Biden’s China Policy Is Poised for Re-Airing, Not a Refresh

Biden’s China Policy Is Poised for Re-Airing, Not a Refresh

The unveiling of President Joe Biden’s detailed strategy toward China -- delayed by internal deliberations, Covid-19 and the Ukraine conflict -- will have to wait even longer. 

Despite anticipation over how the U.S. sees relations between the world’s two biggest economies developing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is likely to offer little that’s new to help guide policy makers, analysts and markets in a speech he was meant to deliver, according to people familiar with his planned remarks who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the event.  

The address was scheduled for Thursday but was delayed after Blinken tested positive for Covid-19.

Biden’s China Policy Is Poised for Re-Airing, Not a Refresh

After months of setbacks, including White House wrangling over whether to undercut inflation at home by lifting tariffs on Chinese imports, administration officials have struggled behind the scenes to articulate a positive approach toward a nation they say is America’s biggest long-term challenge -- including a compelling economic vision for the Asia-Pacific region and areas where the two powers might be able to cooperate.

Instead, the top U.S. diplomat is expected to focus his remarks at George Washington University on the need to build up U.S. strength at home through domestic investments, as well as emphasizing the importance of partners and allies. 

While those are all issues officials have flagged previously, they don’t help answer basic questions such as what economic vision they offer and on how the U.S. and China can collaborate on some issues.

Blinken’s address will closely follow the administration’s classified China strategy, according to the people. But the lack of detail is the clearest sign yet that the relationship Blinken outlined in March 2021 as one that would be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” has only become more complicated.

As a result, the international components of Blinken’s speech are expected to focus on the administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a set of trade principles the administration hopes to promote in the region in lieu of a politically unpalatable free trade agreement, the people said. White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said in January that the U.S. needs to “step up its game” on economic engagement in Asia.

The U.S. is aiming for the pact to include digital issues such as data localization and cross-border data flows, as well as rules for labor, the environment and climate change, deputy U.S. Trade Representative Sarah Bianchi said in February. 

Democrats and Republicans have criticized the plans as lacking ambition. The framework plans aren’t “as robust as I think we need,” Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, said in March. 

Early this year, the U.S. and many Western nations hoped that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would prompt Beijing to reconsider its policy of friendship with “no limits” toward Moscow, reached just before the war began. In the early weeks of the war, the conflict appeared to put Beijing -- long a champion of the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference -- in an awkward spot. 

Since then, the U.S. and its allies have watched with frustration as China failed to support efforts at the United Nations to criticize Russia’s invasion, responding instead with what Western officials have said is Russian disinformation and implicit support for Moscow’s actions even while stopping short of meaningful aid to President Vladimir Putin’s war effort. 

Beijing, in turn, has warned the U.S. against expanding its web of sanctions over the Ukraine war to include Chinese companies or banks doing business with Russia, while doubling down on the alliance with Moscow. 

Russia and China are committed “to developing a new model of international relations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said late last month. 

China, meanwhile, has continued to eye America’s alliance-building in Asia, including support for Taiwan, with alarm. Officials say such efforts -- including strengthening the Quad bloc with Japan, India and Australia -- represent a “Cold War mentality” that only serves to raise tensions. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March that such efforts are “doomed to fail.” 

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.