Two and a half years ago, following the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to put the highly contentious fight in historical perspective. “Nothing is broken about our democracy... we have big arguments over a lot of important things,” he said. McConnell went on to reference other difficult times, including the emotional 1960s debates over civil rights, where he said the US ultimately came out “in the right place.”
This is critical context for American friends in the Pacific. The political turmoil the US is now going through is not so extraordinary. It is the way we hash through political differences. The larger the gap between the political positions, the louder the disagreements. Differences in one area, even over something as big as management of the COVID-19 outbreak, however, will not necessarily lead to breaks in other areas, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
In fact, despite political differences on a wide range of issues, there is bi-partisan consensus on China policy. Leaders of both major parties agree that we have entered a period of strategic competition first officially outlined — to its enduring credit — by the Trump administration.
This does not mean a Joe Biden administration would not conduct China policy differently. A President Biden will have his own strategy. And it will certainly include pursuit of a more cooperative relationship with China. It’s hard not to see Democratic environmental constituencies, for example, pushing him to work with Beijing on climate change. In practice, as in the Obama years, this may entail an effort to accommodate unrelated Chinese interests — like in the South China Sea.
But a visit like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made to China in February 2009 when she said the US would not allow human rights issues to interfere with other priorities in the relationship with China? Inconceivable. Besides, it will not take another presidential election to see that whatever trade-offs a Biden administration does make with Beijing are unsustainable.
For one thing, Congress will not let them stand.
Joe Biden has already signaled a deference to Congress on China by declaring his intention to “fully enforce” the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act. Those were congressional initiatives. And there are more bills like them making their way to becoming law. These include the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which, in addition to sanctioning third parties connected to the ongoing crackdown in Hong Kong, provides Congress a mechanism for overturning presidential waivers or termination of sanctions.
Ironically, China will not allow the trade-offs to stand either.
It is Beijing that is driving the strategic turn in America’s China policy. Its wolf-warrior diplomats are burning through decades of carefully tended ambiguity over its intentions. American foreign policy leaders feel they have been had. The most conciliatory of them once held out hope that they could, among other things: maneuver the Chinese into a presence in the South China Sea that respects America’s core interests in the freedom of the seas; shame Beijing into abiding by their legal obligations to maintain “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong; and even encourage political liberalization in China itself. These hopes have been shattered, not by Donald Trump, but by the Chinese Communist Party. Barring an epoch-making political change in Beijing, its behavior will continue to stand in the way of any meaningful improvement in US-China relations, whoever is President.
It is difficult to know where things might be headed on trade. Biden has a record very supportive of trade liberalization, from the creation of the World Trade Organization to Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China. He has even indicated an interest in returning to a renegotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
On the other hand, it may be beyond any politician’s skill to make the turn from fighting for critical union votes in the rust belt — where Trump will be beating him over the head with all these positions — to embracing “globalism” as President. At any rate, shifting trade gears will take a lot of time and political capital.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised if Biden doesn’t quite get around to lifting those steel and aluminum tariffs, or opening negotiations on a US-Taiwan FTA.
Senator McConnell is right. Rancor in American politics is nothing new. In The American Senate, Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker write of an incident on the Senate floor involving Henry Clay — whom McConnell reveres as a “super-legislator” — “so ugly that senators feared a fist fight.” In that early 19th-century era, the authors point out, members of both Houses “routinely carried arms” and challenged one another to duels.
We are far from that point. But today, especially given that it is an election year, the US is in a disputatious mood. Those watching from Taiwan, or anywhere else for that matter, should know that this does not portend any diminution of commitment to the region. When all is said and done, the US will come out “in the right place” on China policy.
Walter Lohman is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
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