President-elect Joe Biden will take office in less than three weeks, with much on his plate. Among his most daunting challenges will be to lay the foundation for decades of peaceful, constructive relations between the United States and China — on terms favorable to the U.S. and partner nations, and ultimately for China and the global community. Getting there will require bounding, and sustainably balancing, Beijing’s growing power. If the United States and its partners fail on that score, a future of Chinese hegemony could well lie ahead.
Architecting a preferable future will depend on Biden leading and negotiating with urgency in three interdependent contexts: at home, with partner governments, and with Beijing. Outgoing President Donald Trump rightly sounded the alarm about the challenge presented by Chinese power, but on balance he impaired the United States’ capacity to respond effectively to it. As Trump leaves, Biden will inherit an American polity still more divided and dysfunctional than the one that elected Trump in 2016; tattered relations with capable European allies; and, in Beijing, a rival on heightened alert, its confidence bolstered by a quick rebound from COVID-19 and the Trump trade war.
Biden must lead the United States to become a better, stronger, and more united version of itself if it is to meet the challenge that China’s rise presents. He will have to reach a meeting of minds about China with more partner nations — for whom, generally, China offers compelling value propositions along with the anxieties its power provokes. And he’ll want to persuade a skeptical Beijing that his administration’s China-focused activities reflect respect, not animosity, and could be the pathway to an agreeable modus vivendi.
Below are six suggested imperatives for China policy, respectfully submitted.
1. Avert Failed Statehood.
This goes well beyond China policy, of course; but is absolutely foundational to any serious policy undertaking. Trump has badly damaged the foundations of U.S. democracy. He has scarred the culture by relentlessly devaluing facts, truth, and science. Faced with the pandemic emergency, he sided with libertarian individualism instead of calling for patriotic sacrifice for the common good. He deepened racial divides with frequent nods to white nationalism. Biden will need to lead the country out of this wreckage. He must repair its domestic foundation by restoring belief in truth and objective reality and by bringing Americans together, as family-with-differences but not enemies.
All this is more easily said than done. But decency and bridging difference play to Biden’s core strengths. He’ll need to persuade Americans that the United States has no choice but to become the best, most unified version of itself. Without greater national unity and a recommitment to truth and objective reality, the U.S. won’t merely lose the competition with China; it will likely default to merely muddling along, as a bizarre hybrid of superpower and failed state.
2. Don’t Subordinate China Policy to Climate Change.
It’s refreshing to again have a president who cares about climate change and will prioritize it. But wanting this too desperately will transfer too much leverage to Beijing, which, in entertaining the White House’s demands on climate, will seek concessions on other issues central to the Sino-American rivalry. While issue linkage is entirely appropriate in negotiation — and sometimes the opportunity for significant value creation that is otherwise unavailable — the White House should be steadfast in keeping global commons issues like climate change as separate as possible from negotiation in the bilateral rivalry domain. Neither of these vital policy agendas should be sacrificed for the other.
3. Prioritize Building a Sustainable, Favorable Balance of Power Via Coalition — More So Than Setting New Rules of International Order.
The key challenge that China presents to the United States and its partners is its growing economic, technological, and military power. It behooves the U.S. to balance this power — by some margin, if it can — in each of these domains. And to do so via coalition, as more and more commentators have begun to agree, and as the Trump administration pursued in limited contexts. There should be an element of containment to this — e.g. regarding the potential use of Chinese military force for territorial expansion, or the spreading critical technology infrastructure that would jeopardize national security. But this can be — and should be — containment without enmity, and without any delegitimation of the Chinese government.
4. Focus, Via Coalition, on What’s Decisively Important.
The most critical objective to achieve via coalition is to balance — with a margin of safety — Chinese power, sustainably over time. There are many other important, coalition-relevant issues, but they’re narrower, and less consequential, than getting to and maintaining a favorable power balance. A case in point is the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the European Union and China, finalized just last week. Washington would understandably prefer that the EU had moved to close with China on the CAI’s outstanding issues only after achieving broad policy alignment among the U.S. and key European allies. But an EU-China deal, on issues of market access reciprocity and equal treatment within China for European businesses, shouldn’t preclude a meeting of minds between U.S. and key European capitals on the issues that speak most directly to the relative power balance with China.
5. Revert to the Respectful Tone Toward Beijing That It Has Earned by Performance.
Leave behind the Trumpian rhetoric of China “raping” the U.S., and, frankly, some of Biden’s own campaign rhetoric. (if Xi Jinping is a “thug” for his government’s abuses, what are the implications for the many U.S. presidents who presided over slavery or Jim Crow, or the wartime internment of a racial minority, or Trump for any number of things?) Respectful interactions won’t create the desired meeting of minds between Washington and Beijing, but incendiary, disrespectful rhetoric can block what may otherwise have been possible.
6. Remember That the Goal Is Ultimately a Negotiated, Favorable Modus Vivendi Between China and the U.S. and Its Partners.
That’s predicated on each side recognizing that “winning” decisively isn’t possible. Because Beijing has reason to believe the trajectories of power likely favor it, not Washington, it’s essential that the U.S. first put the power balance sustainably in its favor — by revitalizing itself at home, and by coalition with capable, contributing partners. That said, the U.S. should be clear throughout that the end game is one where China — while denied hegemony in Asia and globally, as a matter of core U.S. policy — would be peacefully accepted as a superpower. Could China accept this endgame? It would fall far short of the ideal. But a glass half full view would be that this limited containment effort would make room for China’s almost certainly developing, over time, the world’s biggest economy, perhaps by a large margin, along with very healthy market share in many of the most technologically advanced industries — though short of Made in China 2025’s aspiration to dominance.
With these recommendations in mind, may 2021 be a year of progress toward a stable, peaceful superpower relationship.
Andy Zelleke, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.