America’s crisis of democracy plays into China’s authoritarian hands

Incoming President Joe Biden will have to balance domestic unrest with facing down Beijing abroad

When Joe Biden walks into the White House later this month, he will inherit a China crisis that might define his presidency on the international stage.

His broad blueprint will include rebuilding the coalition of democracies that was trashed in the past four years during President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.

But after the shocking scenes of rampaging Trump supporters storming the US Capitol building, Biden also faces a meltdown at home as he tries to repair the United States’ shattered reputation abroad.

“History will rightly remember today’s violence at the Capitol, incited by a sitting president who has continued to baselessly lie about the outcome of a lawful election, as a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation,” former President Barack Obama said, referring to Trump’s earlier rally in Washington, where he again made unsubstantiated claims of mass fraud after his election defeat to Biden.

Weeks of Trump’s inflammatory remarks finally erupted on January 6 with one of his allies, Republican congressman Mike Gallagher, comparing the riot to a “banana republic” on Twitter.

Night of shame

China had no intention of slipping on the discarded skin. In a post-Christmas gift, Beijing compared the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to the night of shame in Washington.

“The response and words used by some in the US to what happened in Hong Kong in 2019 were completely different to what they used for today’s ongoing events in the US,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing, referring to when Hong Kong’s legislature was surrounded by activists calling for political reform.

Nationalistic tabloid Global Times went even further. Owned by the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Daily, it reported:

“Chinese experts said this unprecedented incident will mark the fall of ‘the beacon of democracy,’ and the beautiful rhetoric of ‘City upon a Hill’ will perish … by ‘pricking the bubble of universal values shaped by the US. It might be too early to declare the ‘twilight of the gods’ in the US, but that day is coming closer and closer.”

Against this backdrop, Biden will take office with a China plan based on cooperation with traditional allies. His new Secretary of State pick Antony Blinken has already opened the window to a new foreign policy vista.

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“American stewardship of the international order advanced liberal values and progressive norms. By abdicating the leadership role it has played since World War II, the United States is giving the terrain to others who will do the organizing on the basis of their values, not America’s. [China’s President] Xi [Jinping] is not shy about who that someone else will be,” he wrote in a prophetic commentary for the New York Times in 2017.

More than three years later, the political mood in Washington has changed dramatically when it comes to dealing with Beijing. Even Biden has done a U-turn after once describing  Xi as “another side of the Chinese leadership” in 2012.

Fast forward eight years amid human rights abuses against persecuted Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, he has a more pragmatic view

Controversial issues

“This is a guy [Xi] who doesn’t have a democratic – with a small d – bone in his body. This is a guy who is a thug,” he said in 2020.

Areas of mutual interest will still exist such as Climate Change and nuclear proliferation. But that agenda will fit on a sliver of A4 paper. 

Perennial problems such as Beijing’s predatory trading practices, the blurred lines between state-owned and private companies, as well as rampant government-subsidies and rapid militarization of the South and East China Seas, will dominate the conversation.

“Trump’s broad trade sanctions against China coupled with pushback from other countries against China’s aggressive geopolitical diplomacy will give the Biden administration substantial leverage when it commences bilateral negotiations,” Eswar Prasad, who has worked on China policy at the International Monetary Fund, told the Bloomberg news agency.

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To make that work, the incoming president will need to rebuild international bridges of cooperation.

Asia-Pacific democracies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan will be quick to jump onboard the Biden bus. Canada and the United Kingdom will also be close diplomatic partners.

But the UK lacks the muscle it once had since leaving the European Union while the EU has become disenchanted with Washington under Trump.

The decision to push through the China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Beijing was masterminded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a move to boost her country’s powerful auto sector and the broader manufacturing industry.

Biden coalition

Announced last week by the EU Council, the trade deal appears to have punched a massive hole in Biden’s coalition of the willing. Jake Sullivan, who has been lined up as the next National Security Advisor, made that clear in a tweet.

“The Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices,” he said in response to the proposed accord.

Although Biden is the consummate political deal-maker, his plan to challenge Xi’s authoritarian regime has suffered a setback with the news coming out of Brussels.

China, in turn, has detected blood in the water as it tries to pick apart the new administration’s foreign policy. 

“The US has long shown two faces: It claims to practice so-called democracy internally while implanting hegemony outside the US. Even if the US is suffering chaos, it won’t give up interference in international affairs and other countries’ politics. This is the nature of US hegemony. The US will continue its unilateralism and hegemonism,” Zhang Tengjun, of the China Institute of International Studies, said.

It seems the battle lines have been drawn amid the lengthening shadows from the storming of Capitol Hill.