A New Pivot to Asia

A New Pivot to Asia

The fuzzy goodwill between Biden and America’s Asian allies will soon be tested by China’s growing power.

As he takes a fresh look at Washington’s China strategy, President-elect Joe Biden faces hard choices. China has become a powerful challenger to the United States’ post-World War II global primacy. To make matters worse, the political coalition that propelled Biden to victory is deeply divided on how to deal with China. There is strong opposition among Democrats to the total political confrontation and complete economic decoupling from China that outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration articulated toward the end of its term. Among progressives, there is deep resistance to a cold war with China, even as they want to intensify the pressure on Beijing on human rights. Powerful corporate interests on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, many of them with close ties to the Democratic Party, would love to go back to business as usual with China. American workers and their advocates are wary of ceding even more manufacturing jobs to China in the name of renewed economic globalization. Many other Democrats see climate change as the most important challenge to humanity and believe the United States must cooperate with China to mitigate the threat.

In responding to these competing demands, Biden smartly avoided specifics during his successful campaign for the presidency. He argued that China is not a threat but a competitor and that this competition can be addressed and won by the United States. To do this, Biden would take to industrial policy to rebuild traditional U.S. strengths. Criticizing Trump’s tariff wars as a blunt instrument, Biden promised to develop a more sophisticated strategy of economic engagement and competition with China. If Trump trashed U.S. allies as freeloaders and free riders, Biden would rebuild Asian alliances to produce a more effective coalition to persuade China to abide by the rules. Soon after the election was called in his favor, Biden was quick to call allies in Tokyo, Seoul, and Canberra. He also dialed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country has emerged as a major regional partner for the United States in recent years.