The question that Biden’s progressive critics must answer is: What has Europe done wrong? Why has the EU’s willingness to engage not been reciprocated? After all, this should be a golden opportunity for China to isolate the United States by working with the EU to discredit the Trump administration’s arguments. The only plausible answer is that China is either not willing or not able to deliver the type of cooperation the EU is proposing and Biden’s critics say they want.
Many progressives know this. Indeed, Biden’s critics might just be in a minority in the progressive foreign-policy community. Remember that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders put the struggle against global autocracy and corruption at the heart of their foreign policies. They were skeptical of escalating security competition with Beijing, but they certainly saw China as a threat politically, economically, and on values of democracy and human rights. Warren’s policy adviser Ganesh Sitaraman, one of the leading authors on progressive foreign policy, has written about the China challenge as one of “nationalist oligarchy.” Progressives, he said, should “take seriously the risks that come from economic integration with” such a power.
Warren, Sanders, and most of their advisers also made a point of emphasizing their support for America’s democratic allies in Asia. This is another point of difference with the progressive critics who want to pull back from these alliances to secure cooperation from Beijing.
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Beinart, for example, has previously written about the need for the United States to accept an enhanced Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, which would include pushing Taiwan to unify with the People’s Republic of China. Wertheim has argued that the United States should withdraw most of its forces from Asia and abandon primacy globally. It is certainly possible that China would make real concessions to the United States in exchange for a geopolitical capitulation of this magnitude, but it would have hugely destabilizing repercussions—likely whetting China’s appetite in Asia and undermining America’s allies.
The critics do have one valid point. Biden could do a better job of distinguishing between China’s government and the Chinese people. He should speak about the Chinese Communist Party regime and President Xi, rather than the Chinese. For liberals and progressives, a rising China is not the problem; the nature of its regime is.
Above all, though, the Democrats’ policy toward China should not just be about the United States and what happens inside Washington. It must be driven by a realistic and objective assessment of the Chinese government’s behavior internationally. That’s why the European example is important. This week brought another disturbing and significant illustration of Xi’s intentions. Beijing is pushing for a new security law in Hong Kong that would effectively end the “one country, two systems” model and remove the territory’s remaining freedom and autonomy. Last year, Trump gave Xi the green light to act as he wished in Hong Kong, before partially reversing himself under pressure. Of course Biden should call out Trump for this and look at ways of responding, such as imposing targeted sanctions or even revisiting Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law. That’s not “out-hawking Trump”; it is pointing out a real difference between the two candidates and standing up for international law and human rights.
Biden’s best chance of securing cooperation with China is not to compromise U.S. interests and values, but to work with like-minded democracies to negotiate collectively with Beijing from a position of strength. This tactic will no doubt be difficult, but Xi’s actions mean that it is growing more important with every passing month.