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How Biden Can Rally the World Against China

Washington has finally given up on the idea that China would liberalize. Now what?
February 26, 2021
How Biden Can Rally the World Against China
Joe Biden listens to the US national anthem with Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 18, 2011. (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

As it turns out, the most important world-historical event from 2001 may not have been the 9/11 attacks. Instead, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization may have the most repercussions for the 21st century. The WTO formally accepted the People’s Republic as a member in the heady days after the free world’s triumph over Soviet communism. While the dominant free countries embraced a theory of peaceful, democratic “convergence,” equal footing in global trade powered what Chinese leader Xi Jinping has dubbed “national rejuvenation.”

The convergence theory gained currency in the post-Cold War era and animated the policies of three consecutive administrations in Washington. In its simplest form, the idea was that as countries embraced globalization, they would become “responsible stakeholders” of the liberal international order and would liberalize in their domestic politics.

Convergence theory didn’t work out in China’s case. During its 20 years of WTO membership, the People’s Republic has not evolved in a liberal direction, either at home or abroad. Domestically, it has made a sharp authoritarian turn, fashioning a cult of personality around Xi, constructing an almost omniscient surveillance state, conducting the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs, and violently repressing Hong Kong’s autonomy. Militarily, China claims dominance over the South China Sea, which it has long regarded as a “Chinese lake”—and it may be able to back up that claim with force if necessary. Gone are the days when China sought to conceal its imperial ambitions. Its Belt and Road Initiative, under the guise of building infrastructure, is building leverage for Chinese state-owned companies across the developing world. At the same time, China is exporting its surveillance state to other oppressive regimes in Central Asia.

The Trump administration succeeded in dispensing with the last scraps of the convergence theory—though the previous two administrations had already begun the process, culminating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which Trump decided to withdraw. Near the top of the Biden administration’s list of priorities should be finding a more robust paradigm for Sino-American relations than “America First.” A new approach must recognize that America and China are, as Henry Kissinger said, “in the foothills of a cold war” and prevent the possible cold war from becoming a hot war, without giving way to Chinese hegemony. This requires America reclaiming its status as the indispensable nation of the liberal order before China becomes the indispensable nation in a new, illiberal order.

A new approach to the Middle Kingdom ought to be founded on two principles that each reflect both moral principle and strategic interest. The first is to recommit to international cooperation to reassure Indo-Pacific allies that America will remain a stalwart friend. The second is to restore deterrence by making credible U.S. defense guarantees, starting with Taiwan.

Owing to China’s massive economic strength, the containment doctrine that prevailed against the Soviet Union can’t be applied to the new Communist near-peer. At the end of the last century, just before China’s ascension into the WTO, its economy was less than a third of the size of America’s. Today, China is a peer competitor of the United States, accounting for 18 percent of world GDP. It is, by some measures, already the world’s largest economy.

Unlike in the original Cold War, America’s great power rival today is an economic behemoth deeply interconnected with the global economy. China is the largest merchandise trading partner of 64 nations, now including the EU, while the United States claims that status for just 38 countries. Even at its zenith, the USSR was never nearly as productive or interconnected, and the Chinese Communist Party has already demonstrated its ability and willingness to use its economic influence against political opponents.

China’s global exertion of its economic coercion can only be checked by a vast coalition of states acting in concert. The United States should move quickly to revive the partnerships in democratic Asia that it has shunned for too long. Since the Trump administration abandoned TPP, the other nations instead formed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and China formed a competitor organization, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Many key American allies, including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, are signatories or parties to both. While reintegrating the United States into the CPTPP will be a difficult maneuver both in international diplomacy and domestic politics, the imperative for a U.S.-based economic counterbalance to China has grown only more urgent in the past 5 years.

To gain back a measure of economic leverage, the Biden administration should forge a new compact among allies that curtails the malign effects of China’s “influence operations” and economic bullying tactics. The CPTPP can be expanded not only to counter China economically, but also to combat its unfair trading practices. For instance, since Australia barred Huawei from building the country’s 5G mobile network, it has been the target of Beijing’s wrath, seeing its coal shipments blocked from the Chinese market and its wine exports subject to an anti-dumping investigation. An updated CPTPP, with the United States as a participant, would allow regional partners to blunt these tactics by helping to make up the shortfall in domestic industries targeted by the Chinese Communist Party.

