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Biden’s Balancing Act: Challenges from All Angles

In this four-part series, Megan Dewhirst will investigate the need for the United States to establish an end goal for their foreign policy towards China, and will outline the challenges that Biden faces, and what the potential outcome of the current relationship may be.

Near and Abroad Challenges 

With President Biden attempting to establish a new foreign policy approach towards China to counter their ascendency, the incumbent President faces significant home and abroad challenges. The tug-of-war of the demands from Washington, and the necessity of China’s aid in certain mutual problems, implores Biden’s administration to perform an elaborate balancing act. 

Washington has maintained its ‘crack down’ approach towards China for many years, and Biden faces the same pressures. There is little room for manoeuvre or compromise with DC, as cross-party pressures push for clamp downs on diplomacy, trade, tech, and security (Detsch and Gramer 2020). However, these pressures from Washington are met with the challenge of protecting and sustaining a prosperous American economy. Since Trump’s trade war with China, due to the tariffs on commerce, the price of everyday goods has rocketed, costing Americans over $68 billion (Gerhard 2021). This could potentially raise to a $190 billion annual loss in U.S. output by 2025 (Gerhard 2021; Swanson 2021). Ultimately, this forces Biden to balance the preservation of the American economy with the tough demands of Washington and the liberal order.

Equally, Biden struggles to reconcile holding China to account for human rights abuses, whilst simultaneously courting their cooperation on matters of mutual international significance. The White House made it clear, through the President’s Trade Agenda and Annual 2020 Report, that it is intent on addressing China’s human rights abuses toward the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang (Office of the United States Trade Representative 2021). However, with one hand they would scold Xi Jinping and with the other they would implore him to assist the U.S. in their efforts towards climate change, Iranian nuclear talks, and even ‘the forever war’ in Afghanistan (Detsch and Gramer 2020). 

As a result, the Biden administration has to walk on a tightrope, balancing not only near and abroad demands, but reconciling the cost and benefits of challenging China, especially as the Asian power continues to grow.

Biden’s Approach So Far

The Administration has heeded calls for a tough line on China so far; with the start of Biden’s presidency he indicated that China represented an economic and security challenge to the U.S. (Swanson 2021). 

However, Biden seeks to learn from his predecessors, while simultaneously distancing himself from their policies. Therefore, he has initiated a ‘more strategic’ foreign policy towards China, outlining that the Democrats’ policy shall be more effective than President Trump’s approach (Swanson 2021). However, the administration has maintained the tariffs imposed by the Trump government, their emphasis lies firmly in presenting China with a coordinated and unified foreign policy, whereupon China and the U.S. can begin to rebuild their relationship (Gerhard 2021; Hansler, Gaouette, and Atwood 2021).

Biden’s pivot to Asia consists of building on relationships with Asian allies and international institutions to enforce greater accountability over China. This has been evidenced through a series of March 2021 visits to U.S. allies in Asia, as high-level officials visit Japan and South Korea, to consolidate America’s position within the Indo-Pacific region (Detsch and Gramer 2020). Biden has also made a thorough effort to staff his cabinet with officials who have a great knowledge of China, politically and socially, in an attempt to generate effective policy and move away from the ad-hoc nature of the Trump administration (Swanson 2021). 

Consequently, in Biden’s attempts to appease Washington’s hard-line approach and placate America’s reluctant reliance upon China’s global power, the administration has settled on a strategy of cohesion. This cohesive strategy stems from the White House all the way to America’s Asian allies, as Biden seeks to strengthen the resolve of the U.S. counter measures to China’s ascendency through establishing unity. While there is currently no end goal in sight for the U.S. policy agenda, Biden has clearly drawn a line in the sand from his predecessor.

References:

  • Detsch, Jack, and Gramer, Robert. “Biden Team Pivots to Asia” Foreign PolicyMarch 11, 2020 
  • Gerhard, Bill “Biden can save Americans billions of dollars by ending Trump’s trade war with China now” Business Insider Feb 7, 2021     
  • Hansler, J., Gaouette, N., and Atwood, K., 2021. “US and China trade barbs after Blinken warns of need to respect global order or face a ‘more violent world’” CNN Politics
  • Office of the United States Trade Representative. 2021. “Fact Sheet: 2021 Presidents Trade Agenda and 2020 Annual Report” Executive Office of the President of the United States 
  • Swanson, Ana. “Biden on ‘Short Leash’ as Administration Rethinks China Relations” The New York Times. February 17, 2021

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