A Chinese lesson during a government-organized visit in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, last year © Ben Blanchard/Reuters Source: The Financial Times
“There is no question that Xi Jinping has taken China in a different direction . . . even a more authoritarian direction,” says Jeff Prescott, a China expert and senior foreign policy adviser to the Biden campaign. “The next president is going to have to recalibrate the relationship with China.”
After targeting Beijing during the election campaign, Mr. Trump actually entered office trying to mend fences with Beijing. He talked up his rapport with his “good friend” Mr. Xi who he feted over chocolate cake at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in April 2017.
But the Trump administration soon started to take a more hawkish view, exemplified by the national security review later that year. Mr. McMaster says the document gave the green light to government agencies to toughen their approach. The justice department, for example, created a unit called the “China Initiative”, which has spent two years cracking down on espionage. “Their investigations increased dramatically after we announced the shift,” he says.
One senior Trump administration official says that until the president had stood up to Beijing, many people in Washington had assumed China was unstoppable and that U.S rhetoric and policy had developed a “defeatist smell”.
“You had senior U.S officials parroting Chinese Communist party jargon about a new type of great power relations that would allow for win-win solutions, by which they apparently meant China would win twice,” the official says.
Mr. Trump was cautious about alienating Beijing to avoid jeopardizing negotiations aimed at ending the trade war that he had launched against China. But that changed dramatically this year. After signing a limited “phase one” trade deal in January, he backed a slew of actions against China, over everything from human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the imposition of a draconian security law in Hong Kong, to threatening to ban social media app TikTok.
Some US officials say Mr. Trump is punishing China for not having done more to prevent Covid-19 from spreading to America, which he believes has hurt his chances of re-election. Many experts believe Mr. Trump would continue his current approach in a second term, unless he eased off on security to get a comprehensive trade deal.
The bigger question is how Mr. Biden, a former Senate foreign relations committee chairman who first visited China in 1979 and has been steeped in these issues for three decades, would treat China if he is elected.
Tom Donilon, former national security adviser to Mr. Obama, says Mr. Biden’s approach would have echoes of Dean Acheson’s “situations of strength”, a reference to the Truman administration secretary of state who argued that the US should work with like-minded allies.
“He sees the China challenge clearly and knows we need to put ourselves in the strongest possible position to meet it. There would be a major realignment with allies,” Mr. Donilon says.
Mr. Prescott says Mr. Biden would rally allies such as the EU to tackle the “aggressive and predatory challenges” from China — in contrast with the Trump administration’s approach. “We shouldn’t be insulting our friends. We should be working with them to address some of the challenges from China.”
Supporters of the Trump administration argue that it worked with Asia-Pacific and other allies to purge Huawei from their networks. But even some fans of Mr. Trump argue that he could have strengthened his hand with Beijing by working closer with allies.
Mr. Biden has rejected criticism that he would not be tough. His team includes advisers known for more hawkish views, such as Ely Ratner who was his deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration.
But Mr. Biden will also have senior advisers who believe that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the US — a position that might make them more open to co-operating with China.