The Biden team has indicated that it wants to repair strained relations with close allies before engaging in any high-level U.S.-China discussions—a stand that China has naturally taken as a rebuff. In his lengthy first call with the Chinese leader, Biden stressed the U.S. commitment to allies and human rights. This ought to be a welcome change in tone (for Americans and American allies, not for Xi), but to be effective it needs to be followed with deeds. There are two areas especially ripe for American leadership: drawing attention to China’s atrocious human rights record and the need for greater environmental stewardship.

At a time when Europeans are on the verge of losing faith in the transatlantic relationship—and when China is exerting all its pressure to accelerate that loss of faith—the United States must assert the shared interests and common values that still bind it with Europe and the rest of the free world. In underlining the cause of human rights, the West can stir the world’s conscience against the horrifying cultural extermination being suffered by the mostly Muslim Turkic Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, as well as the evisceration of liberty in Hong Kong. Beijing incessantly accuses the United States of fomenting “color revolutions” designed to bring down the CCP. The reality is that, for too long, the U.S. has done far too little in the face of Chinese repression and aggression. America and its allies should encourage democracy by providing assistance to civil society groups, especially by helping them break the stranglehold on information in China.

To rally the forces of democracy against this potent authoritarian challenge, the United States must also emphasize the planet’s rampant environmental degradation, and organize a sustained plan of action that, unlike the Paris Accords, cannot be ignored with impunity. Shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline was a counterproductive measure to placate domestic interest groups. A more serious idea is to levy a hefty carbon tax that will discourage the use of fossil fuels worldwide. A carbon tax, as numerousanalysts have argued, is also a carbon tariff which can be applied on goods and services as they enter the country and remitted on goods and services exported from the country. Under this scheme, the tariff would be waived for countries that applied carbon taxes of their own at least equal to that of the United States. A carbon tax-and-tariff would knit the developed and democratic world more closely together while simultaneously incentivizing all nations to reduce their emissions.

Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament from the Green Party, recently observed that China has “lost Europe.” The reasons he gave included China’s “truth management” in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis and its “extremely aggressive” championing of the superiority of Chinese Communist Party rule over democracy. But it’s hard to imagine the reckless conduct of the world’s principal polluter wasn’t also on his mind. The sympathies of these erstwhile American allies can and must be secured and maintained, lest they form a nonalignment network arranged as much against the untrustworthy American hegemon as against the emerging Chinese one.

But these non-military measures will only go so far. The crucial test for restoring deterrence will come with Taiwan. The Biden administration has pledged to continue arms sales to the democratic island, drawing the usual howls of protest from Beijing. This is an essential step to prove that America has no intention of seeing its allies and partners bullied, subverted, or absorbed by China. It should go further and extend an explicit defense guarantee to Taipei before the Taiwan Strait becomes a theater of war. The reunification of Taiwan and the mainland remains Xi’s most coveted prize, and allowing China to seize it by force would signal the end of American primacy in East Asia.

Anything short of an ironclad commitment to Taiwan will fail to curb Chinese adventurism in the South and East China Seas, where its military has constructed more than 3,000 acres of manmade military outposts and begun forward-deploying missile batteries, drones, and fighter aircraft. Although some skepticism permeates the American military establishment about China’s ability to pull off an invasion of Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army has been rapidly increasing its amphibious capabilities. Chinese air force activity in Japanese airspace has been on the rise. In 2016 alone, Japan scrambled jets a record 851 times––an average of more than twice a day––to intercept intruding Chinese fighters. Last month, 13 Chinese warplanes intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in a single day. This pattern can be expected to continue unless China begins to suffer penalties in a range of dimensions for its geopolitical brinkmanship.

Distance works against the United States and in favor of the Chinese in the Pacific. Despite American military hegemony and technological sophistication, the Chinese military still benefits from being able to operate close to home, moving nimbly to create facts on the ground before the United States can respond. The ongoing Scarborough Shoal crisis makes this obvious. To overcome this disadvantage, the United States will have to integrate and cooperate more closely with its allies in the region. The Biden administration appears to have reached the same conclusion as it prepares for the first ever meeting of the heads of the so-called Quad countries—the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. The Quad member states already hold joint annual military exercises, which the Biden administration should seek to expand, possibly inviting other Indo-Pacific allies as well.

For much too long, the United States willfully facilitated the rise of its greatest geopolitical rival since the Soviet Union. Along with market liberalizations within China, this policy helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty, but did nothing to condition the political evolution of what Xi calls the “great modern socialist country.” What has emerged is the world’s largest and strongest one-party state––a tyrannical Levithan at home and a peril to the liberal order abroad. Convergence failed. It should be replaced with cooperation, containment, and when necessary, confrontation.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.