For its first month, US President Joe Biden’s administration lamented the “former guy’s mess” on the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, vaccinations and foreign policy, but during his CNN town hall, Biden finally said: “I’m tired of talking about [former US president] Donald Trump. I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
However, China’s leaders believe that blaming the former administration for Sino-US 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 administrations of former US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) last month again called for a return to the pre-Trump era of good feelings. His speech was unabashedly titled “Promoting Dialogue and Cooperation and Managing Differences: Bringing China-US Relations Back to the Right Track.”
Wang cited the conversation between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平): “This very important phone call has oriented China-US 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 US 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 Trump’s erratic style and his national security team’s sober policies. Chinese officials anticipated the revival of the “strategic patience” and “leading from behind” practiced by the Obama-Biden administration, in which many of Biden’s appointees had served.
“We know that the new US administration is reviewing and assessing its foreign policy,” Wang said. “We hope that US 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: “Stop smearing the [Chinese Communist Party] 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 that China and the US should first take care of their own stuff.
To Beijing’s chagrin, the Biden administration is having none of it. US Department of State 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, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 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 National Public Radio: “I think President Trump 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... First 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 the 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 of Blinken’s predecessor, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, 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.”
On trade, the only China issue where Trump sustained interest, Beijing got another tough message from the Biden team. Regarding Trump’s agreement, Katherine Tai (戴琪), Biden’s pick for US trade representative, said that 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 has also 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 to oppose China’s unlawful claims.
In the month since Biden’s inauguration, the US Navy has conducted several such operations by traversing international waters near artificial islands China constructed on reefs and islets. It also made several “innocent passages” through territorial waters within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of coastal land or natural islands claimed by China, as well as by Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines.
However, 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 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In the same period, the US 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 freedom of navigation operations and Strait transits, clearly in consultation with the US.
Blinken said: “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 might 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” might not be Biden’s preferred China policy, he and his team deserve credit for moving US foreign policy back to its bipartisan roots.
Joseph Bosco served as a China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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