Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions

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“Trumpism without Trump” is what Beijing calls the Biden administration’s China policy. For once, Global Times, China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, has it about right.

In surprising ways, most of the Biden national security team is following the basic thrust of Trump administration China policies. Though the Biden roster includes personnel who served during the 16 Bill Clinton and Barack Obama years, the policies Beijing complains about were put in place during the single Donald Trump term

Yet, it is hard to discern that reality as both sides offer minimal, grudging credit to their political rivals for being on the same policy wavelength. It seems that only Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his minions recognize the Trump-to-Biden policy continuity — and they don’t like it one bit.

They surely had different expectations when the coronavirus they originally called the “Wuhan virus” and “Wuhan pneumonia” hit the United States, halted Trump’s trade momentum, devastated the booming U.S. economy, and helped ensure Joe Biden’s victory. Chinese leaders thought the new president would show some appreciation and follow his natural accommodationist inclinations toward China.

Instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have steered a more values-based and hard-nosed approach, consistent with the policies pursued by Trump administration officials. While Trump focused on critical trade talks with China, he empowered his team to advance equally ambitious national security and human rights goals.

As former Vice President Mike Pence said at the Heritage Foundation last week, “America’s new administration must stay the course, stay on the path that we forged: … built on realism and a recognition of the challenge that China poses … even as we reach out a hand to China in the hope that Beijing will reach back … with renewed respect for America.”

But the hope that the communist government would change its fundamental nature — which Richard Nixon also expressed when he “opened China to the world and opened the world to China” — remains unfulfilled after a half-century. Instead, as Pence said, “We face today … what may well be an emerging cold war with China.”

To confront this economic, military and ideological adversary, Pence said, America needs to be united: “Our elected leaders must build on the progress of the Trump-Pence administration … to check the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party.”

True, the Biden administration should acknowledge and embrace their immediate predecessors’ initial success in reversing decades of bipartisan mismanagement of the U.S.-China relationship, while picking up where it left off. But veterans of the Trump administration and their supporters equally must acknowledge and credit the Biden team for mostly refusing to return to the failed Clinton-Bush-Obama engagement policies as many had feared.  

Pence did note that the Biden group, led by Blinken and Sullivan, and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, “has maintained a few of our administration’s tough policies on China — for example, the tariffs [Biden] campaigned against in 2020, so far, remain in place.” But he also observed that Phase 1 of the trade deal must be followed up to press China on economic and political reform. 

When Pence called for the creation of a U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement — which the Trump administration deferred until it nailed down the initial China deal — he might have noted that Tai already has started that process.

Nor does Pence mention that the Biden administration is advancing former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s elevation of quasi-official relations with Taiwan. Together, the Trump and Biden administrations’ approach effectively constitutes a One China, One Taiwan policy — despite Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell’s gratuitous revival of Clinton’s disclaimer, “We do not support Taiwan independence.”

The Navy under Biden is continuing expanded Freedom of Navigation Operations and transits of the Taiwan Strait. But neither administration has deigned to send a carrier task force through the Strait — only two have done so in 48 years, the last in 2007 under George W. Bush and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — while China routinely sends its carriers through those international waters and claims the Strait as its own territorial sea.

Pence said, “I call on the Biden administration to increase the number of Chinese companies prohibited from American investment by at least an order of magnitude.” In June, the administration did just that by adding 59 Chinese firms to the list of 26 originally banned under Trump.

Pence advocates several other initiatives the Biden team would be well-advised to adopt, such as insisting that the Securities and Exchange Commission de-list Chinese companies that flout the transparency and accountability requirements U.S. firms must meet. Most importantly, Pence urges Biden to honor the enhanced Trump-level defense budget to meet China’s security challenges in the South and East China Seas, Taiwan and elsewhere. Defense cuts explain why Pence says, “China senses weakness in this new administration.”

In 1994, two years into the Clinton administration, then-United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked how long her boss could continue blaming Bush for the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Bosnia. She conceded that “the statute of limitations has about run out.”  In a reverse twist, Biden’s diplomatic and national security team may wish for the end of Trump-Biden China policy comparisons so they can be judged on their own merits. 

But after Trump’s momentous inflection point on China relations, Biden or any other president will inevitably be judged on what they do with the challenge and opportunity presented by this historic moment.

Biden can set his own standard if he takes two critical steps as the natural culmination of the transformative measures begun under Trump and mostly continued by his administration, neither of which were on Pence’s to-do list for Biden. First, to deter a fatal strategic miscalculation by China, Washington must make clear that it will defend Taiwan militarily against any Chinese attack or coercion. The “catastrophic” consequences for China would not be limited to the reputational and diplomatic realm, as Campbell recently seemed to imply.   

Second, the Biden administration, playing on its own claim to superior multilateral and human rights credentials, needs to lead the kind of global effort toward regime change in China that Pompeo suggested in a speech at the Nixon Library a year ago: “General Secretary Xi is not destined to tyrannize inside and outside of China forever, unless we allow it. … [C]hanging the [Chinese Communist Party’s] behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom.” 

If Biden’s team takes up that titanic challenge and helps bring about China’s rendezvous with democracy, he will stand with Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of American and global achievement.

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. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Barack Obama Biden foreign policy Bill Clinton Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Katherine Tai Mike Pence Mike Pompeo Trump foreign policy US-China relations US-China trade deal

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