Joe Biden has wrapped up his first trip to Asia. He met with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to shore up the U.S.-ROK alliance. He traveled to Tokyo to reinvigorate the Quad grouping with Japan, Australia, and India. And he peddled the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an attempt by the United States to reinsert itself into the Asian economy after the Trump administration’s pullout from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Biden’s trip was designed to prove that the United States is in fact focused on one thing above all: China, China, China.
The strengthened alliance with South Korea is a signal to Beijing that the more accommodating era of the Moon Jae-in administration is over. The Quad meetings are part of a strategy of countering China’s ambitions in the region including its ports and bases along the Asian littoral. And the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a deliberate effort to roll back China’s considerable economic ties with its neighbors.
If you believe that China is the most important threat to U.S. interests, all of these moves make perfect sense. This fear of China, however, has created a certain blindness. By going all out to contain this rival superpower, the United States is missing a golden opportunity. The Biden administration should be taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to push the restart button with Beijing. Closer relations with China would serve to isolate Russia, reorient the global economy in a more sustainable direction, and even reduce inflation in the United States.
The easiest and most obvious policy change the Biden administration should make involves the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese products. Indeed, some members of the administration, notably Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, have indicated support for reducing the tariffs. Tariff reductions could bring inflation down within a year by a full percentage point. That would be good news for U.S. consumers and businesses—and for the Democratic Party’s political prospects.
Beijing would obviously welcome this move. It would also provide an opening for U.S. negotiators to try an even bolder gambit, one that recalls an earlier geopolitical venture by the administration of Richard Nixon.
In the 1970s, Nixon and his top advisor Henry Kissinger orchestrated an opening with Communist China. It was of utmost importance for the United States to prevent any serious rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, Kissinger wanted to put pressure on the Soviets to be more compromising in arms control negotiations. Also driving the opening was a U.S. business community that was cautiously optimistic about the profits that could be made in the Chinese market.
In many ways, the gamble worked perfectly. The United States was able to negotiate a détente with the Soviet Union that lasted, more or less, until the end of the 1970s. The Nixon-Kissinger policy also helped guide China out of its Cultural Revolution and into a more sensible engagement with the outside world.
Today, Russia and China have formed an energy partnership based on their mutual fossil fuel needs (Russia to export, China to import). They have a shared distrust of certain liberal tenets concerning, for instance, free elections and freedom of speech.
But such an alliance is not inevitable. To further isolate Putin, the Biden administration should step in to offer Beijing a wide-ranging set of negotiations to normalize trade, address outstanding questions like intellectual property rights, and come to some shared understanding of the rules of the road in places like the South China Sea.
Perhaps most importantly, the United States has to offer China a different kind of energy partnership than what the Kremlin is promising. Instead of fossil fuels, Washington should expand the clean energy collaboration that the Obama administration began with Beijing. Together, the United States and China can lead the world into a new era of renewables that is far and away more compelling—and urgently needed—than the dirty energy paradigm that Russia is offering.
John Feffer is Director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His work can be seen at_ www.fpif.org or www.johnfeffer.com. Latest book: Right Across the World. Latest novel: Songlands.
Peace Magazine July-September 2022, page 40. Some rights reserved.
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