China, like the rest of the world, followed the presidential election in the United States with bewilderment. On the third day of the endless vote counting, Joe Biden asked his countrymen to be patient: “Democracy is sometimes messy”. Biden, and with him most Americans, defend democracy as the only form of government that allows a free people to run their public affairs. Many Chinese might not be so sure. They could view the US election as another example of American decline and praise their own authoritarian system as being “superior”, as President Xi Jinping put it.
At least now the Chinese know who they will be dealing with in the White House for the next four years. Although they are probably relieved to leave the turbulent Trump years behind, the well-informed among them are aware that Biden will not be an easy partner either.
Early in 2020, as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden laid out his views on foreign policy in an article in Foreign Affairs. “The United States”, Biden wrote, “does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage – and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future.” That sounded very much like President Donald Trump. And, indeed, as far as policies on China are concerned, there are no fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides agree that the most serious threat to national security comes from China. Today, there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the US strategy of “engagement” with China – which goes all the way back to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger – has failed.
Two of the leading strategic thinkers of the Obama administration, Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, wrote in August 2019, also in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that “the basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy.” But they also warned against making a similar mistake today “by assuming that competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed – this time forcing capitulation or even collapse”. Instead, they proposed a strategy of “managed coexistence”, combining elements of competition and cooperation.
Under Biden, the US agenda on China will likely focus on the same issues as it does now: trade and technology conflicts; the suppression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang; the destruction of the rule of law in Hong Kong; the militarisation of the South China Sea; and the growing threat to Taiwan. On some of these problems, Joe Biden may prove to be an even more difficult partner for Beijing than Trump has been. Biden’s China policy will probably be more principled and less transactional than his predecessor’s. Biden will put more emphasis on democracy and human rights, issues that never interested Trump.
Biden knows Xi quite well. Xi visited America in 2011, before he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and state president. Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama at the time, was his host. The two talked for hours. So, it was quite remarkable when Biden, as a Democratic presidential candidate, said in a February 2020 debate on Xi that: “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.” Even if this was heated campaign rhetoric, there is no doubt that Biden views Xi’s China as a threat and a serious competitor.
On China, the primary difference between Biden and Trump is that the former will not try to go it alone. In his article in Foreign Affairs, Biden proposed building “a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations”. True enough, the US and Europe share the interest of cooperation with China on global issues such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and health protection.
Throughout the Trump years, China has attempted to drive a wedge between the US and Europe. Simultaneously, Beijing has tried to divide the Europeans. The Chinese invited sixteen (now seventeen) eastern and central European countries to form the 16+1 (now 17+1) by making economic and financial promises. They also tried to undermine European unity by luring countries such as Greece and Italy into the Belt and Road Initiative. Officially, China has always supported the European Union. In reality, its policy has been the opposite.
French President Emmanuel Macron declared in 2019 that “the time of European naivety is ended. For many years we had an uncoordinated approach and China took advantage of our division.” When Xi visited Paris in March 2019, Macron invited German chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission, to join his talks with the Chinese president. This was a demonstration of European unity.
In the meantime, there has been growing disillusionment among EU governments who have participated in the 17+1 group and the Belt and Road Initiative. A diplomatic dispute erupted between Beijing and Prague over differences on Taiwan. Beijing’s self-promotion during the covid-19 pandemic – the aggressive “wolf warrior” rhetoric of Chinese diplomats in Stockholm, Paris, and other European capitals – led to further estrangement between China and Europe.
The rise of China is, no doubt, the biggest foreign policy and security challenge facing both the US and Europe. The protection of the liberal international order is not a solely European or American task – it is a Western task. Equally, the defence of human rights and democracy in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan should be a common Western endeavour. We should not let ourselves be divided but – as Biden proposed – act with unity. Now that he will soon reside in the White House, the time has come to start a serious dialogue on a common policy on China.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we know that democracy can be messy. But it is worth all our efforts to defend it, and to do this together.
Matthias Nass is international correspondent for Die Zeit. His latest book, Drachentanz. Der Aufstieg Chinas zur Weltmacht und was er für uns bedeutet, will be published by C.H.Beck in February 2021.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.