Biden Is Now a China Hawk—With Limits

Biden Is Now a China Hawk—With Limits

The Democratic nominee is getting ready to confront Beijing—but he doesn’t want another Cold War.

Joe Biden seems to have concluded that China has become America’s sworn enemy. In April he ran on ad that depicted Donald Trump as a stooge who had “rolled over for the Chinese” in the midst of a pandemic for which the Chinese themselves may well have been responsible. In his one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders, Biden claimed that China’s communist regime had made only “marginal” improvements in national well-being over the previous 40 years, cutting short any further comment with a curt, “China is an authoritarian dictatorship.”

Biden sounds a lot like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in a speech earlier this mocked  what he called “the old paradigm of blind engagement” with China, accusing President Xi Jinping of seeking “global hegemony of Chinese communism.” I wrote earlier that a President Biden would rally the world’s democracies against a rising authoritarian threat. Does he, like Pompeo, foresee a new Cold War with China?

Actually, he doesn’t. Biden has simply learned that beating up on China has become a cost-free way to prove your toughness. That wasn’t true even when he left office; his new bellicosity demonstrates how very quickly the consensus on China has shifted both in the broad public and among policymakers.

In a series of articles in Foreign Affairs, Ely Ratner, who served as Biden’s deputy national security advisor and now heads the China team of his foreign policy advisors, accused a generation of officials in both parties—himself included—of indulging in “hopeful thinking” about China. China had spurned the American offer to take its place as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global order. In China the United States faced not merely a competitor, but a rival.

This conclusion is by no means universal. Fareed Zakaria has argued that China is behaving just as other rising powers have done in the past, including the United States, and that American policy-makers have come to regard that behavior as intolerable only because China is far more powerful than other rivals to American supremacy. But both Biden and his advisors are committed to the engagement-has-failed line of thinking. Many of them, including Ratner, praise the language of Donald Trump’s 2017 national security strategy, which states, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”