For its first month, the Biden administration lamented “the former guy’s mess” on the pandemic, the economy, vaccinations and foreign policy. But during his CNN Town Hall, President BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE finally said, “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump. I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
China’s leaders, however, believe that blaming the former administration for Sino-U.S. tensions will leverage anti-Trump animus for Biden’s “flexibility” on contentious issues. With Trump gone, Washington can forget “the China threat” and revert to the “normalcy” that Beijing found so advantageous during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
Last week, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, again called for a return to the pre-Trump era of good feelings. His speech was unabashedly entitled, “Promoting Dialogue and Cooperation and Managing Differences: Bringing China-U.S. Relations Back to the Right Track”
Wang cited the conversation between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping: “This very important phone call has oriented China-U.S. relations that had been struggling to ascertain its bearings at a crossroads. It has also sent out the first encouraging news of this spring for the two countries and the whole world.”
Wang identified the source of the frictions: “The root cause was that the previous U.S. administration, out of its own political needs, seriously distorted China’s future path and policy and … took various measures to suppress and contain China, which inflicted immeasurable damage to bilateral relations. Today, to right the wrongs and bring the relationship back to the right track, the walls of misperceptions must be torn down.”
Biden’s campaign rhetoric conflated the president’s erratic style and his national security team’s sober policies. Chinese officials anticipated the revival of “strategic patience” and “leading from behind” practiced by the Obama-Biden administration, where many of Biden’s appointees served.
“We know that the new U.S. administration is reviewing and assessing its foreign policy,” Wang said. “We hope that U.S. policymakers will keep pace with the time, see clearly the trend of the world, abandon biases, give up unwarranted suspicions, and move to bring the China policy back to reason.”
Wang specified what the post-Trump policy would entail: “[S]top smearing the [Communist Party of China] and China’s political system, stop conniving at or even supporting the erroneous words and actions of separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence,’ and stop undermining China’s sovereignty and security on internal affairs concerning Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.” In other words, he said, “China and the United States should first take care of their own stuff.”
To Beijing’s chagrin, the Biden administration is having none of it. State Department spokesman Ned Price said of Wang’s speech, “His comments reflect a continued pattern of Beijing’s tendency to avert blame for its predatory economic practices, its lack of transparency, its failure to honor its international agreements, and its repression of universal human rights.”
Price was obviously speaking for his boss, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks US intelligence says Russia planning Ukraine offensive involving 175K troops: reports Blinken: A move by China to invade Taiwan would have 'terrible consequences' MORE, of whom Biden has stated: “You speak for me.” Blinken has not shrunk from speaking critically of China, and even endorsing core Trump administration policies. He told NPR: “I think President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE was right to take a tougher line on some of the egregious things that China has done, and is doing, that are counter to our interests and counter to our values.” Where he and Biden fault Trump is “the way that we went about doing it did not produce results. … [Doing] it more effectively … has to be approaching China from a position of strength, not weakness. … [F]irst and foremost, … working in close coordination with allies and partners who may be similarly aggrieved by some of China’s practices.”
Regarding the pandemic, which the Biden team previously blamed almost entirely on Trump, Blinken condemned Beijing’s complicity, telling BBC, “It requires countries to be transparent … to share information … to give access to international experts at the beginning of an outbreak — things that, unfortunately, we haven’t seen from China.” That was a lesson that Trump tragically learned too late in his on-again, off-again bromance with Xi.
Blinken broadened his attack on China’s congenital media suppression, calling it “one of the least open information spaces in the world. … [The Chinese people] want free and open sharing of information. That’s being denied to them by their own government.”
Beijing surely was not happy to hear words sounding very much like those from Blinken’s predecessor, Mike PompeoMike PompeoHaley has 'positive' meeting with Trump No time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Psaki: Sexism contributes to some criticism of Harris MORE, when he derogated Chinese media as government pawns: “[China] takes advantage of the fact that many of our countries have fully free and open information spaces, and China uses that to spread misinformation and propaganda.”
Meanwhile, on trade, the only China issue where Trump sustained interest, Beijing got another tough message from the Biden team. Regarding Trump’s agreement, Katherine TaiKatherine TaiBiden trade strategy must unlock new access for US dairy With trade meeting on hold, the US needs to get serious about WTO reform The WTO Ministerial is a chance to advance global commerce for good MORE, U.S. trade representative, said she wants to achieve “similar goals but in a more process-driven manner.” She declared the much criticized tariffs “a very important part of our fair trade remedies toolbox” because China “needs to deliver” on its promises. Biden also has retained Trump’s restrictions on technology exports, but has sent mixed signals about enforcing them.
The national security transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration initially appears to be seamless. In the South China Sea, the Biden team is continuing, and possibly expanding, vigorous Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to oppose China’s unlawful claims. In the month since Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. Navy has conducted several FONOPS by traversing international waters around artificial islands China constructed on reefs and islets. It also made several “innocent passages” through territorial waters within 12 miles of coastal land or natural islands claimed by China, as well as by Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. But only China among the interested countries has complained that Washington should have asked permission or given notice before making the innocent passages — something not required by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.
In the same period, the Navy made at least two transits of the Taiwan Strait over China’s usual strong objections. Significantly, allied nations have increased the number of their own FONOPS and Strait transits, clearly in consultation with the United States. Said Blinken: “People are seeing by our actions — not just what we’re saying, by what we’re doing — that, as the president likes to say, ‘America’s back, America’s engaged, America’s leading.’”
Biden may not wish to hear his predecessor’s name again, but his forthright actions to date have earned him China’s condemnation for “Trumpism.” While “Trumpism without Trump” may not be Biden’s preferred China policy, he and his team deserve credit for moving American foreign policy back to its bipartisan roots.
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.