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Is Biden "too soft" on China?

Momentum is building towards a summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping with the American president’s track record on Beijing already an issue on the 2024 election campaign trail.

Last Thursday, Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. State Department official for Asia, met China’s Vice Foreign Minister for Asia, Sun Weidong, in Washington in the latest exchange of top officials between the world’s two biggest economies. This month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit Washington for further discussions.

Although there is no confirmation from either side, these powwows could be a prelude to a meeting between the heads of state at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November, coming at the end of a rocky year.

So far in 2023, the U.S. has shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon, Biden has called XI a dictator, and Washington has continued to spar with Beijing over access to cutting-edge technology and faced off over Xi’s territorial claims over Taiwan.

Even if Biden has talked tough on China, former President Donald Trump painted Biden as being soft on Beijing last week at a rally in Detroit, saying that if re-elected, the incumbent would let vehicle production to shift from Michigan to China.

This suggests Trump may point to his foreign policy bona fides on China when he was in the White House where he launched a trade war in 2018, slapping tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese made goods as well as adding duties to more items after Beijing retaliated.

Other contenders for the 2024 Republican Party nomination have followed suit on the rhetoric toward Beijing.

Vivek Ramaswamy has called for a ban on Chinese investment. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said if she won, she would take a hardline approach to China, which she views as an “enemy.”

It raises questions over whether Biden has been stern enough on China, or whether such an approach is even necessary.

“U.S. policymakers focused on China need to think bigger and move faster,” said Jonathan D.T. Ward, the author of The Decisive Decade: American Grand Strategy for Triumph Over China.

Ward told Newsweek that the Biden administration had succeeded in rallying allies around a technology-focused strategy and maintaining Trump-era tariffs that spurred American businesses to rethink supply chain risk in China. There was also a focus across U.S. government agencies on China “as our primary geostrategic competitor.”

“However, the United States has barely begun to address the scale of the challenge and time is of the essence,” Ward said.

The U.S. adherence to the One China policy, which acknowledges one Chinese government with formal ties with Beijing rather than Taiwan, teeters alongside Washington’s strong ties with the self-governed island which are enshrined under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Meanwhile, Beijing has been increasing its swagger in the South China Sea, stepping up its deployment of warships near Taiwan ahead of the island’s presidential election in January. China’s Ministry of Natural Resources angered regional neighbors by publishing a map that shows disputed territory as being within China’s borders, including all of Taiwan, and islands, reefs and maritime zones contested by half a dozen countries.

But Washington is looking to counter this push by Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region. Last month, it was reported that the U.S. military wants to develop a port in the Philippines’ Batanes islands which would give it increased direct access to strategic islands facing Taiwan.

“The rhetoric from Biden has been tough and sometimes maybe even reckless and excessive, but the actual movement of hard military assets to Asia has been less than one would expect,” Carl Delfeld, author of Power Rivals: America and China’s Superpower Struggle, told Newsweek. “In other words, the rhetoric is not matched by action on the ground.”

South China Sea

Last month, China’s military condemned as “public hyping” the transit of American and Canadian warships USS Ralph Johnson and HMCS Ottawa through the Taiwan Strait in the second such joint mission since June.

“Our goal is a favorable balance of power to deter China from moving on Taiwan,” said Delfeld. “I think both Republicans and the Democrats would be smart to frame the issue with China as freedom of navigation and put that more front and centre.”

John Lee, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Newsweek that it was significant that the U.S. was seeking basing rights in the Philippines and that there was greater defense co-operation with Japan and Australia.

“In strategic and defense issues, there has been continuation and acceleration under Biden,” Lee said. “In this sense, one can say that Trump initiated the change in the approach and rhetoric towards China and Biden has leveraged off that,” he said. “It is a rare instance of general continuity from Republican to Democratic policy.”

Trump’s trade war

When he entered the White House, Biden reversed a number of the Trump administration’s policies but left tariffs in place on $350 billion of Chinese goods imposed by his predecessor.

However, in September, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said there was unlikely to be any revisions to tariffs on China imposed during the Trump era until a review is completed by the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office.

“Compared with the Trump administration, the Biden administration’s China policy is not tougher or softer, but smarter,” Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, told Newsweek.

Zhu said that the Biden administration defends the interests of the U.S. and its allies to push back Beijing’s assertiveness “while avoiding confrontation or a new cold war with China.”

“It is harder for China to counter U.S. policies now,” he said. “Rhetorically, the Biden administration seems to be saying less and less now about China to avoid publicly offending China or further raising tensions between the two countries.”

Zhu also noted the Biden administration’s move to strengthen alliances with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines through weapons sales and military aid.

“It has beefed up Taiwan’s defense, and it has toughened up the tech war with China,” he said.

This tech war has dovetailed with the trade war, driven by concerns that China was using unfair means such as intellectual property (IP) theft and state power to achieve its goal of attaining supremacy in core technologies like AI, semiconductors and 5G, driven by by the 10-year blueprint called Made in China 2025.

But Ward told Newsweek that Biden and his administration show “worrying signs of a return to the old, failed U.S. strategy of economic engagement with China, which transformed Communist China into an economic superpower.”

“A genuine U.S. grand strategy that goes beyond a technology focus and addresses the Chinese Communist Party’s own comprehensive economic, military, diplomatic, and ideological strategies, has yet to be articulated,” he said.

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