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On China, Biden is no Nixon — and no Trump

On China, Biden is no Nixon — and no Trump
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The commonalities are there: A former vice president who served two terms under an iconic president has been out of office during a successor administration of the opposite party, tried unsuccessfully for the presidency earlier, and now runs again against either the presidential or vice presidential incumbent.

He seeks to use his age and longevity in public life to his advantage, claiming wisdom from experience, primarily in the area of international relations and national security. To establish his gravitas, he turns to the pages of Foreign Affairs to lay out his foreign policy vision.

If Joe BidenJoe BidenMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE is now channeling Richard Nixon in 1967, the simulation falls far short of the Nixon model. For one thing, Nixon had the coherent strategic vision and the developed communications skills to write his article himself, and it reads in Nixon’s voice. Biden’s piece lacks the same ring of authenticity and personal conviction, essentially because, unlike with Nixon, there is no set of core principles defining Biden despite decades of public life.

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Even the difference in titles illustrates the contrasts in focus. Nixon’s seminal article was entitled “Asia after Viet Nam,” reflecting the backdrop of the war that had been waging for over a decade because of the mistakes of his predecessors. Looking forward rather than backward, however, he did not call his piece “Asia After Kennedy and Johnson.”

Biden’s offering, instead, is personality- rather than policy-driven: “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump.”  Given how Biden lacerates every aspect of the Trump administration’s national security policy and finds in it nothing of value, it could well be titled, “The World After Trump.”  

Where Nixon laid out a specific roadmap to achieve the essential objective of his vision — changing “Red China” and integrating it into the “family of nations” — Biden mostly assembles a collection of generalities and platitudes. 

Yet, the danger from Communist China that Nixon addressed 50 years ago is even greater today, thanks to the follies of post-Nixon blind engagement. James ClapperJames Robert ClapperWhy the Nobel Prize shows the US and China need to work together on gene editing Trump suggests Gold Star families could have infected him Overnight Defense: Two ISIS 'Beatles' indicted in US | Army Reserve investigating North Carolina Senate candidate | National Guard units on standby in case of unrest MORE, Director of National Intelligence in the Obama-Biden administration, called China “the greatest mortal threat to the United States.” Given that geostrategic reality, Biden’s prescription for how to deal with it is ominously sparse, reflecting his earlier casual approach to America’s premier national security challenge: “C’mon, man, they’re not bad folks, folks. China is not going to eat our lunch.”

Trump has a decidedly different attitude. He sees a rapacious Communist China that, under his predecessors, has been “ripping off” the United States. He has vigorously pursued making it a fair trading partner. At some point, he must have realized that structural economic reform in China would lead inexorably to political reform, an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that his “friend,” Xi Jinping, would not willingly accept. Trump pushed the trade button anyway, even harder — until the progress he was making was conveniently stopped in its tracks by the coronavirus pandemic (a foreign policy subject left entirely untouched in Biden’s article).  

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Trump may or may not be a secret political reformer, but his vice president, secretaries of State and Defense, national security adviser and deputy, and other key Asia officials are unabashed advocates for a reformed China. And Trump has given them a green light to push ahead — on Hong Kong, on Uighur concentration camps, on broad human rights in China, even calling explicitly for the end of communist rule.  

Yet, Biden writes: “When the world’s democracies look to the United States to stand for the values that unite the country — to truly lead the free world — Trump seems to be on the other team, taking the word of autocrats while showing disdain for democrats.” 

Biden seems unaware that China’s openly aggressive actions have restored a sense of reality and priority to governments that may or may not always feel great affection for the United States or its leaders. In Nixon’s time, the Vietnam war soured some countries’ attitudes toward America, but even then, they recognized which system presented the real danger and which offered hope for security and freedom. What Nixon said half a century ago remains true today:

“The common danger from Communist China is now in the process of shifting the Asian governments’ center of concern — its threat is clear, present and repeatedly and insistently expressed. The message has not been lost on Asia’s leaders. They recognize that the West, and particularly the United States, now represents not an oppressor but a protector. And they recognize their need for protection… . [A]ll are acutely conscious of the Chinese threat.”

Biden’s response to the threat is to tout his long tenure in government: “China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.”

But China is also playing a short game. Deng Xiaoping’s caution to “hide our capabilities, bide our time” has been overtaken by the accelerated pace of achieving Xi’s aggressive “China Dream.” And a major component of its shorter game is in the security realm, where military capabilities are no longer to be hidden but to be flaunted — and used. 

Yet Biden entirely ignores that most dangerous aspect of China’s challenge, except for a passing general reference to a commander in chief's responsibility “to protect the American people, including, when necessary, by using force … as a last resort.”

When he asserts that the United States “does need to get tough with China,” he cites the theft of intellectual property and unfair subsidies (“eating our lunch?”), not its military aggression in the South and East China Seas or toward Taiwan — which gets nary a mention in his 4,500-word piece, despite his emphasis on democracy-building.

As for the other Asia military threat, Biden says he will “jump-start a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others, including China, to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.” Of course, that is exactly what the Trump administration has been doing, using a combination of threats and blandishments with Pyongyang. But it has come to the realization, unlike Biden, that China does not care about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and actually has found it a useful diversion of Western attention from its own creeping expansionism. That is why Trump imposes secondary economic sanctions on China for undermining international sanctions on North Korea — and why he needs to expand them.

Biden sees nothing good in the Trump administration’s foreign policy and nothing wanting in the Obama-Biden record. That offers little hope that a Biden administration would improve on either when dealing with China’s existential threat.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.