“Many Chinese in the Obama era viewed American power as an empty throne. In its place, they now see a mad king fronting for a hostile American empire,” China analyst Richard McGregor wrote in 2019.
Difficult, indeed, to blame anyone who might think that the American imperium was headed by someone who was not quite the “stable genius” that he claims to be.
This was a rogue president, many felt, who dangerously upped the ante in obstructing China’s rise. It was under him that newspapers began running headlines such as “Mike Pence Announces Cold War II.”
No other president would, seemingly randomly and obsessively, just tweet “CHINA!” And it takes a special state of mind to simultaneously declare a deep friendship with Xi Jinping, while slapping on round after round of tariffs.
East Asia had for decades depended on both the generosity and might of successive American presidents.
The United States has served as the key offshore balancer in East Asia, maintaining a stable power structure that created an environment of peace and prosperity. The occupation of the American throne by an iconoclast unhesitant to blow up old norms was a shock to the system.
Now that throne is due to be contested once again.
Some hope that victory by the Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who is currently leading in the polls, would represent a restoration of a more harmonious relationship between the two great powers. Yet this increasingly seems like wishful thinking. While Biden looks to repudiate much of Trump’s domestic platform, China policy is one area where the former vice president is more likely than not to echo his successor.
For much of his career, Biden believed in Chinese engagement; he supported granting Most Favored Nation trading status to China, for instance. In the early stages of campaigning last year, Biden was still dismissive of the idea that China is a threat. To voters, he said “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man! … They’re not competition for us.”
Times have changed, however, and far from becoming an aged politician set in his views, the consummate politician has now re-aligned himself. In a polarized nation with few areas of common ground, a bipartisan consensus has emerged around the need for a tougher line on China, a stance Biden has been quick to shift towards.
On the debate stage, Biden described Xi, who he previously called a friend in 2016, as a “thug.” But this goes beyond personality: Biden now sees this conflict in ideological terms. He has called for an international front to combat China’s “high-tech authoritarianism.” He also pledged that in the first year of his term, he will host a global “Summit for Democracy” intended to galvanize the defense against democratic backsliding. There, his campaign’s platform notes, Biden hopes to make technology companies make concrete pledges on how to ensure their platforms do not “facilitate repression in China.”
The former vice president’s glance has extended to the Chinese periphery itself. On Hong Kong: his campaign stated that Biden would fully enforce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. On Xinjiang: Biden accused Trump of ignoring human rights abuses. And on Taiwan: the former vice president tweeted twice to congratulate Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen both on her re-election and the start of her term.
Biden has also been keen to pressure China on trade and economic issues. Trump’s Phase 1 trade agreement with China in January was blasted by Biden, for example, as he said that it did not “resolve the real issues at the heart of the dispute, including industrial subsidies, support for state-owned enterprises, cyber theft and other predatory practices.”
Certainly, a Biden administration will in many ways ease diplomatic life for many Asian nations. An Asia Times report discussed how foreign ministry officials in Vietnam, for example, look forward to the end of daily changes to US foreign policy, and American diplomats yearn for better leadership at the State Department.
Indeed, multilateralism will also be prioritized again and the perception of Trumpian America as an unreliable ally at best will be dispatched. Beijing will no longer find it anywhere near as easy to sow discord in America’s alliance system. And on global issues, Biden has made clear his commitment to international cooperation even with China over common areas of interest such as climate change.
But a more rational and effective execution of a new Cold War does little more than paper over its main contours of intensified hostility. Trump’s second season of what increasingly looks like a containment policy will continue production under Biden. And the jury is still out on whether or not this is something to cheer as Asian allies of the United States are put in an increasingly difficult position.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore summarized the strategic dilemma succinctly in a piece for Foreign Affairs. “Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interests in the region. At the same time, China is a reality on the doorstep,” Lee wrote. “Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two.” Forcing such a choice, he warned, would “begin a course of confrontation that will last decades and put the long-heralded Asian century in jeopardy.”
Take Thailand, for example. Thailand has tried to walk a fine line: deepening security and economic ties with China while paying at least lip service to its ally, the United States. But how tenable is this form of hedging?
“If you want to be friends with other countries, with China, that’s fine,” US ambassador Michael DeSombre said in an interview. “But we view ourselves as a better friend and will continue to demonstrate that particularly here in Thailand.”
Sweet words, to be sure, but if the trend of increased superpower tension continues, for how much longer will it be “fine” to be friends with China?
If Biden hosts a global Summit for Democracy, does Thailand, nominally a democratic country, send a representative? And does it make a commitment to be part of an international front against authoritarianism? If it does, what signal does it send to China, who Thailand continues to depend on economically? A quick glance at a dry Mekong river reveals the extent to which a hegemon’s retaliation could hurt a supplicant that has erred.
Mad King on the throne or not, all signs indicate that the United States will not relent on its increasingly aggressive stance towards China. But even as Biden seeks to assure both his domestic audience that the United States will not capitulate to China, the outlines of his proposed foreign policy will be unlikely to assuage nervous allies seeking a clean break from Trump.