By Atul Bhardwaj
As the spectre of the US losing its economic and technological advantage comes closer, Washington’s obduracy to decline peacefully will rise. This will make it extremely difficult for the next president — Donald Trump or Joe Biden, to change track and talk peace with China. However, if Biden wins in the upcoming elections, a shift in America’s China policy is on the cards.
Who is the Super Hawk on China?
The American propaganda pitch against China has reached a crescendo and is looking similar to the ‘Atrocity propaganda’ that was launched in Britain, prior to World War 1, against German barbarity. Germany was portrayed as an uncompromising, inhuman enemy to justify war and the sacrifices it demanded. One prominent victim of this propaganda was Lord Richard Burdon Haldane (Britain’s war minister). He was hounded out from the office for having once allegedly stated that Germany was his spiritual home.
With China as the primary election issue, both Republicans and Democrats are vying for the super-hawk position in their respective presidential campaigns, by demonising China. As “reason becomes treason,” nobody intends being Haldane of the century. Conservatives have built a dubious narrative by flooding #BeijingBiden on Twitter to project Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate to be soft on China. Team Trump has also launched an ad campaign that tries hard to show that Biden is Beijing’s boy. Biden’s son Hunter is also being targeted for his business dealings with China.
However, Biden has been quick to join the anti-China bandwagon. Commenting on China’s handling of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and its attempt to change the legal status of Hong Kong, Biden called Xi a “thug” and said during a Democratic primary debate that the Chinese leader doesn’t have a democratic “bone in his body.” Biden’s campaign team has also responded with a counter ad campaign highlighting Trump’s flip-flops on China, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, America’s China policy, which has changed so profoundly since the coronavirus pandemic, is not pure election desperation.
Differing approaches to handle China
There is a broad consensus in America that the policy of giving China the proverbial ‘loose rope to hang with’ has failed. Kissinger’s China playbook is considered to have only led to fattening the Communist Party of China (CCP), Washington’s chief bête noire. It is feared that a free and unfettered CCP will lead to Washington playing second fiddle to Beijing’s rise in international affairs.
After President Barack Obama’s soft conciliatory approach, Trump confronted China from the very start of his Presidency in 2017. Trump launched a trade war with China, the second-biggest economy of the world, without calculating its adverse impact on America. Trump employed the techniques of transactionalism in his foreign policy — sans diplomatic norms and niceties.
His single-point agenda was to appease his domestic followers and make China and even US allies realise that Washington’s interests and prosperity were paramount. His policies have hardly made “America great” again. In fact, his gross mishandling of pandemic has exposed the hollowness of American capitalism. China has adopted a more aggressive posture and the fact is that it is not Trump’s tariffs but coronavirus that has slowed the pace of Chinese economic advance.
After a few tumultuous years, American foreign policy is gasping for breath. Will Joe Biden, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, be able to prevent America’s decline? Biden’s grasp of foreign policy is his core strength. According to Inderjeet Parmar, Biden was known as the “quarterback in the Democrats foreign policy team” during the Iraq War, posing tough questions to the then George W. Bush administration.
Assuming that Biden occupies the Oval Office in 2021, he will repose his faith in the strategy of hegemonic ordering — the hallmark of Liberal International Order for cooperation and contestation to achieve foreign policy goals. Biden will rely on conventional diplomacy and discard Trump’s rustic style in dealing with the allies and adversaries. He is likely to resort to extensive use of democracy and human rights rhetoric to highlight China’s shortcomings, both in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. He will try and make China play on the back-foot in the South China Sea by strengthening QUAD, boosting American naval presence in the Indo-Pacific and the freedom of navigation patrols are likely to maintain momentum acquired during Trump’s presidency.
However, it is on the economic front that Biden is going to deviate from Trump’s framework of managing China. He is not likely to promote the decoupling of US-China economies. Biden has already announced that he would re-evaluate Trump’s tariffs on imports from China because he feels that tariff-war is equally harmful to America as “manufacturing has gone into a recession. Agriculture lost billions of dollars that taxpayers had to pay.”
Focus on domestic situations
The big question remains: will Biden’s policy of competition and confrontation with China spiral into a full-fledged war? Biden will demand greater transparency from China on everything but he will avoid a situation that would push the two towards war because the forty sixth US President is likely to encounter difficult domestic situations — mounting unemployment, economic recession, and a polarised society.
Tension and turbulence in US-China relations will dominate the discourse but economic interdependence and inter-capitalist class shared interests will prevent any major flareup of the situation, as Inderjeet Parmar says, the scenario today is tilted more towards ultra imperialism as propounded by Karl Kautsky than Vladimir Lenin’s idea of inter-imperialist rivalry. America is suffering from war-fatigue, and it is predicted that in accordance with the theory of ultra-imperialism, the US will attempt to form a holy alliance with the Chinese empire-in-being, rather than nip it in the bud.
War is also ruled out because American debt stands at more than $26 trillion as of 10 June 2020. Within a span of 12 years, the US Federal Reserve has rolled out two huge bailout packages. In 2008, the Bank provided a $800 billion bailout package for corporations and financial institutions and in 2020, the Cares Act promulgated in the wake of Covid-19 crisis, released $877 billion for an economy that was showing signs of plunging into another crisis.
For the next ten years, the American Central Bank is not likely to have the capacity to print more dollars to fund a major war and it is this fiscal factor which is likely to prevent the outbreak of a US-China war till the end of this decade at least. China is unlikely to trigger a war with the US due to a big military gap between the two. However, the two big powers will continue to compete, China will not abandon its march to move out of the middle-income trap and the US will continue to collaborate with all its partners to maintain pressure on Beijing. As Biden says, he would mount a more effective pushback against China than Trump and work more closely with allies to pressure Beijing.
Hence, as president, Biden would likely avoid direct war with China, but he is most likely to encourage American allies and partners to take up cudgels against China. Biden’s policy is likely to put additional pressure on partners like India to stand up to China. Indo-US defence interoperability would grow further and bring more sophisticated US weapons systems into India. But it could also raise the probability of another India-China confrontation in the next few years, as India will remain a lynchpin in Biden’s strategy of keeping China within limits.