“China ate your lunch, Joe.” That was the characteristically offhand way Donald Trump accused Joe Biden last month of having been duped during his tenure as vice-president. It is a criticism of the Democratic candidate (derisively labelled “Beijing Biden” in Trump’s attack ads) that is congruent with the opinions of Republican party China hawks, who have long been critical of the Democrats for enabling China’s economic and political rise during the Clinton and Obama administrations. Recognising perceived Democrat softness on China as an effective pressure point, the Trump administration has adopted increasingly hostile policies towards China as the presidential election has drawn nearer.
Yet while there are many reasons progressives ought to hope for a Biden victory in November, it is unlikely that a Democratic presidency would halt the slide towards a new cold war. It may be true that a President Biden would be less bellicose than Donald Trump, and the greater predictability of US policy under the Democrats might reduce the likelihood of an accidental military escalation in the South China Sea. However, not being hobbled by the capricious personality and unilateralist “America first” ideology of Donald Trump, the Democrats will be more able, and perhaps more willing, to build an international anti-China alliance that would further sour Sino-American relations. People everywhere ought to be profoundly worried at such a prospect.
Although it was a Democratic administration that facilitated China’s integration into the circuits of global capital in the 1990s, that process took place at a time when China occupied a complementary yet subordinate position in relation to the US. China posed no real military threat and American corporations were profiting handsomely from the exploitation of China’s well-educated, poorly paid and effectively non-unionised workforce. But now that China has successfully moved up the value chain and is competing with the US in advanced technologies, the complementarity of the two economies is much less clear. Increasingly it is not just Republicans, but also Democrats and liberal intellectuals who see the relationship between China and the US as a zero-sum competition.
China poses the first serious threat to US economic and political hegemony since the end of the cold war. And China’s extraordinary rise would preoccupy any occupant of the White House. While the makings of an international anti-China alliance already exist, the presence of the mercurial Donald Trump in the White House has encouraged US allies to hedge their bets and pursue a more independent course. A Biden victory will draw those allies closer to the American orbit and a Democratic administration can be expected to take advantage of the increasing anti-China sentiment among US allies.
Last year the European Union designated China as a “strategic competitor” and the formerly dovish German government is now strengthening ties with Japan and South Korea to counterbalance Beijing. France and the UK are working to freeze Huawei out of their 5G networks, while China’s relations with Australia are at an all-time low. In the Pacific, Japan is seeking closer military and intelligence collaboration with western powers and is strengthening military ties with the Hindu nationalist government in India, whose relations with China soured dramatically following the fatal clashes on the disputed Sino-Indian border in June.
And yet so far the anti-China drift has had an informal, ad hoc character, and is counterbalanced by China’s economic importance to its neighbours and the entwinement of the American and Chinese economies. But a Biden administration could well seek to create a semi-formal anti-China alliance. Already, Michèle Flournoy, tipped as Biden’s likely defense secretary, is calling for a strengthening of American military capabilities and the deepening of ties with US allies in Asia.
While Trump’s China rhetoric has centred on the issues of trade, industrial espionage, and paranoid fantasies regarding the Covid-19 virus, the Democrats have focused greater attention on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its increasing authoritarianism in Hong Kong. Biden will be able – far more effectively than Trump – to weaponise the issue of human rights to foster international public support for an anti-China turn.
Adopting aggressive policies to punish China over its clampdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang might feel good, but in all likelihood, such an approach will do little to help victims of Chinese state repression. Worsening tensions will encourage Beijing to treat domestic opponents as agents of the US and its allies, and the increased militarisation of the western Pacific will enhance Beijing’s not unreasonable fears that it is being encircled by hostile powers. As Justice Is Global director Tobita Chow argues, China’s leaders are more likely to moderate their behaviour domestically if legitimate criticisms over human rights are not entwined with an across the board anti-China agenda.
Heightened tensions with China come at a crucial moment in the struggle to respond to the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether it’s on the question of creating an effective public health response to the coronavirus or building an international consensus on decarbonising the global economy, cooperation with China is critically important. If on 3 November Joe Biden is elected the 46th president of the United States, progressives will rightly breathe a sigh of relief, but both in the US and abroad we ought to gird ourselves to push back against a Democrat administration that may well seek to enlist its allies in a dangerous and destructive new cold war.
• Alex Doherty is the host of the Politics Theory Other podcast