A Biden administration’s policy toward China: Its public stance and real intention
Since September, I have heard many US experts on China issues express their view that US policy toward China will change significantly if a Joe Biden administration is established.
Of course, at this point, there is the possibility that Donald Trump will be re-elected depending on developments in the battleground states, and thus it is unclear what will happen after the election.
However, their views seem to be influenced by the fact that as the election draws nearer, consideration of specific issues regarding policy management under a Biden administration is underway.
Most Democratic-leaning or neutral scholars and experts have been critical of the Trump administration’s extremely belligerent stance toward China.
They do not fully approve of China’s foreign and domestic policies and point out a number of problems with them.
However, they disagree with the Trump administration’s view that the US government’s policy of “engagement” with China has not brought about any change in China. They also disagree with Trump’s “America First” policy of unilaterally imposing burdens on US allies.
Nevertheless, this is mentioned only in an online interview between those scholars/experts and me, and there has been no suggestion from the presidential campaign of Joe Biden that such a tough stance toward China would be revised.
On the contrary, Biden himself, who is seen as conciliatory toward China, has criticized the Republican Party’s policy toward China as weak-kneed.
However, few experts believe that this is Biden’s true intention.
When I asked US scholars and experts well-versed in China issues around June whether they thought US policy toward China would change if Biden won the presidential election, most of them responded that it would remain basically the same and the hardline stance toward China would be maintained.
But when I asked the same question in September, their opinions varied depending on individual issues.
Roughly half of the China experts said that they would expect some changes. However, during the same time frame, Joe Biden’s stance on policy toward China has remained virtually unchanged.
The reason for this is that anti-China sentiment has grown to the extent that more than 70% of American citizens said they did not like China in a public-opinion poll conducted in June and July of this year.
Under these circumstances, if the Biden camp insists on a conciliatory stance toward China, they are highly likely to be exposed to the Trump camp’s attacks, which appears to be keeping the former from expressing their innermost thoughts.
This is populism.
The Trump administration is a populist powerhouse. In order to combat this in a short-term debate, there is no other way than to use populism.
That is a structural flaw in democracy.
That is why democracy has often been pointed out as mobocracy since the Greek era. Most scholars and experts in the US are worried about the current state of populist democracy.
US foreign policy is for domestic politics
This growing populism in US domestic politics is also affecting its foreign policy.
A prominent US foreign policy expert told me, “The current US foreign policy has become a domestic policy. Washington makes a policy decision based solely on whether it will be accepted by US citizens, without considering the counterpart countries or other countries involved.”
Indeed, the Trump administration’s slogan, “America First,” is populism itself and a foreign policy aimed at domestic politics.
Key policies that have emerged from that are the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on trade, trade frictions with China and the exclusion of Huawei.
US foreign policy is not the only case in which considerations of domestic politics have had a significant impact on foreign policy.
The UK’s Brexit, China’s enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law and its operation, and human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are other examples of domestic politics having had a substantial impact on foreign policy in a broad sense.
These are all major powers that have a high profile in the international arena.
Smaller countries cannot carry out foreign policy for the sake of domestic politics anyway, as their counterpart countries would not accept them even if they tried to conduct diplomacy for their own internal reasons.
In recent years, however, amidst accelerated globalization, even great powers have been forced to attach importance to cooperation with the global community.
It is against this background that many of the scholars and experts who support Joe Biden have argued that the direction in which China policy should be revised is to place emphasis on dialogue with allies and other countries involved and to reconsider it on the basis of multilateralism.
Huawei exclusion policy may change
It is in this context that the issue of Huawei is often discussed.
Until around June, most of the US scholars and experts I interviewed said that the US government would never tolerate Huawei.
In September, however, several experts began to express the following views on the US policy of excluding Huawei: first, although there is an argument that Huawei products pose a security risk, it is nothing but suspicion and not based on objective evidence; second, even if there was the possibility that all of the daily conversations of US citizens could be eavesdropped, we could not define it as a security risk. Therefore, a total ban on Huawei’s products for consumer use cannot be justified; third, prohibiting US allies from using Huawei’s 5G base stations and other products would impose a huge cost burden on them, which could eventually weaken the relationship between the US and them; fourth, from an industrial policy perspective, it is highly likely that excluding competitive foreign companies from the US market will reduce the competitiveness of the relevant industry in the US. The US auto industry is a typical example of this.
The above arguments lead to the conclusion that it would be difficult for the US government to continue its current policy of excluding Huawei.
It will take time for the policy toward China to change
Of course, the establishment of a Biden administration would not immediately extinguish populism in domestic politics, so it is unlikely that a rational policy based on the cool-headed perspective described above will be adopted soon.
However, if the US economy begins to recover from the slump caused by the coronavirus disaster, the social division caused by issues such as racial discrimination against blacks is rectified, misinformation about China and the effects of US policy toward China is corrected, and other positive changes occur, the US will achieve domestic stability and there is a good chance that it will resume making rational and level-headed decisions on foreign affairs.
However, considering the relationship with domestic politics, I think it unlikely that the US alone will unilaterally shift to a policy of reconciliation with China.
China, too, needs to make compromises with the US to a certain extent, such as by correcting human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, easing the operation criteria of the Hong Kong National Security Law, and reviewing national security issues involving the South China Sea and other areas.
If such compromises are not made by China in concrete form, we cannot expect any steps towards reconciliation, such as the US appreciating China’s stance and revising its hardline stance toward China to a certain degree, and major powers, including those in Europe and Japan, falling into line with the US.
In addition, there are concerns that if President Trump loses by a narrow margin, radical Trump supporters who refuse to accept the election results could start riots throughout the nation.
If that happens, as the new Biden administration is expected to focus on domestic stabilization policies for at least a year, it will not be until after that time that the new government will seriously tackle foreign policy issues, including the US-China feud.
If President Trump is re-elected, meanwhile, it will remain hard to predict the future.
It is considered difficult to expect an improvement in US-China relations, partly because the personnel involved in China policy in a second Trump administration are forecast to have a far poorer understanding of China than that those in the first.