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Running for president has already cost Joe Biden at least one friend. Back in the Obama era, Biden spent dozens of hours with China’s president, Xi Jinping. On one occasion, they ate noodles at a Beijing restaurant with Biden’s granddaughter, and Xi once called Biden an “old friend.” As recently as May 2019 Biden insisted that China’s Communist leaders are “not bad folks.”
But a lot can change in a couple of years. In an attempt to show his toughness on China, Biden started describing Xi as “a thug who, in fact, has a million Uighurs in . . . concentration camps.” As president, Biden says he will bring together “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior.”
But in reality, is the president-elect 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, like Taiwan, Japan and India, are alarmed by Beijing’s growing military assertiveness. And in countries like Myanmar, where China is building roads, pipelines and power stations, there has been popular backlash against what locals see as an infringement of national sovereignty.
China’s diplomacy is also raising hackles. Take Australia, where Beijing has poured money into influencing the country’s elites, via everything from trade deals to think tanks. In the last couple of years, the mood has suddenly shifted: Australia has tightened security rules on foreign investment and boosted defense spending in the Indo-Pacific.
When the Aussie government called for an international inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, China’s foreign ministry described it as “shocking,” since Australia was “supposed to be a good friend.”
Britain has seen a similarly swift transformation. Five years ago, London was Europe’s biggest advocate for engaging with Beijing. But last year, Boris Johnson’s administration put up new barriers to Chinese investment, citing security concerns.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, Xi had managed to stifle criticism — until last October, when 39 countries joined a declaration against Beijing’s rights violations. China’s record has always been appalling, but in the last year it has become unignorable: You can’t forget pictures of millions of Hong Kong citizens protesting — followed by the mass arrests of opposition figures. Nor the unspeakable footage of Uighur Muslims being loaded, blindfolded and shackled, onto trains.
And that’s before the COVID-19 coverups. Even in relatively China-friendly regions, such as Latin America, there has been public anger at Xi’s party for its role in the pandemic. A Pew survey found that “unfavorable opinion” of China “has soared over the past year,” from Canada to the Netherlands to South Korea.
In theory, then, 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 gleefully described it as a deal between “the world’s two leading powers.”) EU leaders may view China as a dangerous rival, but in the end, they needed the business opportunities, even if it means alienating Washington and keeping mum about Xi’s atrocities.
When it comes to China’s trade practices, then, Biden may find that his “friends and partners” evaporate. He might have more success by just enforcing Trump’s “phase one” trade deal. The outgoing trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, argues that America is in a strong position to “hold [China’s] feet to the fire” on its pledges over fair practices and purchase commitments.
Biden’s “united front” will be more achievable on security, where he is expected to quietly shore up existing alliances, such as “the Quad,” an informal partnership with India, Japan and Australia, and the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network.
But it’s on human rights that there is most obviously an opening for international cooperation. China has pledged to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. Biden could lead the pressure for that promise to be kept — perhaps by coordinated international sanctions on Chinese officials.
He could also push Congress to legislate against supply chains linked to the Uighur internment camps. And since Beijing will veto any attempt by international courts to investigate the camps, Biden could empower US courts to give a ruling.
That would be a drastic move. But if the president-elect really believes what he says — that his onetime friend is supervising a “genocide” — it’s hard to see how he could do anything less.
Dan Hitchens writes from London. Twitter: @DDHitchens
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