Washington should get back in the trade game and use it as leverage against Beijing.
U.S. President Joe Biden has offered frustratingly few details as to how he plans to handle the vexing issue of trade with China. He has not even answered the very straightforward question of whether he will keep his predecessor’s controversial tariffs of up to 25 percent on most Chinese imports. But the new administration’s broad approach to China is clear: The treatment of China as a strategic threat rather than an economic opportunity—a shift that took place under the Trump administration—will continue.
Nevertheless, Biden should throw out most of the Trump playbook, which was built around a futile and failed effort to bully China into submission. In a struggle between economic powers, the United States and China are on roughly equal footing—and the U.S. position is weakening as China continues to grow. Instead, what the United States can win is a contest of power backed by principle.
The Biden team’s broad approach has been flagged for months in articles by its leading foreign-policy officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell. It would accept the rise of China as a major rival power and seek to manage that competition to restrain China and advance U.S. interests. Washington would give up on the goal of nudging Beijing towards greater pluralism and focus instead on curbing its growing influence. The new White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Monday that “strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century.” She warned: “China is growing more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad. And Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity, and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach.”