Will US Policy Toward China Change?
(A lecture at the 30th SSDP discussion session on January 18, 2021)

Ryo Sahashi
Associate Professor
Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo

1. The Domestic and International Political Environment Awaiting the Biden Administration

The polarization of American society seems to have reached its extreme. The recent invasion of the US Capitol by rioters is symbolic of this. With its victories in the US Senate by-elections in Georgia, the Democratic Party unexpectedly won the triple blue. However, the leftists in the Democratic Party who are increasing their influence will not be happy with Biden's centrist politics. In addition to consolidating its religious conservative support base, the Republican Party is gaining strength by cultivating Hispanic support. Since congressional management will be difficult for the Biden administration, its stability will not be very high. The new administration will, for a while, be busy reinvigorating the economy and restoring the unity of American society. The administration's political resources that can be devoted to diplomacy are not abundant.

The Trump era was one lacking in diplomacy. President Trump did something that looked like diplomacy, but he did not conduct negotiations with foreign countries. He did not respect international norms. The focus of Biden's diplomacy will be on a "return to Obama diplomacy" and a "rejection of Trump diplomacy." Expectations are high for the Biden administration to pursue coordinated efforts with allies, based on the predominance of US values and burden-sharing with them. The Obama doctrine consisted in the discarding of the role of "world's policeman," which is in line with what President Trump has done. The Biden team has already made it clear that it would be committed to international rules and to the international order and will take a Democratic approach to global issues such as climate change and public health cooperation.

Even under the Biden administration, vigilance against China's growing power and America's sense of loss resulting from the vanished "three expectations" that the United States embraced for China will remain intact as during the Trump administration. Behind this change in the US position toward China lies the power rivalry and a growing distrust between the two countries. The trust between them depended on three US expectation toward China: an expectation for China's political reform, an expectation for China's economic reform, and an expectation for China's positive contributions to the international community. But it has transpired that these expectations would not be fulfilled. The policy toward China is not the only cardinal issue for the new administration. The Democratic Party has so far been dissatisfied with a stagnant alliance with Europe under the Trump administration and President Trump's lukewarm stance toward Russia. The Biden administration will endeavor to remove this discontent in the Democratic Party.

2. The Trump Administration's Policy toward China, Especially in Its Last Years

When it comes to the Trump administration's awareness of issues and priorities in its China policy, it launched a trade war with China in 2018-2019. It attempted to eliminate the US trade deficit against China and correct the country's unfair trade practices, thereby ensuring US security and technological predominance. At that time, there was no outstanding expert on China issues in the Trump administration, and a hardline/opposing stance and a stance favoring negotiations coexisted. The fact that the Trump administration reached an agreement with China on the first stage of trade talks may seem odd and extraordinary. But it did result in maintaining cooperation between the two governments.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 last year, criticism of China's domestic political system and human rights issues, rather than the country's unfair trade practices, has prevailed in the United States. The US government adopted an increasingly ideological hardline stance against China. The Trump administration seems to have intended to appeal to conservatives, but worsening public sentiment toward China was behind the government's hardline stance. Regulations on export controls tightened, and pressure to review supply chains remained high.

US hardliners desired to advance their hardline position on many policy issues as far as possible under the Trump administration, with an intention to reduce the competitiveness of China and Chinese companies. As a result, the US government tightened export controls, promoted the non-use of Chinese products, and excluded them from capital markets. On the other hand, China also began to find less significance in managing its relationship with the United States and moved to terminate its dependence on America.

These were approaches to "leave a mark" or "bind the hands of the next administration," rather than making a legacy. The Trump administration's policies toward China unfolded on the basis of both competition and human rights. In June and July of last year, four cabinet-level officials (Assistant to President O'Brien, FBI Director Wray, Attorney General Barr, and Secretary of State Pompeo) made a series of harsh speeches against China. In the fall, the Department of State anonymously released a document entitled "The Elements of the China Challenge", an appeal strongly reminiscent of George Kennan's long telegram that heralded the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The US government tightened export controls (SMIC, DJI), expanded the ban on the use of Chinese products (ranging from Huawei products to power systems), and excluded Chinese products (including Xiaomi) from capital markets. Congress also took a hardline stance against China, passing in succession the Uyghur human rights bill, the Tibet support bill, and the Taiwan security bill. Congress went so far as to override the President's veto to pass the National Defense Authorization Act 2021.

As for its relationship with Taiwan, the Trump administration maintained the "One China" policy, which, however, has been skeletonized; that is, only the skeleton remains, and the substance is gone. A congratulatory message issued by the US government on the occasion of the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen in May 2020 acknowledged Taiwan as a reliable partner sharing the same values. Visits to Taiwan by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Azar and other high-ranking officials took place amid heightened tension between the PLA and US forces in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait. Although canceled, the EPA Administrator and the US ambassador to the United Nations also planned to visit Taiwan. The Trump administration abolished domestic regulations that restrict government-to-government contact between the United States and Taiwan and rushed forward with arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan's semiconductor industry that supports the country's economy, including TSMC that has withdrawn from the Chinese market, is now being severely questioned about its position.

3. Has Trump Left a Scar? --- The Outlook for the Biden Administration

How will the Biden administration look at the world and perceive the current situation? To answer this question, for reference, we need to remember the Obama administration. We should also look at the personal views of those who will occupy key posts in the Biden administration. Among them are many who have had experience in government service and have already made their views known in various ways. In terms of interests and methods, they emphasize international order, legal norms, and alliances. They may employ declarative policies, or in other words, elitism will become prevalent. Bureaucratism will also be strengthened, which, in a sense, implies stability.

