The most important foreign policy issue for the next American president will undoubtedly be relations with China. Unfortunately, neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden have an approach grounded in reality, with a clear-eyed view of our national interests.
Ever since economic reforms were launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s, the bipartisan consensus was that the best approach to China was engagement. As China grew more prosperous and less insulated, the thinking went, economic liberalization could lead to political liberalization as well. Or, at a minimum, China could be a non-threatening participant in the world’s economy and affairs.
This was not as naïve an expectation, or at least hope, as sometimes depicted today. There were examples of countries with authoritarian systems of state capitalism evolving into democracies with true market economies. South Korea is the most obvious example.
Indeed, a “peaceful rise” of China was one of Deng’s objectives. And that was the approach taken by his successors until current China strongman Xi Jinping.
Trump is using Biden’s support for China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 against him. But, at the time, that was a prudent move and consistent with American interests as they were then perceived.
Xi's China is different now
All this changed with Xi, who has jettisoned much of Deng’s approach to China’s development.
Deng believed in communal and rotating leadership. Xi has had himself appointed authoritarian-in-chief for life.
Xi is remaking China to return the Communist Party as the central focus of all life in the country. The government is to serve the party. And private businesses are to serve the government.
Markets are still used to allocate resources more efficiently than heavy-handed central planning. But there are no such things as truly private businesses in Xi’s China. Their ultimate purpose is to serve the interests of the party.
A “peaceful rise” has been abandoned. The purpose of trade is no longer principally to improve living standards. It is to increase the reach and leverage of the government and party. Militarily and diplomatically, China is seeking to dominate its region and intimidate other countries in the Asia-Pacific.
With Xi’s China, the expectations or hopes that underlay the engagement approach are a lost cause. External engagement isn’t going to change Xi’s China. Only domestic political upheaval that rejects Xi Thought will do that. And that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
The US should do 2 things differently
The reality of Xi’s China warrants an abandonment of the engagement approach. There should be two strategic objectives to a new approach to China.
►First, insulate the American economy from China to the maximum extent possible. Among foreign policy boffins, this is referred to as “decoupling.”
►Second, increase the military and diplomatic capacity of China’s neighbors, so every regional conflict involving China doesn’t automatically become a conflict with the United States. Our current role as the de facto security guarantor in the region isn’t in our best interests.
What Trump gets wrong on tariffs
Tariffs are one tool that could be used in decoupling. Trump has famously declared himself to be Tariff Man. And his administration currently has tariffs in place on roughly $370 billion worth of Chinese goods.
But decoupling isn’t the true strategic objective of Trump and his tariffs. Trump believes that the score between countries is kept by the balance of trade. The purpose of Trump’s tariffs is to serve as leverage to get China to purchase more American goods. Indeed, he reduced some tariffs and pulled the plug on others in exchange for a Chinese promise to do exactly that.
Biden gets engagement wrong
In an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine, Biden makes clear that he still believes in the engagement approach.
The principal problem with Trump’s approach, according to Biden, is that it is unilateral. Biden promises to create a coalition with allies to pressure China to change troublesome behavior in trade. But to continue cooperation with China on things where, as Biden puts it, “our interests converge.” He specifically mentions climate change, nonproliferation and global health security.
There is no such get-tough-on-China coalition to be had. There’s some spine in China’s neighbors. But none in the European Union, whose trade leverage would be necessary to get China’s full attention.
Trump’s instinct is to reduce the exposure of the U.S. to regional conflicts elsewhere. But he has no strategic vision about getting from here to there.
In his essay, Biden doubles down on the commitment to be the region’s security guarantor, a role whose risks vastly exceed the benefits to the United States.
Trump’s erraticism or Biden’s return to unproductive engagement. Sadly, that’s the choice.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Donald Trump and Joe Biden are both wrong about China