The Biden administration is coming to power amid acute partisan divisions and massive immediate challenges posed by the pandemic and economic instability and longer term concerns including climate change. This fraught situation provides the context as the new U.S. government deliberates over China policy.
On the one hand, the Trump government leaves a legacy of strong American countermeasures against Chinese challenges that will be hard to reverse, especially because the U.S. Congress continues bipartisan support for such measures and outgoing President Donald Trump seems determined to remain a force in American politics. On the other hand, there are reasons to judge that the Biden government’s approach to China will not worsen relations with China and may lead to some improvement, even if China sticks to its current position offering no concessions to the United States.
To start, the administration will remain preoccupied with other matters; it will have little incentive to worsen relations with China. Its main measure to deal with China involves close consultations with allies to build a united front against negative Chinese practices; such consultations seem likely to take some weeks and months to reach meaningful results. And since few of the allies and partners share the more extreme Trump administration views of danger coming from China, such consultations, if successful, seem likely to result in a less truculent U.S. stance toward China’s challenges going forward.
Meanwhile, several Biden government preoccupations, notably climate change, pandemic response, and economic revival, prompt administration leaders to consider cooperation with China despite major differences. And, notably, few of the senior officials nominated by the administration are identified with the so-called China hawks present within the Biden camp. Most, like incoming President Joe Biden, have a recent history of nuance in dealing with China and notably do not express the sense of urgency about countering Chinese practices that has prevailed in Trump administration-congressional discourse about the danger posed by China over the past three years. Close observers are well aware that Biden and the other Democratic presidential candidates came very late to giving high priority to countering China. Those candidates seemed in line with U.S. public opinion, which also did not turn substantially against China until mid-2020. And subsequent polling shows Democratic voters are much more moderate than Republican voters in dealing with China’s challenges.
Against this background, there is broad media attention focused on Republicans in Congress warning that they will jump on any China policy changes showing the Biden administration is soft on China. This is likely correct but it seems to be only part of the story.
The other part of the story is the ongoing work of a wide range of congressional members carried out over the past three years in trying to come up with strategies to deal with what they see as China’s challenges and dangers. In 2020, these efforts involved bipartisan labors such as the House Intelligence Committee’s report proposing much greater China-focused emphasis in US intelligence efforts; the 2021 defense authorization act’s provisions on the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the defense bill’s incorporation of provisions of the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors in America Act, the so-called CHIPS bill, and other China matters; as well as China-related provisions in the omnibus spending bill.
Meanwhile, the House Republican task force on China seemed to try to be bipartisan in its detailed 2020 report with numerous recommendations. It remains unclear if partisan or other calculations resulted in House Democrats ultimately not joining this effort. On the Senate side, partisan calculations may have been behind the separate trajectories of the so called STRATEGIC Act introduced in July and the America LEADS Act in September, but both focused on detailed proposals to strengthen the United States’ ability to face challenges from China.
The point here is that many in Congress have undertaken serious efforts over the past three years in discerning effective ways to deal with China challenges and they often are cooperating in bipartisan ways. Given prevailing partisanship in Washington, some in Congress no doubt will attack Biden administration China policy for those reasons, but many others are prepared to work in bipartisan ways to deal with China in the national interest.
The Biden administration repeatedly highlights that effective American countermeasures to Chinese challenges require close consultations with allies and partners seeking unified positions. It seems even more important that the administration work with both sides of the aisle in Congress in endeavoring to create and sustain greater domestic unity about China policy. Given Biden’s extensive congressional experience, one suspects that such consultation may be well underway, but it is rarely mentioned publicly, in contrast to the emphasis on considering foreign sensibilities.
For starters, some public mention of the administration’s consultations with Congress would help build an appreciation that the administration is taking seriously congressional concerns. It would validate the hard work that many in Congress have devoted, even in an election year, to crafting effective ways to defend American interests. On the congressional side it is important to remember that effective consultations are two-way endeavors; congressional members and staff need to signal their openness to such interchange, and if deemed advisable, set ground rules for the interactions that are agreeable to both sides, and stick with those guidelines.
In sum, a major clash between the incoming administration and Congress over China policy is not inevitable. With mutual respect and effective outreach and consultations, there appears to be plenty of common ground in seeking greater unity in the U.S. government’s approach to the many substantial challenges China poses.
Robert Sutter is professor of practice of international affairs at George Washington University.