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Biden’s China challenge is both easier and tougher than Trump’s

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Last week’s horrific events in the nation’s capital made President-elect Biden’s governing task both more difficult and easier.

The invasion and desecration of the U.S. Capitol by a mob inspired by President Trump was more than the defilement of a sacred building and national treasure. The disruption of Congress as it was carrying out its duties to confirm the results of the Nov. 3 election was an assault on American democracy itself.  

As such, it provided an abundance of fodder for America’s enemies to validate and escalate attacks on U.S. “double standards” and “hypocrisy” on governance that they already were enthusiastically propounding.

Radio Free Asia reported that the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gleefully ran a headline, “Mob storms Capitol Hill, U.S. democracy smashed!”; called last week’s events an American “Waterloo”; and falsely equated the attack with the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

A foreign ministry spokesperson told a news conference on Jan. 7: “Some people in the U.S. reacted and used very different words to what happened in Hong Kong in 2019 and what took place in the U.S. today.”

But other Chinese were not buying the CCP’s moral equivalency propaganda line. Ding Jie, an independent scholar in Hebei, marveled at “the powerful ability of the U.S. to heal itself.” He noted: “The separation of powers, of the three branches of government, is intact. Presidential power is still subject to checks and balances.” 

That institutional reality, and Joe Biden’s less tempestuous governing style — the simple fact that he is not Trump — will ease the healing of America’s wounded international image.  

That Trump was fully capable of instigating such a flagrant attack may have been self-evident to many of his most ardent and fearful critics — though not to others willing to give him, and America’s political system, the benefit of the doubt. All the more reason to be shocked that the most immediately responsible entity — the Capitol Police, who report to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — were so grossly unprepared to deal with the situation, enabling rioters to succeed in interrupting a constitutional process for several hours and put in physical danger an entire branch of the U.S. government. 

The departure of Donald Trump, the person, will be a relief for tens of millions of Americans, including many who voted for him in 2020. But for Trump voters not infatuated with the man’s character or commitment to democracy, the loss of his national security team — especially those working on critical China issues — and the policies they carried out to confront the mounting threat is a matter of disappointment and concern.

The Jan. 6 event in Washington will be an indelible blemish on Trump’s presidency, and among its consequences — the most tragic of which were the deaths of two Capitol Police officers and four other persons — would be the dismissal of his entire record in office. But, fair retrospectives also will note the historic achievements of his administration in arresting four decades of failed engagement policies that helped China emerge as the primary existential threat to the United States and the West.    

That will be the hard part for the incoming Biden administration: maintaining the positive momentum on China policies that the Trump team has generated, and that found an increasingly welcoming international reception.

Biden said in September that he intends to focus on multilateral cooperation to meet challenges such as that from China, and plans to convene a “Summit for Democracy” that, by definition, would not include China, Russia, North Korea or Iran.  

If he follows through with that laudable effort, he will advance to the next level Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call to the international community in July to join in a cooperative effort to help the Chinese people press their communist government to reform — that is, to be less communist and, eventually, non-communist.

It would be a meaningful recognition by the Biden team that decades of wishful thinking by both Democratic and Republican administrations did not work. Treating China like a good-faith “strategic partner,” “responsible stakeholder” and “friend” did not produce the desired result, only a more powerful and aggressive adversary. The Trump administration’s approach, applying concerted international pressure in support of the Chinese people’s own efforts — what might be called “moral realism” — is the only viable course for U.S. and Western policy.

But the potential risk for Biden’s new multilateralism on China will be the consensus conceit — that unanimity is required for group action or even group expression. That lowest-common-denominator approach is what has paralyzed organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from taking meaningful positions on China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

Trump’s “America First” style, while often gratuitously abrasive, proved more effective than Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” approach in awakening friends and allies to the common danger posed by China.  

Biden’s challenge will be to lead from the front — America’s normal place — in the same cooperative spirit that carried the West to victory in World War II and the first Cold War, but not to allow an individual government or two veto power over the common effort. And, certainly the one voice that cannot be allowed to stall the enterprise is its intended objective: China.

If the test of Biden’s multilateralism, and its commitment to human rights, is “stability” and “calm” in China’s relations with the West, it will be doomed to fail. For actual change to occur in Beijing’s approach to the world, and in its domestic rule, constantly resisting the former and stirring the pot on the latter will be essential to progress.

Donald Trump forever will be known as the president who simultaneously enabled both the most serious internal assault on America’s democracy since the Civil War and the most successful defense of its democracy against the external threat from Communist China in the last half-century.

The Trump  administration is about to hand off the China ball. Can the Biden team run with it?

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.

Tags Barack Obama China aggression Chinese Communist Party Donald Trump Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi U.S. Capitol breached US-China relations

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