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The White House and the Second Cold War

Aaron Sarin

Aaron Sarin

Aaron is a freelance writer living in Sheffield. He regularly contributes to Quillette and and you can follow him on Twitter @aaron_sarin

This article is more than 6 months old

Will Joe Biden adopt a China policy similar to the Barack Obama administration, erasing the changes of the past four years, or will he continue with the new approach introduced by Trump?

“We have people at the top of America’s core inner circle of power and influence”.
– Di Dongsheng, Vice Director and Secretary of China’s Centre for Foreign Strategic Studies.

The largest question hanging over the Biden presidency is the one that concerns China. Specifically, the question is whether the Sino-American relations that have undergone such dramatic change over the past four years will now simply reset to Obama mode. Some observers suggest that this is impossible; that the upheavals of Trump’s tenure have transformed Washington’s China policy for good. Others, seeing Trump as a brief aberration, expect a return to business as usual in 2021. But before making an assessment, we will need some context.

When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, a member state like the US might have expected to benefit from the subsequent relationship. That was not how things played out. Over the next two decades millions of manufacturing jobs were outsourced to China, causing an American decline comparable to the Great Depression a century prior (1). In fact, nations all around the world now depend on the Middle Kingdom for medical supplies, scientific equipment, electronics and motherboards, and so on (1). Too few observers have recognised it, but the Communist Party is looking to achieve full national self-sufficiency while preparing the country for cyber, biological, and military war.

For years, the Party has been stealing technology from as many foreign states as possible in preparation for what it regards as an inevitable conflict. “The tip of its spear is global industrial predation,” as senator Mitt Romney phrased it. The United States is the primary target, and in a sense the war between the two countries has already started: the FBI recently revealed that it opens a new China-related counterintelligence case every ten hours. Half of all such cases across the nation relate to China. Recognising that the battlegrounds of the near future will look very different to those of the past, the Communist Party now wants to build the world’s 5G networks via state-controlled companies like Huawei and ZTE. If it succeeds, then it will be able to weaponise the technology of entire cities or even countries (1).

The danger has been growing steadily for decades, as documented by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg in their epic work Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World (2). The truth is that we are already living in the midst of a Second Cold War. But successive American administrations had no idea what was happening. The consensus was clear: leave China to grow rich, and it will democratise. Like the Western apologists of the 1930s and 40s who admired Stalin from afar while he carried out some of the worst crimes in history, the leaders of the free world were blindly encouraging the growth of a monster.

After 2016, of course, everything changed. In response to the unearthing of scores of Chinese spies on American university campuses, Trump curtailed the CCP’s strategic use of student and researcher visa programs. Entry into the United States was suspended for Chinese nationals pursuing any postgraduate study deemed “likely to support a PRC entity that implements and supports the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘military-civil fusion’ strategy.” China’s consulate in Houston – reputedly a nest of espionage – was closed. Last month, additional limitations were placed on US travel for all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Efforts were made to prevent Huawei from getting its hands on US semiconductor technology. Export restrictions were placed on PRC companies found to be complicit in the ongoing Uyghur genocide, and travel was restricted for the relevant individual officials. Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, and in 2020 Hong Kong’s special status for diplomacy and trade was revoked. When the pandemic demonstrated the degree to which the World Health Organisation had been allegedly corrupted by Beijing, Trump terminated the United States’ relationship with the organisation, redirecting funds of $400 million per year to frontline healthcare workers in developing countries around the world.

America’s outgoing president also proved impossible to buy off. “For the past 30 years, 40 years, we have been utilising the core power of the United States,” Di Dongsheng told an audience in Shanghai last month. (Di is the Vice Dean of the School of International Relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, and also the Vice Director and Secretary of China’s Centre for Foreign Strategic Studies.) “Since the 1970s,” he explained, “Wall Street had a very strong influence on the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States.” The Communist Party has been able to influence Wall Street at the highest level, he gloated, “so we had a channel to rely on. But the problem is that after 2008, the status of Wall Street has declined. And more importantly, after 2016, Wall Street can’t ‘fix’ Trump. It’s very awkward.”

From the mouth of the Party itself, we learned that its grand plans were seriously jeopardised by the election of Donald Trump to the White House. But the full picture may be more complicated. Trump-led American flight from global institutions and agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership has actually come at just the right time for Beijing. The Party aims to establish a techno-authoritarian world order fundamentally opposed to the existing liberal status quo, and to this end it is already setting up a series of alternative institutions: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; the New Development Bank; the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership; the Belt and Road Initiative. It has been steadily winning friends while the United States has been losing them. In this sense, at least, ‘America First’ was not the right approach.

