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A Biden stumble on China?

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Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the national economy and the need for his administration’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation in the State Dining Room at the White House on February 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. 

After only a few weeks in office, and with an administration that will take months to fill, criticizing President Biden may be a bit unfair. But if the administration embarks on policies likely to fail or redound against the nation, corrective action is needed now. Debate over the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is important. Answers about the economic impact of this spending; what to do about the unspent CARES Act money of some $300 billion; and consequences of this proposed legislation on a future infrastructure bill are not trivial.

More important, perhaps, is the administration’s China policies. Given the president’s statements and those of his key appointees, namely Sec. of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Asia supremo Kurt Campbell, as with the last administration, China will be treated less as a competitor and more an adversary. Given domestic politics, that animosity could intensify.

From the Nixon initiative and the recognition of China in 1979, administrations through Barack Obama’s believed that by integrating the Middle Kingdom back into the international order, China would become more open and even liberal as it moved from a developing to a developed state. That expectation was misplaced. Obama recognized that with his “strategic pivot” to Asia in 2011 and his military strategy that declared the need “to compete, deter and if war arose to defeat” a number of potential enemies topped by China and Russia.

The Trump administration doubled down on that strategy, calling for a “Great Power Competition” with China and Russia without fully defining what that meant. Further, in order to correct what the Trump administration saw as an unfavorable trade balance with China of about $300 billion a year, tariffs were initiated. Unfortunately, the Trump team was ignorant of economics and the current and capital account. The former applied to goods and services. The latter to capital transfers in which China had over $2 trillion invested in American equities and debt. The ensuing tariff war raised prices in America and did more damage here than in China. 

Regarding domestic politics, perhaps the only issue on which both houses of Congress agree is the Chinese threat. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is at least as aggressive over the Chinese danger as any of his Republican colleagues. But why is this the case? And what exactly are the real threats posed by China? These need a much closer look.

Conventional wisdom argues that China’s autocratic Communist Party poses an ultimate threat and challenge to the Western notion of liberal democracy and the international order. China’s militarization of islets in the various seas and the rate of modernization of its forces confirm Beijing’s potentially hostile intent. Repression of human rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang province is further evidence of malign actions. And theft of intellectual property as well as more forceful statements over absorbing Taiwan also raised concerns.

Hence, for domestic political reasons and seeming bipartisan consensus on China, any administration would have great difficulty in downplaying or even re-evaluating the “Chinese threat.” Yet what are the major dangers posed by China? Consider three. 

First is the pandemic. That China was not transparent or candid in allowing access to Wuhan and resolving the question of whether the Wuhan virology lab had any role in spreading the coronavirus is a crucial question. 

Second, is climate change. China is among the greatest carbon dioxide polluters. Without Chinese cooperation, effective action on climate change will be impossible. 

Third, China has been clever and adroit in outflanking and outwitting the U.S. in economic and trade policy by signing both the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with several of America’s Pacific allies and a free trade agreement with the European Union. China ultimately wants its Renminbi to displace the dollar as the central reserve currency.

Unfortunately, all the military spending in the world does not and will not address these three key issues. And by overly militarizing policy to China, the U.S. is embarking on a defense strategy that will prove unaffordable. During the global war on terror, the U.S. spent about $80 billion to counter enemy booby traps or IEDS (Improvised Explosive Devices). The enemy spent comparative pennies.

China (and Russia) will build and threaten to build systems such as China’s carrier killer DF-21 ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons relatively cheaply. The counter measures will be many times more costly. The U.S. will then be put in an impossible position in which money cannot address the challenges.

Will the Biden team take a second look? Reason demands that the answer is yes. Politics argue that this is unlikely to happen.

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation,” is due out this year.

Tags Antony Blinken Barack Obama China Chuck Schumer coronavirus Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Trade War
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