage China in a drive to make it a responsible stakeholder, but by arguing that we should confront it by forming alliances, which Trump abhors. To quote, “The most effective way to meet th[e] challenge [from China] is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security,”
In response, Tobita Chow, director of the Chicago-based Justice Is Global, noted: “We need U.S.-China cooperation to meet the urgent needs of Americans and humanity in general. Instead, what we still have is both parties trying to compete for the title of who is going to be tougher on China. I think that is counterproductive.”
Polls indicate that, while Americans are deeply divided on most issues, there is a surprisingly strong shared anti-China sentiment and a rising anti-China consensus. Biden thus both reflects and reinforces these shared feelings. The Pew Research Center recently found that 73 percent of adults in the U.S. view China unfavorably. The figure represents a dramatic 26-point increase since 2018. It is the most negative result that Pew has recorded in 15 years of measurement on this topic. Seventy-eight percent of Americans fault China’s early dealings in Wuhan for the subsequent worldwide spread of COVID-19.
Those who believe that sanctioning and criticizing China will lead it to change its domestic policies, that tariffs and quotas will lead to an improved trade balance, and that the U.S. must build an Indo-Pacific coalition to contain China, will find comfort in these statements by Biden. Those who, like your author, believe that external criticisms, however justified, will not prompt China to change its behavior at home; that China is seeking to increase its role in its sphere of influence, to ensure a flow of raw material on which it depends, but not to become a global hegemon or to replace the U.S.; and that much is to be gained from collaboration between the two superpowers – cannot but hope that once the election is over, Biden will reset his views about China.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Avoiding War with China and Reclaiming Patriotism, the latter of which is available for download without charge.