China figured only tangentially in the final presidential debate between incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic contender Joe Biden held on 22 October. There were references to it (along with Russia and Iran) for seeking to influence the outcome of the elections through social media; allegations of both contenders directly or through their families having improper business dealings; and for China being a major carbon emitter (along with Russia and India). There was no detailed debate or analysis of different approaches to dealing with the growing Chinese challenge: containment, engagement, or shaping the environment around the rise of China through a network of countervailing alliances and partnerships, including the Quad of US, Australia, Japan and India.
It has been suggested that a Joe Biden administration will not revert to a Bill Clinton-era faith in engagement leading to political and economic liberalisation in China. This is especially because President Xi Jinping has thrown the gauntlet with militarisation of South China Sea islands, aggressive posturing in East China sea and Taiwan Straits, transgressions across the LAC with India in Ladakh, and a Made in China 2025 plan of seeking a disproportionate share of global manufacturing.
Most strategic analysts in the United States today unhesitatingly declare that the main economic, technological and security challenge in the coming years will be from China. In 2008, before the US-led global financial crisis, China’s GDP was one third that of the US. Today it is two-thirds in nominal terms, and near parity or higher in PPP terms. China’s GDP growth remains in positive territory in 2020, despite Covid-19, even as the US and much of the rest of the world, including Europe, is experiencing negative growth. Chinese companies are cutting edge in 5G, and have advantage in Artificial Intelligence (AI) on account of the Chinese State having unfettered access to its citizens’ data. It is investing heavily in quantum computing, has shown its cyber prowess by hacking the data of 21 million US federal employees stored at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2014, and another 145 million US citizens by hacking into the system of credit reporting agency Equifax in 2017.
Trump administration’s approach to China
The Trump administration, more than any of its predecessors since initiation of engagement with China in 1971, has taken a series of steps to beat back the China challenge, and define more clearly the nature of the Chinese State and the Communist Party. Its National Security Strategy in December 2017, and National Defense Strategy in January 2018, clearly identified China (along with Russia) as a global rival. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray have given a series of coordinated statements calling out the Chinese Communist Party; its human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong; predatory trade and investment practices; forced technology transfers and theft of intellectual property; debt inducing and sovereignty diminishing loans and acquisitions through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); coercive measures against several countries including Sweden, Australia, Republic of Korea (ROK), and entities within US such as Hollywood and the National Basketball Association (NBA), when they took positions considered adversarial by China; and attempts to influence domestic public opinion in Europe and the US.
Under Trump, the US raised tariffs on imports from China and barriers on Chinese technology acquisitions; denied access to equipment and technology to leading Chinese telecom firms ZTE and Huawei; and is now seeking to ban TikTok, Weibo and WeChat. It is leading a concerted global effort, with some success in parts of Europe and Asia, to keep Chinese companies out of 5G rollouts. It has declared Chinese media and Confucius Institutes in the US as an “arm of the Chinese government”, with enhanced restrictions and reporting requirements on their activities. US Secretaries of State and education have written to presidents of colleges and universities, and heads of schools, encouraging them to withdraw access to Confucius Institutes and their spread of Chinese propaganda under the guise of cultural and linguistic education.
Even as these steps were being taken, Trump kept open the possibility of trade deals with China, which he could project as victories to his supporters. Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in his book ‘The Room Where It Happened’ that in a meeting with Xi, Trump asked him to buy more farm products from the US, so it could help him electorally. On several occasions, Trump has praised Xi and sought his help in the context of North Korea.
What we can expect next
Given the developments over the past four years, one can expect a Trump 2.0 administration to continue with an adversarial approach to China, especially with Covid-19-generated concerns about security and reliability of supply chains and critical raw materials. A Biden 1.0 administration, despite its differences with Trump on many issues, would also recognise the challenge from China. Writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, Joe Biden said that “China represents a special challenge…It is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in technologies of the future. He suggested that “US does need to get tough with China”, and should instead build a united front with its allies and partners, and deepen relations with India.
The “in person” 2+2 meeting in Delhi on 27 October, barely a week before the US presidential election of 3 November, is a signal of the bipartisan support of the US to the India relationship, and recognition of the China challenge. In the past, differing Indian and US global priorities often acted as a constraint to the relationship. This time there is a tailwind.
The author is former Ambassador to the US and involved in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post-9/11 period. Views are personal.