Let's take a look at the new administration. The White House team will include Assistant to President Jake Sullivan, Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, and Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry. Campbell co-authored an article with Sullivan for the September/October 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs titled "Competition Without Catastrophe," from which it is discernible that the new administration will look for competition and coexistence rather than confrontation with China that the Trump administration set in motion. Edgard Kagan (East Asia and Oceania), Laura Rosenberg (China), and Shanthi Kalathil (Democracy) will serve as senior department heads. The appointments of Rosenberg and Kalathil are highly likely to bring to the fore their awareness of issues associated with democracy, such as vigilance against foreign political manipulation and the perception that authoritarianism and democracy are at odds with each other. In addition, Michael Fuchs will serve as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Vice President, and Rush Doshi as director of China issues.

The Department of State (DOS) will be led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, and Undersecretary Victoria Nuland. Samantha Powers will head up USAID. The Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs has not yet been announced. The Department of Defense (DOD) will be run by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl. (After the January 18 SSDP discussion session, Kelly Magsamen was named Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense and Ely Ratner Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (China). Ratner is known as a hardliner against China. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia has not been announced at this time.) The Department of Commerce will be headed by Secretary Gina Raimondo. Katherine Tai will serve as US Trade Representative. Thai will be in charge of negotiations with China. Janet Yellen will head the Department of Treasury. We will have to wait and see the appointments of assistant secretary-level officials who will be in charge of policy measures in these organizations. Neither the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines nor CIA Director William Burns has an intelligence background.

The issues facing the Biden administration will include (1) economic security and competition over advanced technologies; (2) trade; (3) climate change and other global issues; (4) civilian freedom (human rights) and democracy; and (5) military security. In the US-China confrontation, technological supremacy and human rights will be the main issues. The Biden administration's stance toward China and that of the Trump administration are alike regarding competition with China, export controls, and machine technology controls. The Biden administration will come down particularly hard on the issue of human rights in China. Congressional Republicans take a tough stance on this issue, and European countries are taking the same approach. In the meantime, Japan, which has avoided speaking out on human rights issues in China, fears to be isolated among its G7 peers. The Biden administration will have to address each of these issues separately and adopt "compartmentalized" responses. In other words, a confrontational or cooperative stance toward China on a specific issue will not necessarily apply immediately to other problems. For example, the Biden administration will not turn to conciliation to seek cooperation with China on global issues at the expense of technology and human rights issues, because the hard-to-manage nature of each problem is well recognized. The Biden administration will likely strive for cooperation with allies and partners on an issue-by-issue basis.

Biden seems to think that a strong demonstration of the will to maintain the status quo will prevent China from taking short-term opportunistic actions. He believes that Trump's disruptive behavior has ultimately led China to become revisionist and opportunistic. It is his conviction that his administration should address China's challenges against not only the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region but also in the global order. Biden, however, has no desire to overthrow the current Chinese regime. He is ready to take a cooperative or a confrontational stance, depending on the situation. It is a diplomatic philosophy with middle-class people in mind. There is little necessity for Biden to immediately change course on the first phase of the trade agreement with China or the tariffs introduced against the country. The Biden administration's policy toward China will depend on cooperation with its allies. The Biden administration will establish a framework for collaboration in each specific area and will deal with each issue separately. It will not blatantly criticize the Chinese government, but will endeavor to incorporate China into the regional order/institutions and check China through various rules. In the medium term, a framework for dialogue with China may come into existence. Sometimes using pushback, at other times dialogue and policy coordination, the Biden administration will rely on the power of such dialogue.

As for Taiwan, the strengthening of US-Taiwan relations may slow down, but the current bipartisan Congressional support for Taiwan is firm. The Biden administration will focus on crisis management concerning Taiwan. The above mentioned Campbell-Sullivan paper emphasizes US-China cooperation and does not necessarily sympathize with Taiwan. Campbell, who gave an online lecture addressed to the Taiwanese late last year, encouraged cross-strait dialogue. Earlier the United States was not supportive of the democratization and democratic consolidation of Taiwan. But since 2016, the United States has rediscovered Taiwan as a "showcase" affected by China's rise and a "model case" of democracy. The Biden administration will not venture to take any move to weaken its relationship with Taiwan.

4. Conclusion

Will the Biden administration change US policy toward China or not? Some scars of the Trump administration will linger. The Trump administration has left its mark on some issues, such as human rights. (After the January 18 SSDP discussion session, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that human rights violations in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region would constitute a genocide and crimes against humanity, and Secretary of State nominee Blinken agreed with this at his Senate confirmation hearing. However, the latter's approach will be different.) The trend in the US-China confrontation will not change if there is no change in the basic structure of the US-China confrontation --- the United States will not revive three expectations for China; US concerns about a change in hegemony will not diminish; the Xi Jinping regime will remain high-handed. It will be difficult for the Biden administration to quickly abandon either the tariffs or the trade agreement introduced during the US-China trade war. The Biden administration will conduct negotiations based on the interests of the United States. It will also continue to impose regulations designed to weaken China's competitiveness and regulations in the technology sector. Under the Biden administration, the law enforcement field will continue to be government-led. Differences and changes will take place regarding (1) immigration policy, (2) global cooperation on climate change and public health, and (3) emphasis on human rights and democracy.

(This article was edited by the SSDP secretariat as the minutes of Sahashi's lecture.)

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