Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2021-05-12 10:37:12 Published on May 12, 2021
Unclear if Biden administration will go for ‘semi containment’ or selective engagement
China policy in the works

As of now all we have of the US-China policy are words, from President Biden, his aides like Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. In his first speech to the Congress at the end of last month, Biden talked tough on China, saying that Washington ‘would stand up to unfair trade practices, subsidies to state-owned enterprises and theft of US technology and intellectual property’. Adding that the US would maintain a strong military presence in the Indo Pacific ‘not to start a conflict, but to prevent one’. But the bottom line was that the competition with China was not only military, but also economic and technological.

Biden has repeatedly asserted that the real issue is US recovery and that the way to go is to outcompete China in a range of areas.

The message sent out by Blinken and Sullivan is that the goal of the US policy is not to contain China, and that Quad is about an ‘affirmative agenda’ which involves upholding international law and human rights, as well as promoting strategies of development and mitigating climate change.

The comprehensive review of a new US policy towards China is still being worked out, and it's not clear whether the Biden administration will follow Trump’s policy of selective containment, or craft a new one of selective engagement. The problem is that Biden must write on a palimpsest that is not exactly blank. The US-China tariff war, US sanctions on certain technology categories, Hong Kong developments, threats to Taiwan, eastern Ladakh faceoff, are realities that a US President cannot ignore. As it is, the mood in the US is very anti-China, and Biden has to worry about being outflanked on the issue by Trump who retains an iron grip on the Republican Party which will do its best to wrest away the House of Representatives from the Democrats in the off-year elections in November 2022.

Whatever be the political imperatives, the US has to consider the ongoing economic costs of Trump’s ‘semi containment of China’. In a recent article, former US diplomat Chas Freeman noted that the US farmers have lost most of their $24 billion Chinese market, US companies have had to cut profits and wages and raise prices for US consumers, and almost no jobs have been re-shored back to the US. By 2025, the US can expect job losses topping 3,20,000 and a GDP $1.6 trillion less than what it would have been otherwise because of its China restrictions.

Biden has repeatedly asserted that the real issue is US recovery and that the way to go is to outcompete China in a range of areas. Even the Interim Security Guidance issued by his administration notes that to be strong abroad, ‘the United States to build back better at home.’ Biden has unfolded a plan whereby this can be done, but so divided is the US polity that he is likely to face an uphill struggle in trying to get the Congress to appropriate the money needed to repair the decaying US infrastructure, raise federal spending in R&D and education.

The US travails are there for all to see. The grip of racism in its political culture is only matched by the obstinate refusal by significant sections of Americans to accept that in their society today there are people — minorities, women, the poor — who need a leg-up. In the present situation, as Freeman puts it, the US needs to show that it is ‘better governed, better educated, more egalitarian, more open, more innovative, healthier, and freer society’.

Biden is not seeking conflict abroad, leave alone with China. But the poison pills left behind by the Trump team are like landmines scattered around the landscape. For example, the use of the word ‘genocide’ for the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang. What is happening in Xinjiang is unacceptable and a gross violation of human rights, but it is not ‘genocide’ of the kind the Nazis conducted against the Jews. If Xi Jinping was actually presiding over such an act, how could the US, or for that matter the world community, have normal relations with China?

But the Democrats find themselves pushed by the Trump positions. Last year, the Democrats removed the phrase ‘one China’ from their election platform. And Biden became the first President, since the US recognised the People’s Republic of China, to invite the Taiwan ambassador to his inauguration. Last month, the US announced that it was easing restrictions on official US contacts with the Taiwan government. Not surprisingly, Chinese actions and rhetoric around Taiwan has become more belligerent. In his confirmation hearings in the US Senate, Admiral John Aquilino, the Biden administration’s nominee for the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, has said the danger of the Chinese use of force against Taiwan ‘is much closer to us than most think’. This cannot but have the most catastrophic consequences for China itself, and by extension, the rest of the world.

But Biden accurately sees the challenge of China as being economic and technological. Militarily, actually, the US remains far superior to China, which today accounts for 30% of the world’s manufactures, and has become the largest consumer market. American, or for that matter Japanese and European prosperity, depend, in some measure, on stable ties with China. For that reason, Biden would much prefer a strategy of selective engagement. One that will seek to build the strongest possible coalition of friends and allies to push Beijing in the right direction.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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