Interviews | East Asia

The Biden Administration’s China Strategy

Insights from Raymond Kuo.

The Biden Administration’s China Strategy
Credit: Official White House photo

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Raymond Kuo – Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of “Following the Leader” (2021) and “Contests of Initiative” (2021) – is the 324th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Analyze the Biden administration’s new China strategy core pillars of “invest, align, and compete.”

The strategy is overdue and patchy, but nevertheless a good start to a cohesive U.S. strategy toward China. It centers whole-of-nation competition with China but recognizes that there are still some issues upon which Washington and Beijing can cooperate (e.g., climate change, COVID-19). It also clarifies the overall policy goal: outcompeting China and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Secretary Blinken also made clear that the U.S. is not interested in regime change in Beijing, which is helpful.

The “align” pillar is the most well-supported. Particularly compared to the previous administration, the Biden administration has done an effective job of galvanizing international cooperation and momentum against China’s threats to regional security. More still needs to be done, especially in getting Asian partners to increase their military preparations and capabilities. Also, as I’ll discuss later on, Asian countries view American economic engagement as a critical indication of Washington’s commitment to the region. The U.S. withdraw from the TPP hurt American credibility, and I’m not sure IPEF is enough to make up for that.

My biggest concern is whether the Biden administration can commit the resources to fulfill this strategy. The U.S. has been pivoting to Asia since at least the George W. Bush administration. It’s actually happening this time, at least rhetorically. But Washington still needs to devote more funding and personnel, not just to the military, but also to the U.S.’ diplomatic, aid, and investment arms.

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There’s a danger of believing that the U.S. can compete with China on the cheap, that success does not require sometimes painful political and economic adjustment, in addition to military outlays. That’s simply not the case. The USSR never reached 60 percent of U.S. GDP. China has already surpassed that mark. In particular, the U.S. has a lot of rebuilding to do at home. Blinken highlighted innovation, democracy, and human capital among the strengths that the U.S. can and will draw upon in its competition with China. But all of those are eroding, and the U.S. needs a coherent and ambitious domestic strategy to bolster these elements and develop the necessary resources to outcompete Beijing.

How does this new strategy reflect U.S. foreign policy priorities?

The strategy shares some similarities with integrated deterrence, in that the U.S. is attempting to draw together its broad panoply of capabilities into a cohesive strategy for great power competition. Like much of U.S. foreign policy, the “invest, align, and compete” approach does not sufficiently emphasize or detail the non-military engagement that Asian states are often interested in. But it draws the various regional policy initiatives the U.S. has embarked upon under a clearly articulated statement of principles.

Examine how the White House’s recently launched “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” (IPEF) advances its new China strategy.

I’m glad the U.S. is engaging on international economic policy once again, but there’s still a long way to go. Trump was a disaster on trade issues, hitting allies with tariffs even while simultaneously seeking their help against China. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has maintained many of its predecessor’s tariffs, despite the improvements to critical relationships that undoing them would produce.

Support for free trade is actually at an all-time high among Americans. But this issue has also been swept into American political polarization, with “Does my side win?” considerations substantially influencing attitudes toward trade. This makes inking comprehensive trade agreements politically difficult.

IPEF is structured to avoid these issues. Senate approval is not necessary, since these are Executive Orders that don’t discuss access to the U.S. economy. However, especially among advanced economies, states typically sign trade agreements so their companies can gain access to new markets. That’s not going to happen with IPEF. Moreover, IPEF can be easily reversed if a trade-skeptic enters the White House. I expect the Biden administration hopes that trade benefits “lock in” agreement even after they leave. But as seen with other trade deals or even the Iran nuclear agreement, partisanship incentivizes breaking even extremely well-crafted agreements for domestic political gain.

The Biden administration is ultimately correct that the U.S. should push for “high quality” trade agreements. But the U.S. had that with the TPP, and even joining its new form (i.e., the CPTPP) would entail greater economic engagement than IPEF.

Explain China’s “Global Security Initiative” and implications for U.S.-China rivalry.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the GSI in April, framing it as a counterpart to the Global Development Initiative. The speech itself didn’t offer much of substance. It was mostly the same message of win-win, global cooperation, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that we often see from Chinese foreign policy pronouncements. There was also the standard opposition to a Cold War mentality (i.e., U.S. efforts to contain China) and desire to lead Asian states to a common security future, but not necessarily reinforced or embedded within binding institutions.

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Moreover, Xi and others have highlighted what we could call collective goods challenges in their discussions of the GSI: COVID-19, economic recovery, some environmental issues. These are low-hanging fruit. States largely have aligned interests on these issues, and China can unlock mutual gains relatively easily by coordinating among governments or providing those goods directly.

But the GSI says nothing about the more challenging problems where China and its neighbors have conflicting interests. If win-win isn’t possible, does China prioritize its own interests or take its neighbors’ interests into consideration? For example, would Beijing be willing to submit rival maritime territorial claims to UNCLOS arbitration? Or establish a military code of conduct and information-sharing procedures among regional states? Can it commit to delinking trade from political disputes?

Beijing has had a spotty record on all of these issues. In part, that reflects a general tendency within Chinese foreign policy to favor bilateral discussions on security issues over multilateral deliberations within highly institutionalized settings. But this is a liability in this instance, since China could definitely benefit from stronger commitment mechanisms to bolster its credibility, as well as regularized policy coordination fora to understand and consistently manage security disputes.

In that sense, the U.S. has a strong advantage that the GSI does little to offset. Its network of alliances and other security ties directly grapple with these hard tradeoffs. Even countries like Vietnam are seeking closer ties with the U.S. in response to coercive Chinese activities. Washington has been successful in using security bodies to institutionalize this regional momentum and broaden political and military discussions.

Assess the risks and rewards of the new China strategy for U.S. Indo-Pacific allies.

I’m not that worried about the GSI somehow displacing the U.S. alliance and security network or even directly undermining U.S. partners, for the reasons I articulated earlier. The GSI doesn’t commit China to any concrete security actions, nor even deeper policy alignment and discussions on difficult military and political problems.

It may serve to bolster goodwill among, say, African or Latin American countries that are keen to engage on COVID-19 or economic challenges. But there’s little reason to securitize this cooperation, especially when China has other vehicles that achieve the same objectives, like the BRI. I’m skeptical that Beijing could translate this engagement into actual military or security coordination, particularly since the PLA has limited power projection capabilities, especially beyond Asia.