Over the last two decades, China has moved from the periphery to the very center of the world's international relations. Given that China's economy is now more than five times as large as it was at the turn of the millennium, that transition is hardly surprising. But many of China's new international relationships, initially hopeful, have now turned hostile. China still has some down-at-the-heel allies, such as Pakistan and North Korea, but it is increasingly isolated from the developed countries that alone can facilitate its continued economic growth.
For China, that means trouble. Its promises are no longer taken seriously, and its propaganda falls on deaf ears. Many of its Belt and Road Initiative projects have ground to a halt. Virtually no one supports its nine-dash line in the South China Sea, and Western countries have been lining up to offer immigration pathways to professionals fleeing Hong Kong after Beijing's takeover last year. Many countries have banned China's Huawei and ZTE from their telecommunications networks. And India, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are all modernizing their armed forces in response to potential Chinese threats.
Under these circumstances, the best thing that US President Joe Biden can do to stem the rising tide of Chinese expansionism is … nothing. China's red tide is already rolling out all on its own. Biden can afford to pursue a policy of "masterly inactivity," relying on China's own aggressive foreign policy to further isolate the country from the rest of the world. Instead of increasing the pressure on China, now is the time for him to lighten up a bit.
The worst thing Biden could do is put so much pressure on China that its leaders lash out because they feel they have nothing to lose. That was arguably what happened in 1941, when the United States successfully countered Japanese expansionism with military aid to China, a trade embargo, and the freezing of Japanese assets in the US banking system. Japan wasn't on the rise in 1941; it was on the wane. Bogged down in China, checked by the Soviet Union in a little-remembered conflict in Mongolia, and increasingly squeezed by US economic sanctions, Japan's leaders recklessly sought a kantai kessen ("decisive battle") with a naval strike at Pearl Harbor. They saw no other way to forestall a long, smothering defeat.
Of course, what Japan's leaders got instead was a decisive, blood-soaked defeat. But today, no one except the hardest of hard-liners wants to see China defeated. That kind of language makes no practical sense. Short of a world war, there is no way for anyone outside China to dislodge Chinese Communist Party leadership from its headquarters in central Beijing. A more sensible goal for the United States and its allies would be to see China return to the slow liberalization trajectory it was arguably following before President Xi Jinping took power as the party's leader at the end of 2012. And that's a goal that China must be convinced to choose for itself.
As long as China's leaders remain convinced that all of their problems stem from Washington's ill will, reform is unlikely. Today, they seem to completely buy into their own narrative that the United States is a petulant former superpower too proud to gracefully stand aside while China takes its rightful place at the top of the world. But as China finds itself at odds with more and more countries, often with no connection to US pressure, its leaders may eventually get the message. Whatever the future of their relationship with the United States, the other countries of the world have their own reservations about Chinese hegemony.
Australia's fight with China over the former's efforts to restrict foreign influence, Japan's standoff with China over the Senkaku Islands, India's actual battle with China in Ladakh—none of these were prompted by US arrogance. Nor was the South China Sea dispute, which pits China against no fewer than five of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Beyond its immediate region, China is now also arguing with European countries over human rights, with Latin American countries over illegal fishing, and with African countries over development debts. At some point, it must dawn on China's leadership that these problems have little or nothing to do with the United States, and everything to do with their own provocative behaviour.
The most effective way the Biden administration can help drive home that message is to mind its own business. Each of these countries has its own reasons to be unhappy with China. They don't need US encouragement, and it would only muddy the waters to offer support. For all Biden's talk of working with allies and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's pledge to hold China "accountable for its abuses of the international system," they should resist the temptation to try to solve other countries' China problems. The truest love the United States can offer the world on China right now is the tough love of encouraging other countries to stand up for themselves.
Biden shouldn't try to out-Trump former President Donald Trump by showing he is even tougher on China. If Biden really wants to differentiate his China policy, he should sit back and let history take its course. While keeping sensible restrictions on Chinese access to US advanced technologies, he should consider pulling back in areas where the Trump administration arguably overreached. A good first step might be to reverse the steel and aluminum tariffs aimed at China that have hurt friendly countries such as Japan and Taiwan. He could also lift Trump's visa limitations on members of the Chinese Communist Party, which are almost entirely symbolic and nearly impossible to enforce. Such measures would establish a more conciliatory tone in US-Chinese relations without relieving any of the pressure Beijing faces for reform.
But whatever else Biden does, his top priority should be a negative one: Don't give China's leaders any reason to panic, any legitimate grounds for self-defense, or any cause that might justify war. That is simultaneously the best way to keep US allies onside and the best way to hasten China's fall. The first because Washington's position is strongest when allies need US support, not when they have it. The second because the Chinese regime can't be brought down by the United States; it can only be dismantled from within.
Politically and temperamentally, the hardest thing for any US president to do is nothing. The extraordinary power concentrated in the president's hands generates extraordinary temptation to use it, and there are many stirring arguments for decisive leadership. But in the current situation, decisive leadership can only disrupt an already benign policy environment. China's only hope for victory in the current situation is to provoke a crisis—and then benefit from the ensuing disorder. Biden's number one job is to make sure the crisis doesn't occur.
Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones
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Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.