Chinese staff adjust US and Chinese flags before the opening session of trade negotiations between US and Chinese trade representatives at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on February 14, 2019. Photo: Reuters
Matt Strabone
Matt Strabone

US under Joe Biden must capitalise on, not thwart, China’s successes

  • China’s policy wins do not have to mean US policy failures. Assuming China’s success in its geopolitical endeavours, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and working backwards to maximise the US’ ability to capitalise on those outcomes would be using China’s momentum against it.

US president-elect Joe Biden will enter the White House in January to find America’s standing in the world substantially diminished and China’s on the rise.

His instinct will be to rebalance US foreign policy and return the country to its posture of international engagement, perhaps looking to the Obama administration for inspiration, but a mere rebalancing will not be enough to put the United States on the best path forward.

A full recalculation of the US-China rivalry is needed, and it should focus on how the US can capitalise on China’s geopolitical successes rather than how it can prevent them.

US policymakers have produced few comprehensive policies for managing the rise of China. Some of the major steps that have been attempted, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have failed to generate sufficient domestic support to make them a reality.

American efforts to integrate China into the current rules-based international order – an order that has been underpinned by the US since the end of World War II – have proven ineffective, with China’s admission to and exploitation of the World Trade Organization being a prime example.


US-China relations: Joe Biden would approach China with more ‘regularity and normality’

US-China relations: Joe Biden would approach China with more ‘regularity and normality’

China’s desire to create a new and separate international order that it leads has been a driving force behind its foreign policy in the 21st century.

A smart way forward on the US-China rivalry would see the Biden administration consider the implications of China achieving its short-term geopolitical goals, determine what the world might look like as a result and then discern how to capitalise on China’s successes to the US’ fullest advantage.

China’s policy successes do not have to mean US policy failures. Assuming China’s success in its geopolitical endeavours and working backwards to maximise the US’ ability to capitalise on those outcomes would, in essence, be using China’s momentum against it.

Consider the Belt and Road Initiative. When China first announced its intention to create the initiative, it was panned in some circles as a pipe dream facing far too many political and logistical hurdles to ever become reality. Now the initiative is well on its way, controlling sites all over the world and reaching as far west as Italy.

Its potential to change the flow of Eurasian and African commerce is clear. This, too, might result in a major policy success for China.

That success could come at the direct expense of the US, given that the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed partially in response to Chinese concerns about US control over many of the major shipping lanes in the world’s oceans.


Belt and Road Initiative explained

Belt and Road Initiative explained

The question taken up by US policymakers should not be how to stop the Belt and Road Initiative – that horse has left the barn.

Neither should the US propose an alternative to the initiative that would force other countries into a black-or-white choice between the Belt and Road Initiative and a competing American initiative.

The interconnectedness of the world’s economies means it behoves every nation to maintain relations with both of the world’s two leading powers. Instead, the United States would be better served if its best thinkers considered how it might begin to capitalise on the Belt and Road Initiative’s continued success.

Claims of China’s debt-trap diplomacy fail under scrutiny

The initiative is, at its core, an infrastructure project with China investing – at levels the US currently would be unwilling to match – to improve infrastructure in participating countries.

Rather than discourage nations from accepting Chinese investment, the US could operate under the assumption that new roads, railways, power grids and more will be built and then forecast how it can derive benefit once the new infrastructure is in place.

For instance, while infrastructure improvements alone help a recipient country, such a country could further its gains by also boosting its professional services sector, where the US remains the clear world leader.

Allowing China to shoulder the burden and risk of trillions of dollars in infrastructure investment in countries around the world and then stepping in with the offerings of a superior professional services industry once the infrastructure is built would benefit the American economy.

It would steer the US clear of unnecessary us-or-them dichotomies that other countries rarely appreciate and deepen positive economic and political ties with those countries, all while avoiding needless direct conflict with China.

Framing the Belt and Road Initiative and other China-related issues as opportunities to exploit rather than as binary zero-sum struggles would begin a foreign policy recalculation that would benefit the US in these uncertain times.

Matt Strabone is general counsel at RepresentUs, an American anti-corruption organisation. He has been a partner of the Truman National Security Project and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy