Running for president has already cost Joe Biden at least one friend. Back in the Obama era, Biden spent dozens of hours with Chinese President Xi Jinping. On one occasion, they ate noodles at a restaurant in Beijing with Biden’s grandson, and Xi once called Biden an “old friend”. As recently as May 2019, Biden insisted that China’s communist leaders are “not bad people.”
But a lot can change in a few years. In an attempt to show his toughness towards China, Biden began to describe Xi as “a bully who actually has a million Uighurs in.. . concentration camps. “As president, Biden says he will rally” a united front of friends and partners to challenge China̵
But in reality, the elected president is still too soft on Beijing to confront Xi? Could he prove critics wrong?
There is no shortage of possible “friends and partners.” China’s neighbors, such as Taiwan, Japan and India, are worried about Beijing’s growing military confidence. And in countries like Myanmar, where China is building roads, pipelines and power plants, there has been a popular setback to what locals see as a violation of national sovereignty.
China’s diplomacy also raises hackles. Take Australia, where Beijing has poured money into influencing the country’s elites, through everything from trade deals to think tanks. In the last few years, the mood has suddenly changed: Australia has tightened security rules for foreign investment and increased defense spending in the Indian Pacific.
When the Australian government called for an international inquiry into the origin of the new coronavirus, China’s foreign ministry described it as “shocking”, as Australia was to “be a good friend.”
Britain has seen a similar rapid transformation. Five years ago, London was Europe’s biggest proponent of joining Beijing. But last year, Boris Johnson’s administration set new barriers to Chinese investment, citing security concerns.
At the UN, Xi had meanwhile managed to stifle criticism – until October last year, when 39 countries joined a declaration against Beijing’s rights violations. China’s record has always been shocking, but over the past year it has become unworthy: you can not forget the images of millions of Hong Kong citizens protesting – followed by mass arrests of opposition figures. Nor the unspeakable image of Uighur Muslims being loaded, blindfolded and chained, on the trains.
And that’s before COVID-19 coverups. Even in relatively China-friendly regions like Latin America, there has been public anger at Xi’s celebration for his role in the pandemic. A Pew study showed that “unfavorable opinion” about China “has increased in the past year”, from Canada to the Netherlands to South Korea.
In theory, therefore, Biden should be able to build his “united front”. In practice, it will be more difficult. Last month, the European Union ignored warnings from US officials, including a senior Biden adviser, and signed a trade agreement with China. (Xi happily described it as an agreement between “the two leading powers of the world.”) EU leaders may see China as a dangerous rival, but in the end they needed the business opportunities, even if it means alienating Washington and holding mother to Xi’s atrocities .
When it comes to China’s trade practices, Biden may find that his “friends and partners” are evaporating. He can be more successful by simply enforcing Trump’s “Phase 1” trade deal. The outgoing trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, claims that America is in a strong position to “keep [China’s] feet to the fire ”on promises of fair practice and purchase commitments.
Biden’s “united front” will be more achievable in security, where he is expected to quietly repeal existing alliances, such as “Quad”, an informal partnership with India, Japan and Australia and “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing network.
But it is in the field of human rights that there is clearly an opening for international cooperation. China has promised to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. Biden could lead the pressure to keep this promise – perhaps through coordinated international sanctions against Chinese officials.
He could also push Congress to legislate against supply chains linked to the Uighur detention camps. And since Beijing will veto any attempt by international courts to investigate the camps, Biden could give U.S. courts the power to rule.
That would be a drastic step. But if the president-elect really believes what he says – that his one-time friend is overseeing a “genocide” – it’s hard to see how he could do anything less.
Dan Hitchens writes from London. Twitter: @DDHitchens