By Dori Jones Yang
Joe Biden’s website details forty-six plans he has for resolving vital issues; not one outlines a clear policy toward China. Yet China is a rising power and ought to be this nation’s top priority in foreign policy.
The stakes are high. When a rising power challenges a ruling power, the most likely outcome is war. That’s what history teaches us, as explained by Harvard professor Graham Allison. But Allison insists that’s why the US needs to carefully manage the US-China relationship. A war with nuclear-armed China would bring unthinkable damage to the people of both countries.
What we need is a careful, nuanced policy toward China—not the mercurial, combative policies of Trump, who has whipped up American hatred toward China. Because of this heated campaign rhetoric, if Biden articulated a nuanced strategy, he would be accused of being “soft on China” by the 73 percent of Americans who now have an unfavorable view of it. He can’t afford that.
But I strongly urge Joe Biden, and his advisors, behind closed doors, to craft a thoughtful, rational, effective policy—and to implement it if he wins the presidency. Here’s what that should look like.
Prevent war. Above all, don’t stumble into a war with China. Trump boasts that he has prevented wars, but his provocative policies have made war more likely. China recently demonstrated it can fire land-based missiles from thousands of miles away and hit a moving target in the South China Sea; this weapon could cripple our fleet of aircraft carriers. Recent US war games show that we would lose a war with China if we fought it today. A future President Biden needs to de-escalate the tension, establish frank strategic dialogue with China’s leaders, and carefully evaluate perceived security threats against the benefits of peaceful cooperation. Détente is better than war.
Follow the trade rules. To convince China to follow the rules of international trade, be sure to follow them ourselves. Trump’s trade wars—using tariffs as punishment—flouted the international rules we helped create. Why should China become a “responsible stakeholder” in a world system when the United States is not? Biden needs to rebuild frayed ties with our allies, strengthen the World Trade Organization, and stop whipping our friends and adversaries with punitive tariffs.
Don’t thwart China, outsmart it. China will never allow a foreign nation to prevent it from taking what it sees as its rightful place on the world stage, improving the lives of its people through economic growth, and defending its land and nearby seas. Rather than futile efforts to thwart it, we need to ensure that our country maintains its lead in the technologies and industries of the future. Biden already has some good plans for this, including investment of $300 billion in research and development over four years. This should be expanded to include increased science and technology education for Americans and policies that encourage brilliant foreigners, educated in the US, to remain here to work and start up innovative new companies. Our tech sector is still the best in the world, and we can outsmart China, with government support.
Protect our technology from theft. Biden plans to confront efforts to steal American intellectual property and address state-sponsored cyber espionage against American companies. We have our own intelligence agencies that engage in espionage; let’s use some of our brilliant hackers’ brains to stop cybertheft—by any foreign power. But be aware that China is educating a new generation of brilliant brains in science, technology and engineering and China filed more international patents than the US last year. China is poised to overtake us in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and 5G telecommunications—and it’s not because of cybertheft. We need to encourage more of our own children to study science and technology and support our American innovators.
Ensure US production of goods essential to national security and health. The pandemic exposed our weakness in relying on other countries for essential pharmaceuticals and medical equipment—which foreign supplier countries needed themselves. Let’s learn from experience. We don’t need to bring all manufacturing back home; we can rely on a global supply chain for many goods. But we should carefully consider which products really need to be made in the USA, and use federal procurement, stockpiles, and the tax code to incentivize American companies to produce such goods at home.
To advance democracy and human rights abroad, first fix democracy and human rights at home. Many intellectuals now agree that democracy is not the attractive model it once was; around the world, elected leaders are veering toward autocracy and legislators are locked in bitter partisan fights, failing to pass needed laws. At home, police brutality toward unarmed Blacks, mass incarceration, and school shootings raise questions about human rights in America. These trends make a mockery of our long-cherished policy of advancing democracy and championing human rights around the world. If we get our house in order, developing nations may once again look to us, not China, as a model.
Cooperate when possible. No global challenge, especially climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation, can be tackled without the cooperation of the Chinese government. No matter what our differences with China on other issues, the US government needs to build strong ties with Beijing to foster cooperation on such global issues. Although the covid-19 pandemic began in China and ran rampant there at first, China was able to control it and keep it from resurging—far better than we did. They reported only 4,600 deaths and 85,000 total cases. Even if these numbers are undercounted, they are still nowhere near the 193,000 deaths and 6.5 million cases so far in our country, which has one-fourth the population of China. In many fields, there may be ways for our scientists to find mutually beneficial ways to share research and findings.
Remember that good relations can benefit both sides. China already has the largest market for autos and luxury goods, and it has growing needs to import oil, corn, pork, and soybeans. US farmers and manufacturers benefited from China’s market before Trump’s trade war, and the upside is high if a cooperative relationship returns. American universities have benefited from an influx of students from China who pay full tuition, and the vast majority are not involved in espionage. Travel and tourism from both nations—once travel is allowed again—ensure the kind of people-to-people contact that deepens mutual understanding and respect.
The United States and China may never return to the close relations they had in recent decades. As China rises, we need to be on our guard and protect our national interests. But Joe Biden could return us to a saner, more thoughtful policy. We need a new road map for coexistence.
—Dori Jones Yang covered the rise of China for BusinessWeek magazine, which she describes in her forthcoming book, When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening.