Biden presidency will not be a third Obama term administration: Graham Allison

Graham Allison

Editor’s Note:

World attention is on China-US relations as the US presidential election has ended. How will the next US administration shape China-US relations? What could be the flashpoints? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Graham T. Allison (Allison), the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

GT: You believe US-China relations are likely to worsen as Biden would continue to make “noise” about China’s rise. How do you see China-US relations under the Biden administration?

Allison: Noise is a good description of the Trump administration’s China policy – not Biden’s. Remember who is. He is not coming to the White House as a novice. After eight years as Vice President under Obama and a decade before that as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has well-developed ideas about the world and about how to conduct relations with other nations. He and (Chinese President) have spent many hours together. For pointers to the future, start with the past.

From my review of his past practice, I can identify five Rs that offer clues about his likely approach to China: Restoration of normal foreign policy practices; Reversal of Trump’s harmful initiatives; Review of Trump’s “159 accomplishments” in dealing with China through the lens of American national interests; Recognition that China is not just a great power, but much more than that: a classic Thucydidean rival; and Realism about the inescapable fact that the US and China live on a small globe where each faces existential threats neither can defeat by itself. Both face challenges to their survival from climate disruption and nuclear arsenals that pose risks of MAD (mutually assured destruction).

A few words more on each. Restoration of “business as normal” in the making and conduct of foreign policy means that in relations with China, as with all other nations, Biden will put an end to idiosyncratic, personalized, impulsive government by tweet. As he has demonstrated throughout his career, he understands the necessity for deliberation in making foreign policy choices, and normal procedures that in earlier eras were called “diplomacy” in relating to other nations.

Reversing Trump initiatives that have clearly been harming American interests, expect Biden’s administration to rejoin the Paris Accord, the WHO, the UN Human Rights Council, and many of the other multilateral organizations the US played an active role in until Trump withdrew from them. While Trump had an aversion to alliances and multilateral organizations, Biden has always been an alliance man. He knows that alliances can be force multipliers. He understands the importance of diplomacy. So I expect to see a significant increase in the competence of American diplomats dealing with China at the embassy in Beijing and in Washington, reviving serious conversations at all levels between the US and Chinese governments, returning American staff to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention office in Beijing that Trump withdrew, and demonstrating a readiness to have journalists from the US and China return to each other’s countries if China is willing to allow them to operate on equal terms.

Reviewing what the Trump administration has touted as “159 accomplishments” in dealing with China, the Biden team will ask about each: does it advance American national interests? Some will be reversed, others repaired. For example, what candidate Biden called “tariff man’s” perverse preoccupation with the bilateral trade imbalance led him to impose many tariffs that harmed American consumers and producers more than they did the target of the tariffs. These will be reconsidered – since we can now all see the results. While Trump’s objective was to reduce America’s trade deficit with China, the trade deficit today is larger than when he imposed tariffs.

Recognizing that China is not just a twin of Russia, Biden understands why the Trump administration’s decision to treat both as what it called “great power competitors” is inadequate. While Russia can be seen as a traditional great power competitor, China is a genuine Thucydidean rival. As such, its rise is rapidly shifting the tectonics of power – threatening not only the influence but the very identity of a nation that has led the world for an American Century. This dramatic shift threatens to upend the American-led international order that has provided more than seven decades without great power war and an era of unprecedented increases in global prosperity. 

Realism about the inescapable fact that the US and China live on a small globe in which climate as well as nuclear weapons create serious risks of MAD (mutually assured destruction) that imposes on both certain necessities. Surviving in this environment requires 4 Cs: thick communication (to minimize misunderstandings and miscalculations); constraints (on initiatives that could trigger escalation to unwanted conflict); coordination and even cooperation to ensure that third-party provocations or accidents don’t drag them into an unwanted war, and that together the No. 1 and 2 emitters of greenhouse gases find ways to reduce those emissions to sustain a livable biosphere.

One additional, but extremely important point. Contrary to what some Chinese commentators have suggested, a Biden presidency will not be a third term of the Obama administration. As Biden stated clearly in the campaign, he sees China as a serious rival and is determined that the US will not only compete, but win the races that matter most. As a number of his advisors have signaled, his administration will certainly not be “soft” on China, but instead “smart” in combatting Chinese initiatives that it opposes, competing successfully, and at the same time cooperating to preserve a world we can live in.

GT: Some Chinese analysts believe despite Trump’s departure, his doctrines and the soil that brewed him still exist. What is your comment? How will this shape US policy on China?

Allison: The context that will shape Biden’s policies is less the Trump legacy than the structural realities any American administration that took power in 2021 would face. As noted in answer to the first question, that means the central international challenge will be a rapidly rising China that has become a full-spectrum peer competitor and whose rise is impacting every arena. 

GT: What will be the flashpoint in China-US relations under the new administration (trade, technology, Taiwan)? How can the two countries still avoid the Thucydides’s Trap? 

