The Biden Administration ends ‘the Era of Engagement’ with China
by Salman Rafi Sheikh on 14 Jun 2021 3 Comments

When Joe Biden was running his election campaign for presidential election, he targeted Donald Trump for his ‘trade war’ with China, calling it a ‘disaster’ for the US businesses and agriculture. Biden aimed to reverse Trump’s China policy and promised to start an era of ‘engagement’ through intensive diplomacy. However, the Biden administration has already reversed its own policies, promising to start a new era of confrontation and conflict. This has already given way to an official end of an ‘era of engagement’ with China and the beginning of a multifaceted confrontation plan.


Making the announcement, Biden’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on National Security Council Kurt Campbell recently said that “The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end,” adding that the Biden administration will follow a policy that would operate under a “new set of strategic parameters” and that “the dominant paradigm is going to be competition.”


This announcement was soon followed by the Biden administration’s decision to formally expand the sanction regime to counter companies doing business with China’s defense industry. The rationale for this, as Senator Tom Cotton said in a statement on June 2, is the imperative of continuing “to expand this list of Chinese military companies – these firms shouldn’t have access to US technology and capital markets. We are arming and funding our leading competitor.”


At the same time, the US lawmakers are discussing a bill, “The Strategic Competition Act of 2021”, which will authorise the Biden administration to officially pursue an anti-China agenda at global level. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed the bill by 21-1 and sent it to the Senate for consideration. According to Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the committee, this bill “will be a cascade of legislative activity for our nation to finally meet the China challenge across every dimension of power, political, diplomatic, economic, innovation, military and even cultural.”


The bill authorises the US government to conduct political, diplomatic and even military operations to counter-act what it calls the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) attempts to re-shape the existing international order,

“… to align [it] with the objectives of the CCP, rejecting the legitimacy of internationally recognized human rights, and seeking to co-opt the leadership and agenda of multinational organizations for the benefit of the PRC and other authoritarian regimes at the expense of the interests of the United States and the international community.”


It adds that,

“The CCP engages in and encourages actions that actively undermine a free and open international market, such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, regulatory and financial subsidies, and mandatory CCP access to proprietary data as part of business and commercial agreements between Chinese and foreign companies.”


The purpose of these actions of PRC is to,

“... freeze United States and other foreign firms out of the PRC market, while eroding competition in other important markets. The heavy subsidization of Chinese companies includes potential violation of its World Trade Organization commitments. In May 2018, President Xi said that the PRC aims to keep the ‘‘initiatives of innovation and development security ... in [China’s] own hands.”


Accusing China of spearheading a communist agenda, the bill further states that the PRC is promoting a model of governance that undermines liberal democratic institutions as well as financial institutions. While the charge sheet that this long bill presents reflects the typical mindset of a super-power facing a rival that has the capacity to match its capabilities and even off-set its own domination, there is no denying that this bill also manifests a proper institutionalisation of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at denying China a legitimate space to develop itself as a political, economic and military power.


Apart from this act, the Endless Frontier Act is also another bi-partisan legislation targeted at China. The Biden administration, through this legislation, is taking steps to allocate $120 billion to fund new technologies, focusing on artificial intelligence, superconductors, and robotics to counter China’s growing dominance in this field.


The overall strategy to counter China on multiple fronts draws heavily from a growing realisation in the US that, as Kurt Campbell wrote just a week before Biden’s inauguration, “Beijing spends more on its military than all its Indo-Pacific neighbors combined. China has invested in anti-access/area-denial weapons (including supersonic missiles and “smart” mines) that threaten the viability of U.S. regional intervention. It has also invested in blue-water, amphibious, and power-projection capabilities that Beijing could employ for offensive missions against India, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others.”


In other words, in Washington’s calculation the disproportionate rise in China’s national power potential has pushed them in a zero-sum competition game in which the rise of China leads directly to a strategic loss for the US. Therefore, as Campbell advocated before his confirmation, the US needs to actively “deter Chinese adventurism.”


It is interesting to note that for Washington, China’s rise to global preeminence is not a story of a country’s success in implementing a set of policies and a long-term vision that led to its rise. Instead, the US sees China’s rise as ‘illegal adventurism’, a discourse based upon an anomaly that Washington thinks helps its action become legitimate in the eyes of US public as well as its allies in Europe and elsewhere in Asia & the Pacific.


The US, therefore, has started to build a sort of narrative that is tantamount to starting a massive disinformation war vis-à-vis the PRC in order to delegitimise and undermine its politics (because it is ‘totalitarian’ and discourages competition), economy (because it does not follow US-made international rules) and its technology (because it is based upon a ‘systematic theft’ of US knowledge). It is for this reason that the US is even considering discouraging Chinese students’ enrolment in US universities for studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


Clearly, the Joe Biden administration is even more paranoid over China than the Trump administration was, which is why it is expanding the war that Donald Trump started in 2017. This war is now deeply ingrained within the US ‘deep-state’ and is unlikely to die down even if Biden loses next elections. It is perhaps one of the very few subjects that have an almost unanimous bi-partisan support in the US as well, making it a part and parcel of US body politics. Joe Biden and future presidential candidates and presidents will be judged on the basis of how well they propose and execute their programs to counter China.


Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”. Courtesy 

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