US Policy Concerning China: An Asian Perspective

Image by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

By Manseok Lee

Upon taking office, the Biden administration will need to decide whether to overturn any of the Trump administration’s policies concerning China, which have included delisting Chinese companies from the New York Stock Exchange, banning the use of Chinese apps, and blacklisting Chinese tech firms. The new administration will also have to determine how strongly to press China with regard to human rights and civil liberties issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Although Biden and his team have made few comments to date regarding his plans for US–China relations, during the presidential campaign, Biden spoke of creating “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior.” However, the extent to which Biden and his team are considering the position of US allies remains unclear.

This article presents an Asian perspective on what Biden’s policy concerning China should entail if his administration is to promote both regional prosperity and US national interests in East Asia. It begins by offering a nuanced analysis of China’s goals and then anchors that analysis in a discussion of the competition involved in the provision of international public goods. Since US foreign policy concerning Asia over the past few years has weakened the country’s status as a reliable public goods provider, the new US administration should first seek to restore its reputation by actively engaging in regional problems rather than remaining at odds with China.

China’s recent actions

Andrew Yeo, Professor of Politics and Director of Asian Studies at the Catholic University of America, has rightly observed that East Asia’s future peace and stability depend on “whether China merely seeks greater authority and leadership within existing institutions to reflect more of its regional interests, or if China carries more ambitious designs to fundamentally alter the existing architecture, and by extension, regional (or global) order.” 

Recent experience indicates the former possibility to be the most likely. China previously preferred to deal with neighboring countries on a one-on-one basis, relying on its military and economic power to give it an edge during negotiations. However, the conflict between China and the Trump administration that arose in all domains prompted Beijing to rethink its strategy. Now, China is pursuing its own multilateral agenda within the existing institutional architecture in an effort to draw neighboring countries into its orbit. On the diplomatic side, China is becoming more “active and engaged” in multilateral institutions in which the US does not participate, such as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the ASEAN Plus Three (APT). On the military side, while China continues to rely to some degree on coercion to gain concessions from neighboring countries, it is now increasing its security cooperation with other countries, including bilateral and multilateral military diplomacy, UN peacekeeping operations, and arms sales. 

Additionally, China continues to uphold the principles of the existing liberal economic order in East Asia. Despite Washington’s concerns that China will undermine established liberal economic principles by exerting influence through financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its institutional design complies with the standards adopted by other multilateral banks and does not give China majority voting power. More recently, the leading role played by China in the establishment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), one of the largest regional free trade agreements in the world, appears to indicate that China favors the liberal economic order. 

Understanding China’s goals and strategies

Evelyn Goh, the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Australian National University, has suggested a unique perspective on international public goods, which serves as a useful lens through which to examine China’s goals and strategies. A good that is both non-rivalrous and non-excludable is known as a public good. Domestically, governments are responsible for the provision of public goods, such as legal systems, infrastructure, and public health. In the field of international relations, examples of public goods include trade rules, alliances, monetary policy, non-proliferation, environmental policy, and international law. The provision of public goods is expensive, meaning that only powerful countries can generally pay the entire cost of doing so. Therefore, Goh explained that great power authority stems from a strong country’s will and ability to determine which public goods are required, present the most appropriate method of provision, and bear the disproportionate costs of maintaining order. Goh also noted that international public goods have a layered structure, with intermediate public goods first needing to be provided in order to eventually realize final public goods. In other words, regional and sectoral public goods, such as stability in the South China Sea and non-proliferation in Northeast Asia, must be provided first if final public goods, such as peace and stability in East Asia, are to be provided in time.

In light of the public goods concept, China’s recent actions appear to indicate that Beijing aims to replace the US as the main public goods provider and realize its national ambitions, including “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that some Chinese still aspire to. However, rather than seeking to fundamentally alter the existing architecture, China has been pushing this agenda on a step-by-step basis by proving itself to be a reliable provider of intermediate public goods. For example, during the 2008 financial crisis, China demonstrated its willingness and ability to engage in regional crisis management through the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI). More recently, through the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as massive domestic spending intended to stimulate global demand as per the G7 request, China has boosted its capacity with regard to the provision of economic public goods. In terms of security, China has been invited to share responsibility with the US in relation to the North Korean nuclear problem. In fact, experience has shown that the implementation of effective sanctions is difficult without China’s participation. 

The effect of China’s strategy is clear. The other East Asian countries recognize China as a co-provider of regional and sectoral public goods. The ASEAN accepts China as a provider of economic public goods, while the Northeast Asian countries regard China as a key player in North Korea’s denuclearization process. Other countries, for example, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Indonesia, have found it difficult to stand against China. In addition, at the same time as the other East Asian countries’ economic dependence on China is increasing, the level of intermediate public goods that the US can provide is gradually decreasing. 

Source: European Centre for International Political Economy (2019)

Source: European Centre for International Political Economy (2019)

The US should first re-establish its authority as a reliable public goods provider

While China has been developing its willingness and ability to provide public goods, the US has gone in the opposite direction. President Trump, in particular, questioned the value of alliances and called upon US allies to provide regional public goods themselves, rather than emphasizing the role of the US as a provider of peace and stability. In addition, during the period in which the US withdrew from various multilateral institutions (e.g., Trans-Pacific Partnership) and engaged in a trade war with China, new regional multilateral institutions (e.g., RCEP) emerged that were centered on China. Furthermore, regional states have resisted pressure from the US to make an either-or choice between the US and China. As the material power of the US is still far stronger than that of China, regional countries continue to rely on the former’s authority. However, if the present trend continues, these countries may consider consultations and renegotiations concerning the regional order with China, or they may create a third-country club in an effort to provide and maintain public goods themselves.

The Biden administration should acknowledge that China’s influence on other Asian countries is greater than four years ago. As there is a bipartisan understanding in the US that China represents a threat to democracy, human rights, and international rules, the Biden administration will likely not have sufficient political flexibility to drastically change the current US policy approach to China. However, many Asian countries associate China with existential interests and regard it as a country with which they should cooperate. The more the US demands that other Asian countries accept the “threat” perspective on China’s character, the more strained relations between those countries and the US are likely to become. Moreover, the Asian countries will not be willing to wait long for the US. Indeed, some have already begun promoting a regional order through regional multilateralism without US engagement. 

Before calling for a “united front” against China, the new US administration should first re-establish its authority and reputation as a reliable public goods provider in East Asia by actively involving itself in regional and sectoral issues, including preventing nuclear proliferation and usage in North East Asia, maintaining stability in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, preventing another pandemic, limiting climate change, and adding rules in the domain of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. To address these problems, the US needs China’s cooperation, and the concept of “Summit of Democracy” is neither sufficient nor inclusive. The US should first re-establish and strengthen its status as a reliable public goods provider, and then the desired “united front” will likely be formed without the US having to ask.

Manseok Lee is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is especially grateful to T.J. Pempel, Daniel J. Sargent, Emily Clayton, and Ethan Azad for their insightful and very constructive comments on this article. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.