Pacific Dialogue
Going hard on China: the new American "politically correct"
By Liang Xiao  ·  2021-12-21  ·   Source: NO.51 DECEMBER 23, 2021

In today's American politics, being hard on Russia and China seems to be the new "politically correct" suit to try on. As if a reincarnation of McCarthyism, politicians dove right in, regardless of the negative effects of this apparent hard lesson in the past.

On December 7, mere hours before the virtual meeting between the heads of state of Russia and the U.S. was set to take place, Donald Trump appeared on air and publicly mocked President Joe Biden for not being tough enough, saying that he would be in a weak position, comparing it to "the New England Patriots playing your high school football team."

As if in response to those skeptical comments, the White House released a statement saying that Biden was, in fact, playing tough. National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan even went into more vivid details as he described how President Biden looked President Vladimir Putin in the eye and told him, "The things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now." On March 20 of that year, Crimea and Sevastopol broke away from Ukraine and joined the Russian Federation.

Obviously, Biden's move will not bring Russia to its knees nor will it help resolve the current situation. Nevertheless, he has to put on a tough exterior to counter the domestic criticism of his "overall weak diplomacy." Yet the "playing hardball" mentality not only prevails in U.S.-Russia relations, it also seeps into Sino-American ties.

During the 2020 presidential election campaign, team Biden proposed a more rational and pragmatic approach to U.S.-China relations, including putting a halt to the budding trade war between both nations. Against the backdrop of unprecedented political polarization and rising populism within the U.S., the Republicans put forward the China policy as one of the campaign's core issues, equating being "super tough" with patriotism, which in turn established a certain social basis among American voters. To maintain political influence, the Democratic Party, which won the election by a narrow margin, then chose to follow suit, virtually inheriting the Trump administration's China strategy and even taking it to the next level.

Following Biden's entry into the Oval Office, tariffs imposed on Chinese goods have not been lifted; U.S. fleet activity near the South China Sea has been turned up a notch; and Congress has passed a series of bills meddling in China's internal affairs, constantly challenging the latter's bottom line on the issues of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, taking a tough stance is never the right way to handle foreign affairs. President Biden, possessing some extremely rich political and diplomatic experience, is naturally aware of the consequences of any further deterioration in China-U.S. relations. But even so, the ongoing political provocation on the part of the U.S. has in fact hindered the reconciliation, let alone improvement, of Sino-U.S. relations and intensified the lingering sense of mutual distrust.

Perhaps this is the biggest contradiction of Biden. On the one hand, he knows that the U.S. and China are close economic relatives, consequently rendering a "decoupling" completely unrealistic. Whether it is to seek economic recovery or to maintain world leadership, the U.S. cannot make do without China's support. Case in point: the highest inflation rate in three decades hitting U.S. customers.

On the other hand, there is no way for either China or Russia to accept an American diplomacy that borders on blackmail tactics. China needs the U.S. to show enough sincerity to achieve win-win cooperation—as equals. However, domestic political trials, ideological tribulations and an unfavorable public opinion pose obstinate obstacles to Biden's reconciliation with China.

As the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

To fall into the trap of the newfangled "politically correct" diplomatic toughness or to seek cooperation with China and Russia to lift his people out of the current economic quagmire, the Biden administration has a choice to make.

(Print Edition Title: Tough 'Love')

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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