Allison: Taiwan and Korea are the two highest-risk flashpoints. The possibility of an actual shooting war between the US and China, incredible as it seems, and as insane as it would be if it happened, is much greater than most people appreciate. As the US is increasingly alarmed at finding a rising China threatening to displace us from our position of leadership in every arena, and as China pushes back to ensure that it can achieve its China Dream, both should be acutely aware that in 12 of 16 cases over the last 500 years, Thucydidean rivalries ended in real war.

For China, Taiwan is a “core interest” – regarded as much a part of China as Alaska is to the US. Any attempt by Taiwan to become an independent country could easily become a casus belli. In 1996, when the Taiwanese government took initial steps toward independence, China conducted extensive missile tests. The Clinton administration moved two US carriers into the area, forcing China to back down. Ever since, China has been building up specific military capabilities – such as anti-carrier missiles – to ensure it need never concede again. If a single US carrier were sunk in a similar showdown today, the deaths of 5,000 Americans could set the US and China on an escalatory ladder that has no apparent stopping point.

No one should ever forget how events in 1950 led to a big war in which tens of thousands of Chinese and American soldiers killed each other. Kim Jong-un’s grandfather launched a surprise attack on South Korea and within three months was on the verge of reunifying the peninsula. At the last moment, the US came to the South’s rescue. When US troops crossed the 38th Parallel and were approaching the border with China, Mao Zedong sent almost a million men to war with the US. They succeeded in pushing the US back down the peninsula to the 38th Parallel, where the US sued for peace. But with what unexpected result? As Chinese foreign policy makers now recognize, the mainland’s forceful takeover of Taiwan that was imminent in 1950 was “lost” for decades thereafter.

Recognition of the real risks of incidents or accidents that have over the course of history dragged great powers into unwanted wars puts a premium on crisis prevention and crisis management. As someone who was deeply engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Biden is familiar with best practices developed over those decades. These begin with joint efforts to identify potential crises, tabletop exercises to explore responses, circuit breakers that prevent automatic escalation, and, most importantly, robust channels of communication.   

GT: Biden said he would return to the Paris agreement. There are also speculations that he may resume TPP talks. To what extent will he endorse multilateral frameworks, and does that mean China and the US have more room to cooperate than what we have seen under the Trump administration?

Allison: If it were simply a matter of geopolitics, I’m confident Biden would rejoin the TPP in a heartbeat. As originally conceived, the TPP would have had 40 percent of the world’s GDP on one end of the seesaw, negotiating with 18 percent represented by China. That correlation of forces would lead to rules and enforcement procedures the US would find more favorable than if the relative power of the parties were reversed. But Biden will confront the hard realities of domestic politics in which the Democratic base is more protectionist than Republicans. So I think it will be difficult to thread the needle here at home to find a way to join some TPP 2.0. But it is certainly a challenge Biden will explore.

Elsewhere, expect Biden to be multilateralist. He criticized Trump’s “America First” for its producing “America alone.” Responding to foreign leaders who called to congratulate him, he repeatedly said “America is back” – and noted his intention on day one to rejoin the Paris Accord and WHO as a down payment.

GT: You once reminded Americans of the challenge China poses that China has already passed the US in the race to be the world’s top economy. But some Chinese analysts raised doubt – the per capita of many economic indicators of China are still relatively low, and taking into account of China’s aging society and slowing economic growth. How do you justify yourself?

Allison: Measured by the yardstick that both the IMF and CIA now judge to be the single best metric for comparing national economies, China’s economy is No 1. Today its economy is about a sixth larger than America’s ($24.2 trillion versus the US’s $20.8 trillion). If that seems hard to believe, check the IMF’s 2020 World Economic Outlook.

Traditionally, economists used a metric called MER (market exchange rate) to calculate GDP. In 2020, China will have an MER GDP of $14.6 trillion versus the US GDP of $20.8 trillion. But this comparison assumes that 7 yuan buy the same amount of goods in China as $1 does in the US. And obviously, that’s not the case. When buying most products, from burgers and smartphones to missiles and naval bases, the Chinese get almost twice as much bang for each buck. Recognizing this reality, over the past decade, the CIA and the IMF developed a more appropriate yardstick for comparing national economies, which is called PPP (purchasing power parity). As the IMF explains, PPP “eliminates differences in price levels between economies” and thus compares national economies in terms of how much each nation can buy with its own currency at the prices items sell for there. In fact, the Chinese government uses the PPP yardstick in its annual assessment of “Aggregate National Power.” But, instructively, it stopped making that report public in 2014 when China’s economy surpassed the US. 

Of course, as you note, China faces many serious economic challenges – from an aging society and heavy debt burden to a growth rate that has slowed to around 5 percent. But when the year of the coronavirus pandemic closes, only one major economy will be larger at the end of the year than it was at the beginning: China.

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