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US allies must brace for tougher China stance from Biden

America's friends to face hard choices in an alliance approach to confronting Beijing

TOKYO -- U.S. allies like Japan should start mapping out strategies on how to respond to a potential Joe Biden White House to align with American diplomatic efforts in punishing China over its dismal record on human rights.

Biden is now the official Democratic presidential candidate and is leading President Donald Trump in polls.

A win by the former vice president in the Nov. 3 election, however, is far from certain as questions remain over how he will fare in debates with Trump and whether a coronavirus vaccine will be developed by election day.

Still, policymakers around the world would be advised to start considering seriously about how to deal with a Biden presidency. One big question is how Biden's leadership would affect U.S.-Sino relations, which have sunk to decades long lows.

Asian countries that are fending off China's aggressive military buildup are betting that Biden would be less a hardliner toward Beijing than Trump. Biden is well aware that he is viewed as being soft on China -- a fact not lost on Trump's reelection team, which may be targeting this as a possible Biden weakness.

In attempts to erase the image of being too chummy with China, Biden's top foreign policy advisers -- such as Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, who was the national security adviser to the former vice president -- have gone on record in recent weeks to discuss how Biden's China policy would shape up.

The three main takeaways are that Biden would:

(1) Not allow China to continue unfair trade practices, cyberspying or aggressive naval expansion.

(2) Come down harder on China's human rights abuses, including the brutal oppression of the Uighurs.

(3) Seek cooperation with China over global challenges, such as climate change.

Both advisers stressed the need for the U.S. to adjust alliances to better respond to unacceptable Chinese actions.

There are more than 20 references to China in the Democratic Party's 80-page platform, which features policies about how to deal with Beijing that align with Blinken and Sullivan's views.

If these planks really translate into an actual Biden foreign policy, Washington's tough stance toward China will not change.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, does not think a Biden White House would be easier on Beijing.

"If Mr. Biden were to become president, he will not use explicit China-bashing rhetoric and tactics, as Mr. Trump has been doing," Glaser says. "But that doesn't mean Mr. Biden will soften the U.S. approach to China. China policy is one of the few policy agenda that is backed by solid bipartisan support, and the Democrats are as tough as the GOP on China," she argues.

If Biden is elected, Chinese President Xi Jinping may try to persuade the new U.S. president to drop Trump's anti-China policy in return for Beijing's cooperation on global issues such as climate change, which is high on Biden's agenda.

There are three U.S.-China scenarios a Biden presidency might entail:

(1) Current tensions will ease as China shows a willingness to work with the U.S. over global challenges like climate change while refusing to budge on national security and human rights issues.

(2) The U.S.-China tussle will continue and could even escalate as Beijing refuses to compromise on security and human rights issues, despite some progress in bilateral cooperation on climate change and other challenges.

(3) The U.S. and China will descend deeper into confrontation due to a lack of cooperation on climate change and other global challenges, along with Beijing's intransigence over security and human rights issues.

The first scenario is unlikely because disagreements over security and human rights -- such as cyberspying, maritime and naval disputes, and Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement -- are unlikely to go away. Unless these issues are resolved, a thaw in relations is a long shot.

Besides, Biden's China policy has at least two factors that could work to deepen the bilateral morass.

One is his focus on human rights. A Biden aide says that if elected, Biden would lead Washington's efforts to pressure Beijing into improving its behavior toward Hong Kong and the Uighurs.

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has historically been very sensitive to human rights. Current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one example of this. In 1989, she grabbed the political spotlight by leading the U.S. attack on China's bloody crackdown during the Tiananmen Square protests.

A second factor in Biden's China policy that could further strain ties is his plan to bolster efforts with key U.S. allies in confronting China. This could lead to stronger international cooperation to pressure China and further isolate Beijing.

Trump has never officially demanded Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to go along with American sanctions against China over Hong Kong and the Uighurs, according to diplomatic sources. But unless China's human rights record improves, Biden would impose new financial and trade sanctions while urging Japan, Europe, South Korea and Australia to go along. This has led some top Chinese Communist Party officials to argue that China would be better off with a Trump presidency.

For key U.S. allies, a Biden presidency would bring both benefits and challenges.

Allies pulled further into the U.S.-Sino quagmire would face tough decisions. If they wavered in Biden's efforts against China, they would likely face American ire. At least one former U.S. Democrat official has already complained about the reluctance of Tokyo and Brussels to slap sanctions on China over human rights abuses.

U.S. allies should learn lessons from President Barack Obama's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. His administration imposed tough sanctions on Russia and called on Japan and Europe to do the same. The Abe administration, however, refused to go along over fears of damaging delicate negotiations with President Vladimir Putin's government over a long-running territorial dispute. This stance negatively impacted Japan's relationship with the U.S. throughout the Obama administration, according to a Japanese official.

U.S. allies heavily dependent on maintaining close economic ties with China would face a delicate balancing act.

This makes it imperative that leaders of these countries start planning strategies for handling a sticky challenge instead of mulling the implications of a White House that is soft on China.

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