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Malcolm Riddell

Founder of CHINADebate

'When it comes to China, Team Biden sounds a lot like Team Trump'
'When it comes to China, Team Biden sounds a lot like Team Trump'
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January 20, 2021

In today’s issue:

1. Biden's China Hawks

  • 'When it comes to China, Team Biden sounds a lot like Team Trump'

2. Keep Trump's China Policy [?]

  • H. R. McMaster: 'Biden would do the world a favor by keeping Trump’s China policy'

3. Breaking Down Biden's China Challenges

  • 'A Complex Inheritance: Transitioning to a New Approach on China'

As I write, Joe Biden has just become the 46th President of the United States.

  • With this event, I will depart from the non-partisan approach I try to bring to CHINADebate and say that for me this is a day for celebrating.

That said, I repeat that former President Donald Trump receives full marks for alerting all of us to the risks and dangers that China poses.

  • The rub of course is that the policies and actions Mr. Trump selected to meet these were not coordinated and sustained – and frankly were the wrong ones.

So, with Mr. Trump out of office, I may not have another opportunity to invoke my usual question that implicitly critiques Trump China policy: ‘What would Reagan do?

  • Because, unlike Mr. Trump, Reagan, in striving to end (not win) the Cold War, had a clear objective, policies coordinated into broad strategies, and sustained application of these.
  • Were these the right ones? The proof is in the results.

Because of the failures of Mr. Trump’s China policies, I was taken aback by the title of an essay by former National Security Advisor, Gen. H. R. McMaster: 'Biden would do the world a favor by keeping Trump’s China policy.'

Gen. McMaster gets one big thing wrong when he writes: ‘U.S. policy between the end of the Cold War and 2017 was based on a flawed assumption: that China, having been welcomed into the international order, would play by the rules, and, as it prospered, would liberalize its economy and, ultimately, its form of governance.’

  • In fact, this was never the avowed aim of the administrations during the period he cites.
  • This would be a quibble except that it may well be that, based on his writings, the incoming Indo-Pacific Coordinator, Kurt Campbell, may hold the same incorrect view, and that is an issue for crafting policy – keep an eye out for this.

But the real problem is that Gen. McMaster conflates a strategy with actions to implement it. He writes:

  • ‘Little noticed during a week when the House of Representatives voted for impeachment, the Trump administration released a partially declassified document from February 2018 entitled “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.” ’
  • ‘That document, and the collaborative work across the U.S. government during the year that preceded it, effected the most significant shift in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.’
  • True or not, the shift didn’t result in effective action.

Still the ‘Strategic Framework’ has much to commend it and is worth the Biden team’s attention.

  • But it will no doubt end up in the trash can as they formulate new policies that match President Biden’s worldview.

So instead of doing ‘the world a favor by keeping Trump’s China policy,' as Gen. McMaster suggests, the Biden team would do better to craft policies following the nuanced approach laid out by Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 'A Complex Inheritance: Transitioning to a New Approach on China.'

  • Dr. Kennedy contends: ‘Although the Trump administration has tried to intentionally handcuff its successors, the Biden administration has substantial flexibility to reshape America’s China policy.’
  • ‘To successfully transition to a new and more effective China strategy, the various existing measures should not be treated in the same way.’

‘Instead, they can be sorted into four categories (see below figure):'  

  1. 'Unilateral Multilateralism'
  • 'Isolate China'
  • 'Bilateral Stabilization'
  • 'Modified Restrictions and Reforms’

'Each of these should be handled differently.’

Of the many prescriptive China essays I have read, this is among the top.

  • It is so rich that the few excerpts I included below don’t do justice to Dr. Kennedy’s analysis.
  • So be sure to read the entire piece. Even if the Biden administration doesn’t follow his recommendations, you will be better able to analyze the policies and actions it does take using his framework.

Finally, in an oblique answer to Gen. McMaster’s suggestion that the Biden administration keep Trump China policy is the observation in the title of an article in Fortune: 'When it comes to China, Team Biden sounds a lot like Team Trump.'

  • ‘In recent days, as Biden has announced his picks for cabinet positions and senior policy advisers, it has been almost impossible to distinguish his new team's China rhetoric from that of the departing Trump officials.’
  • ‘Whether Beijing will find it easier to engage with Biden's China hawks than Trump's China hawks remains unclear.’

So perhaps Gen. McMaster can rest easier knowing that even if specific Trump policies are not followed their spirit appears to be intact.

  • And if President Biden’s China policy is carried out in the Reagan mode, we may find that instead of a pejorative, ‘Beijing Biden,’ may become a sobriquet of acclaim.
  • Like General ‘Chinese’ Gordon and the Ever Victorious Army.


CHINADebate, the publisher of the China Macro Reporter, aims to present different views on a given issue.Including an article here does imply agreement with or endorsement of its contents.
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