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Last year the representatives of 22 states on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council signed a statement condemning the ‘arbitrary detention’ and ‘widespread surveillance and restrictions’ used to target Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Within days, ambassadors from another 37 countries countered with a letter praising the human rights situation in China. “We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights by adhering to the people-centred development philosophy and protecting and promoting human rights through development,” the letter stated, parroting the mind-numbingly banal and repetitive style in which the Communist Party makes its public statements. These 37 governments had been bought, of course. Now that Beijing appears to have won the backing of a significant portion of the world, a unified strategy is required. No nation can go it alone.

Trump’s retreat from the global stage could be explained as a simple case of mistaken strategy. But in other areas his motivations have raised questions. When it came to the Hong Kong protests of 2019 – the political event of the decade, marking a clear line in the sand for nations to position themselves on questions of human rights and democracy – Trump made no sense. “I stand with Hong Kong, I stand with freedom,” he said. “But I’m also standing with President Xi.” In other words, against Hong Kong, and against freedom. Trump also admitted that he had delayed imposing sanctions on officials involved with the Xinjiang concentration camps because he worried that it would compromise his trade deal. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton has even suggested that Trump told Xi building the camps was “the right thing to do”.

We can explain these apparent discrepancies if we understand that the successes of the Trump government owe more to the army of China hawks within the administration than to the Commander-in-Chief himself. Trump may have been personally erratic on Chinese issues, but he was almost always pushed in the right direction by the likes of Matt Pottinger, Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer, and head hawk Mike Pompeo.

The new attitude to China was outlined in a series of Pompeo-orchestrated speeches made by top officials over the course of summer 2020 – speeches taking a tone that would have been unthinkable only a few years previously. Attorney General William Barr spoke of China’s “economic blitzkrieg”; its aggressive campaign “to seize the commanding heights of the global economy and to surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower”. If we don’t act now, Pompeo warned in his own speech, “the CCP will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our societies have worked so hard to build”. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien summarised the new position: “As China grew richer and stronger, we believed, the Chinese Communist Party would liberalise to meet the rising democratic aspirations of its people… This miscalculation is the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s”.

Not only does the Party intend to keep its foot on the neck of the Chinese people forever, it also has the goal of creating and overseeing what it calls a ‘Community of Common Destiny for Mankind’. It wants to remake the world in its own image. The great achievement of the Trump administration has been to recognise this danger – an epiphany that had eluded US governments all the way back to Nixon. Trump deserves credit for appointing the right officials and signing the right legislation. He has done more than any other Western leader to counter what can be considered the biggest threat to the free world since the 1930s. But there are questions as to whether he would have acted in the same way with a different administration behind him.

Trump’s government, however, is on the way out. So what will happen under a Biden government? When it comes to technology policy, Adam Segal has suggested in Foreign Affairs that the US is likely to continue along its new Cold War path for the foreseeable future. The Trump administration has set the new course, the thinking goes, and from now on Washington will follow its lead, concentrating on restricting the flow of technology, restructuring global supply chains, and investing in emerging technologies at home. A new administration will limit itself to tweaking and fine-tuning this approach.

Some of Biden’s advisers have even suggested that Trump was the one who was weak on China, having undermined vital allies while expressing sympathy for the various dictatorial regimes that move in China’s orbit. “We’re weaker and China’s stronger because of President Trump,” says Tony Blinken. While this accusation is probably empty rhetoric, it hints at the welcome idea of an ongoing competition to see who is toughest on the Communist Party. But a strong stance prior to taking office does not necessarily translate into a strong stance in office. There is a good chance that Biden will simply pick up where he left off four years ago, under his old boss. And Obama’s stance on China was characterized by eight years of “amoral quietism,” as the writer Brian Stewart puts it.

The idea had been to ‘pivot to Asia’ – a vaguely-defined move to contain China’s rising power. No one in Obama’s administration understood the nature of this rising power, dooming the pivot from the start. They seemed to think they were dealing with Japan again, the island nation having been mooted as a challenger to American hegemony back in the late decades of the twentieth century. The difference, of course, is that Japan was a responsible actor on the global stage. The Chinese Communist Party is not the same animal at all. Obama stressed that despite the pivot, he would respect China’s ‘core interests’ in Asia (apparently failing to realise that these interests involved aggressive expansionism). He also expressed his support for Xi Jinping’s ‘New Model of Great Power Relations’.

Safe in the knowledge that Washington did not have the courage of its convictions, the Party proceeded to extend Chinese boundaries across most of the South China Sea. Artificial islands and airstrips were conjured from reefs; all rival claims to territory were ignored. Those years also saw the beginning of the radical expansion of Xinjiang’s concentration camp system.

Obama’s tenure was blighted by an unwillingness to cause upset. He proved to be perfect for Beijing’s purposes, and now the Party is hoping that Biden will be just as toothless. The signs are ominous. America’s president-elect is said to have developed a “personal connection” with Xi Jinping when the two were vice-presidents of their respective countries. It remains unclear whether or not this friendship was behind his calls for caution back in the days when Hillary Clinton pushed Obama to take a tougher stance on Beijing (2).

What is certain is that the Communist Party knows a weak link when it sees one. After lamenting the difficulties of ‘fixing’ Trump, Di Dongsheng said to his Shanghai audience “But now we’re seeing Biden was elected…” He tailed off with a smirk, and the audience laughed. Biden has already been targeted via his family – specifically his son Hunter, who was gifted business deals on visits to China during Obama’s second term. Hunter now enjoys a $20 million share in BHR Partners, whose biggest shareholder is the state-run Bank of China (2). Worse, it turns out that BHR has been investing in Megvii, a company sanctioned and placed on the United States Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List for providing facial recognition technology to the Xinjiang authorities. When it comes to China, Biden may be fatally compromised.

This could spell disaster for the groups who have suffered most under the Communist Party. “Many of us are fearful now that Donald Trump is leaving the White House,” says the activist Rahima Mahmut. “Put yourselves in our shoes. For years nobody stood up for us. The Obama administration: nothing. The David Cameron government: nothing. Angela Merkel: nothing. Theresa May: nothing. Trump? Under Trump, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, pursued an aggressive line on China, which gave us hope. For the first time, our oppressors were being sanctioned and real action was being taken to prevent companies sourcing goods made with Uyghur slave labour.” Western progressives may be celebrating Trump’s departure and deluding themselves that it represents some kind of victory for human rights, but all across Asia real human rights activists are panicking. For Biden to be president, says Hongkonger Elmer Yuen, is “like having Xi Jinping sitting in the White House.”

Their fears are understandable, but in reality Biden’s government is likely to contain both hawks and doves; perhaps the former will win his ear. But really he would do best to listen to non-government sources. Washington has spent decades guessing at Beijing’s possible motives, and it has usually guessed wrong. The time has come to stop imagining how things might be from the outside, and start consulting those who have been on the inside. Chinese dissidents paint a picture of the Party as a playground bully whose behaviour grows worse with appeasement. “The Chinese government will strike an aggressive stance but will give in easily if an opposing side holds its own,” says Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who famously made a dramatic escape from house arrest in 2012 (3).

Tiananmen Square Massacre survivor Wu’erkaixi suggests that Western heads of state need to stop seeing CCP officials as their trusted peers and counterparts. “When forming your China policy,” he advises, “consult with your criminologists instead of international relations experts.” Wang Dan – another hero from 1989, and occupant of the prestigious number one spot on Beijing’s ‘Most Wanted’ list in the aftermath of the massacre – has scorned Biden’s talk of making China play by the rules. “The Chinese Communist Party hardly abides by international rules,” he reminds us. “The United States must realise that there will be no improvements on human rights issues in China if there is no regime change.”

The truth is that the Communist Party does not have the same goals as the West. It never had any intention of playing by the same rules. The whole thing is a façade. The economy that looks so successful is really an enormous Ponzi scheme built on issuing massive amounts of credit, generating unrecoupable billions in foreign investment, and allowing no outside audits (1).

What else is to be done? While on the campaign trail, Trump often talked about the need to decouple from China. But this would be an immense task. In 2017, the total revenue of US companies and affiliates in China was $544 billion. The closer we look at the idea of decoupling, the more convoluted the problem appears. As the political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman have pointed out, the Chinese economy is not a discrete organism that can be quickly and easily located and amputated. Instead it is a Siamese twin, connected by nervous tissue, common organs, and a shared circulatory system. The science of supply chains in the twenty-first century is forbiddingly complex – about as complex, they suggest, as nuclear physics.

