Apparent President-elect Biden so far is sending a message about his China policy that’s unmistakably bad news for any American believing that the People’s Republic is a major threat to the nation’s security and prosperity – which should be every American. The message: “I’d rather not think about it much.”
In some limited senses, and for the very near future, the impact could be positive. Principally, although he blasted President Trump’s steep, sweeping tariffs on imports from China as disastrously counter-productive for the entire U.S. economy – consumers and producers alike – he’s stated that he won’t lift them right away. Presumably, he’ll also hesitate to remove the various Trump sanctions that have so gravely damaged the tech entities whose activities bolster China’s military strength and foreign espionage capabilities, along with new Trump administration restrictions on these Chinese entities’ ability to list on U.S. stock exchanges.
Looking further down the road, however, if personnel, as widely believed, is indeed policy, Biden’s choices for Cabinet officials and other senior aides to date strongly indicate that his views on the subject haven’t changed much from this past May, when he ridiculed the idea that China not only is going to “eat our lunch,” but represented any kind of serious competitor at all. In fact, in two ways, his choices suggest that his take on China remains the same as that which produced a long record of China coddling.
First, none of his top economic or foreign policy picks boasts any significant China-related experience – or even much interest in China. Like Biden himself, Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken is an indiscriminate worshipper of U.S. security alliances who views China’s rise overwhelmingly as a development that has tragically and even dangerously given Mr. Trump and other America Firsters an excuse to weaken these arrangements by making allies’ China positions an acid test of their value. In addition, he’s pushed the red herring that the Trump policies amount to a foolhardy, unrealistic attempt at complete decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies.
As for the apparently incoming White House national security adviser, Jake J. Sullivan – who served as Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser during his Vice Presidential years – he shares the same alliances-uber-alles perspective on China as Biden and Blinken, and is on record as late as 2017 as criticizing the Trump administration for “failing to strike a middle course” on China – “one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order.” I’m still waiting for someone to ask Sullivan why he believes that mission evidently remained unacccomplished after the Obama administration had eight years to try carrying it out.
On the defense policy front, Biden has chosen to head the Pentagon former General Lloyd Austin whose main top-level experience was in fighting Jihadist terrorists in the Middle East, not dealing with a near-superpower like China. That’s no doubt why Biden failed even to mention China when introducing Austin and listing the issues on which he’d need to focus – an omission worrisomely noted by the U.S. Asia allies the apparent President-elect is counting on to help America cope more effectively with whatever problems he thinks China does pose.
As for the Biden economic picks, Treasury Secretary and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has expressed little interest in China or trade policy more broadly during her long career in public service. (See here for a description of some of her relatively few remarks on the subject.) His choice to head the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, has been working for the Wall Street investment giant, BlackRock, Inc. – which like most of its peers has long hoped to win Beijing’s permission to compete for a slice of the potentially huge China financial services market. But his focus seems to have been environmentally sustainable investments, and his own Obama administration experience centered on climate change.
One theoretical exception is Katherine Tai, evidently slated to become Biden’s U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). Both as a former lawyer at the trade agency and in her current position as a senior staff member at the House Ways and Means Committee, she boasts vast China experience.
But history teaches clearly that the big American trade policy decisions, like handling China, are almost never made at the USTR level. Mr. Trump’s trade envoy, Robert Lighthizer, was a major exception, and his prominence stemmed from the President’s unfamiliarity as an outsider with the specific policy levers that have needed to be pulled to engineer the big China trade and broader economic policy turnaround sought by Mr. Trump. So expect Tai to be a foot soldier, nothing more.
The cumulative effect of this China vacuum at the top of the likely incoming administration creates the second way in which Biden’s seems to reflect a lack of urgency on the subject: It signals that there will be no China point person in his administration. It’s true that reports have appeared that the apparent President-elect will appoint an Asia policy czar. But more than a week after they’ve been posted, nothing further has been heard.
All of which suggests that, by default, China policy will be made by the alliance festishers Blinken and Sullivan. And if their stated multilateralist impulses do indeed dominate, the result will be basically a U.S. China policy outsourced to Brussels (headquarters of the European Union), and the capitals of Asia. As I’ve written previously, many of these allies have profited greatly from the pre-Trump U.S. and global China trade policy status quo, and their leaders are hoping for a return to this type of world as soon as possible. And it’s no coincidence that’s the kind of world Joe Biden was happy to help preside over during his last White House job.