The right answer to Xi Jinping is a one-China policy

America has a new president, and the west needs a new China policy. The relationship between Washington and Beijing will shape the geopolitical landscape for decades and beyond. Joe Biden’s administration has an opportunity to set the parameters.

The question most often raised by western approaches to China is whether they are directed towards an economic partner or a great power rival. The inelegant juggling between mercantilism and strategic competition has failed to produce an intelligent balance. Beijing, now unapologetically assertive in its push for primacy, has been the winner. 

Mr Biden’s inauguration is a moment for the US and other democracies to coalesce around a fresh approach. Beijing’s present course — the crackdown in Hong Kong, internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, military threats against Taiwan, border skirmishes with India and economic sanctions against Australia — hands the initiative to America’s China hawks. A tougher stance, though, does not of itself amount to a good strategy.

The more useful starting point is consistency. What’s needed is a set of policies — economic, security, diplomatic and military — that point in the same direction. Donald Trump boasted he took a hard line with China’s Xi Jinping. In truth, the belligerence collided with the former US president’s efforts to please his political base by boosting agricultural exports. As his national security adviser John Bolton observed, Mr Trump’s foreign policy was all about his campaign for a second term.

To borrow the phrase applied to the status of Taiwan, the new administration should aim for a one-China policy — a strategy pulling together the myriad threads of the relationship with Beijing and its neighbours to an unambiguous purpose.

China’s efforts to control the South China Sea cannot be separated from the contest to take the lead in 5G digital communications and artificial intelligence, or from Beijing’s drive westwards to Europe with the Belt and Road Initiative. Controls on technology, or on Chinese companies operating in the west, cannot be held hostage to soya bean sales. And unavoidable competition has to allow room for co-operation on global policy issues, such as climate change and pandemics.

Mr Biden’s choice of Kurt Campbell, a seasoned foreign policy official, for the new post of White House Asia tsar, suggests the president intends to scrap the scattergun approach. Mr Campbell, a formidable figure with long experience in Asia, has the temperament to knock heads together to make sure the various Washington agencies are pulling in the same direction. 

He will not find a magic formula — there will always be tensions between strategic rivalry and economic interdependence. Economic decoupling sounds like a neat answer, until you begin to look at what it would mean for growth and prosperity. But predictability would greatly reduce the risk of the miscalculations that sometimes end in great power wars.

Mr Trump’s erratic unilateralism gave Europe and America’s Asian allies a free pass. The EU designated China a strategic competitor but held back from anything that might damage European exports. Japan and the Republic of Korea, the pillars of Washington’s Pacific alliances, have been picking open their own historic sores. By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Mr Trump handed regional economic leadership to Mr Xi.

On the face of it, the new administration will struggle to get the Europeans to adopt a more robust approach. The EU scarcely sent an encouraging message when it rushed through a unilateral investment deal with China before Mr Biden’s inauguration. On the other hand, German chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s mercantilist-in-chief, is standing down this year.

In an interesting article this month for Foreign Affairs, Mr Campbell set out America’s strategic goal as to re-establish a durable balance of power in east Asia. China has declined the role of responsible stakeholder in the rules-based system, so Washington will need “strong coalitions of both allies and partners” to shift the balance of incentives in Beijing. 

The interests of Tokyo and Seoul should speak for themselves. And Europeans can no longer afford the luxury of viewing China’s ambitions as an American problem. The great power rivalry between the US and China has become inextricably bound up in the race for technological supremacy. Europe has to make a choice. Beijing’s strategy towards the west is to divide and rule. The west’s answer should be a one-China policy. 

philip.stephens@ft.com

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