Joe Biden’s approach to China

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 29th of December, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: China.

The Trump administration made confronting China one of its top foreign-policy priorities, and for good reason: For eight decades, the United States was the world’s dominant economic power. But China is catching up.

EICHER: As Beijing’s power grows, so does its reach. And the Trump administration had responded with a direct and firm approach: exposing Chinese espionage and targeting its tech giants, among other measures.

But many are wondering whether the new administration set to take over in January will take a different approach. WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson reports.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: For decades, the U.S. approach to China centered around engagement. But playing nice with China did nothing to curb Beijing’s dangerous ambitions. Then the Trump administration took office.

POMPEO: We see the Chinese communist party also for what it is: The central threat of our times. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was part of a team that initiated a strategic foreign policy shift from the Middle East to Asia. It exposed Chinese espionage, sanctioned officials involved in human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority, and targeted Chinese tech companies. The Trump administration also levied tariffs on Chinese goods in an effort to stop what it called unfair trade practices.

Joseph Bosco was the China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and is on the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. He has been concerned about China’s ambitions for 20 years and applauded the Trump administration’s new approach.

BOSCO: I would give them a grade of “A.”  In my lifetime, there’s never been an administration that has been willing to take on the China threat the way the Trump administration has.  Now that doesn’t mean I agree with everything the president himself has said and tweeted.

Bosco says he’s cautiously pessimistic about what the Biden administration might do in 2021.

BOSCO: At most I would predict we’re going to see a C to C minus performance by the Biden administration, potentially worse, but also potentially much better. 

Some have questioned President-elect Joe Biden’s clarity on the China threat based on statements like this one from 2019:

BIDEN: China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.

But during the February Democratic Party debate, Biden took a much firmer stance on Chinese President Xi Jinping:

BIDEN: This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic with a small “d” bone in his body. This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in reconstruction camps, meaning concentration camps.

Zack Cooper analyzes U.S.-China competition for the American Enterprise Institute. He says it’s unclear at this point which way the new administration will lean. But he’s optimistic about Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state. And Jake Sullivan, the pick for national security adviser.

COOPER: You’ve got Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken who have a lot of experience handling Asia policy and have thought a lot about China as well, and tend to take a pretty tough line.

But on the other hand…

COOPER: Then you’ve got the secretary of defense nominee,  Loyd Austin who has really no Asia experience. Uhm, And then you’ve got a couple of folks at the White House who are not technically handling foreign policy issues but are going to I think be important in the debate. So one is Susan Rice who is now going to be the domestic policy council head but she was the national security advisor under Obama. And then of course John Kerry who was the Secretary of State under Obama and is now going to be this climate change czar.

Cooper says both Kerry and Rice shouldn’t be involved in China policy, but it’s pretty clear to a lot of people that they will be. Both have advocated in the past for engagement with the Chinese.

Domestic challenges will likely be top priority for the incoming Biden team: COVID-19 and the economic crisis. But Bosco says he’s watching for whether or not Biden accepts a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president. China considers Taiwan part of its territory, so any recognition of Taipei’s independent government ruffles feathers in Beijing.

If Biden takes that call, Bosco says that could be an indicator of what’s to come.

BOSCO: One remarkable thing President-elect Trump did is accept a congratulatory phone call from president Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. This shocked the foreign policy establishment. “My heavens, what are you doing talking with that person? We don’t recognize that country. China will be offended.” And Trump’s response was, “I think I can talk to anyone I choose to.”

And one way Zack Cooper says the Biden administration could do even better than its predecessor is to create a united front to push back on Chinese aggression.

COOPER: I think this is one difference between the Biden team and the Trump team is the Biden team is going to talk a lot about alliances and trying to tighten those alliances and I think that in general is the right approach.

This is one reason why he avoids the term “great power competition.”

COOPER: When you go to your friends who might not be great powers, and say the U.S. is in a great power competition with China, what they take away from that is that they don’t really have a big role to play in that competition.

And that is far from the truth. With Beijing claiming nearly all of the South China Sea and building up its military might, Joseph Bosco says it will take more than a strong U.S. response to deal with the growing threat. 

BOSCO: I think many people around the world, not just in the United States, are awakening to the danger and starting to think about coming together as an international community to cope with it. So that’s grounds for hope.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Andy Wong, File) In this Sept. 16, 2018, file photo, American flags are displayed together with Chinese flags on top of a trishaw in Beijing. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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