In 2018, for instance, the Trump administration was forced to lift sanctions it had just imposed on Russian aluminium manufacturers United Company Rusal. As it turned out, European car manufacturers needed a vital aluminium part produced by Rusal. A Biden government could encounter scores of similar problems if it maintains the policy of decoupling. Policymakers are now like surgeons at the dawn of the age of modern medicine, say Farrell and Newman. Facing an urgent demand to fix grave problems, they have little idea where to start. “[They] can vaguely grasp that some healthy-seeming economic relationships have become dangerous and some even gangrenous. But they don’t know which relationships should be saved, which should be severed, and which should be rearranged – and they are working with little more than prayers and blood-speckled hacksaws.”

Failing to decouple, however, would be more perilous in the long run. And so a coordination of efforts is required. Farrell and Newman propose a new institutional arrangement combining the expertise of such agencies as the Department of Defense, the International Trade Center, and the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. This arrangement would be overseen by a revitalised National Security Council, which could also draw on knowledge from outside the country – perhaps liaising with certain Cambridge University economists who have begun mapping supply relationships in detail. But even as American knowledge of these chains grows more intricate, there will be no way to separate from China completely. Every action will prompt a reaction from Beijing, and so Biden’s America must be prepared for sacrifices in the years ahead.

Lessons can be learned from the mistakes of the outgoing administration. Trump famously tried to prevent American companies from selling to Huawei, but many of these companies were able to exploit loopholes. They continued to supply Huawei from factories outside the States. In fact, Huawei’s purchases from American suppliers actually rose by 70% in the year after the new restrictions. In May 2020 the policy was altered, and now Huawei’s in-house microchips are targeted instead. No American tools are to be used in the construction of Huawei products, wherever in the world the factory may be. This promises to be more effective.

Before choosing his tactics, Biden must determine which side he is on. Like Trump and Obama before him, he has made contradictory noises when it comes to China. Hong Kong’s fight for freedom in 2019 brought out one of his better moments. “The world is watching,” he tweeted. “All of us must stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.”

As he prepares to enter the White House, exiled Hong Kong democracy activists Nathan Law and Alex Chow have called on him to make good on that sentiment. He is the one that the world is watching now.


Aaron Sarin



  1. Spalding, R., “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept”, Portfolio / Penguin, U.S., 2019.
  2. Hamilton, C., and Ohlberg, M., “Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World”, Oneworld Publications, 2020.
  3. Guangcheng, C., “The Barefoot Lawyer: The Remarkable Memoir of China’s Bravest Political Activist”, Macmillan, 2015.
Received: 10.12.20, Ready: 28.12.20. Editors: Logan Chipkin, Alexander F. Brown.

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3 thoughts on “The White House and the Second Cold War

  1. This is a very well written, interesting analysis! Thanks Aaron.

    I have one consideration I would like to share with you and other readers concerning your assumption that Obama lacked of a “Chinese strategy”. China grew as a superpower while the U.S. under Bush was occupied with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush didn’t have a strategy to deal with China, Obama did. I think his administration understood that the rise of China could not be halted with any of the strategies previously adopted by the United States to deal with global threats (e.g. the Cold War). His strategy was based on multilateralism and recognized the U.S. was no longer the hegemon of a unipolar world, but rather the main superpower sharing the global stage with China. As you also mention, their economies are so interconnected and the global institutions are structured in such a way that it is practically impossible to imagine one of the two superpowers to be able to completely override the interests of the other. Therefore I see Obama’s “inactivity” as the proof that his administration was not dictated by a distorted, typically U.S.-centered view of the world.

    Let me know your thoughts on this!

    1. It might be true that the Obama administration had a strategy based on multilateralism which differed from previous administrations, but even so, I would say that this strategy failed. Whatever the differences in the respective China policies of Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama, they all had the same result – the Communist Party became stronger and stronger and stretched its influence further across the globe. I think that there will always be a hegemon, and this is something we can never change. There will always be someone who is the biggest boy in the playground and is able to order the others around. The question is who do we think is best suited to this role? By attempting to shift to a position of sharing the global stage with China, the Obama administration effectively handed the title of number one to the CCP. The Party’s leaders are not interested in multilateralism – of this I’m 100% sure. They talk about a ‘common destiny for mankind’, but that’s just because they know it’s what the international community wants to hear. This is why I suggested in the essay that we need to understand we are dealing with career criminals. Any arrangement that places China on the same level as other countries will just lead to the CCP emerging as the hegemon.

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