America is back. That was the key message US President Joe Biden sought to convey during his first trip abroad since taking office in January. But while Biden himself has rejoined the mix of global leaders — having served as vice-president in Barack Obama’s two administrations — past US policies might not get the same opportunity for a comeback.
We live in a different world today than we did just a few years ago. Geopolitical tensions are on the rise, and cooperation on shared challenges is more urgent than ever. China’s emergence as a global power, in particular, has sparked deep, almost existential, fears in the United States, driving a reassessment of policies across the board.
A comparison between the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released in March, and the 2015 National Security Strategy, issued when Biden was vice-president, provides a glimpse into the logic of that reassessment. The 2015 strategy paid considerable attention to China, noting, for example, that the US would “closely monitor” the country’s “military modernisation and expanding presence in Asia.”
But the latest guidance puts America’s “growing rivalry” with an “increasingly assertive” China front and centre — and proposes a strategy to pursue it. “Taken together,” the document reads, “this agenda will strengthen our enduring advantages, and allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”
The Biden administration is right to work to bolster America’s economic competitiveness and strengthen its physical infrastructure and human capital. This is in the entire world’s interests. But, if the US wants to compete effectively with China, it will need to look well beyond its borders — and far into the future.
As it stands, the US-China competition is playing out primarily in the economic domain, as China’s GDP continues to grow and its leaders move decisively to forge ever-deeper trade and investment ties with countries and regions worldwide. Already, China is a trading superpower, with more than 100 countries trading at least twice as much with it as they do with the US.
The extent to which China expands and entrenches its trade dominance will go a long way toward determining the scale of the country’s political influence. And if the Biden administration’s recent guidance is any indication, China will face relatively few barriers to achieving its goals.
In 2015, the US had a forward-looking trade policy, which sought to shape the global trading system of the future. The National Security Strategy recognised, for example, that initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would enable the US to set “the world’s highest standards for labour rights and environmental protection,” remove barriers to US exports, and put the US “at the centre of a free-trade zone covering two-thirds of the global economy”.
Today, neither the TPP nor the TTIP is in place — at least not with the US as a member. The Obama administration’s vision for the global trading system was shot to pieces by Donald Trump’s administration, with its mercantilist trade philosophy. But the real disappointment is that Biden does not seem eager to revive it. Instead, his administration seems to be taking a defensive and backward-looking approach to trade — one that looks a lot more like Trump’s than Obama’s.
Yes, on his trip to Europe, Biden and European Union leaders agreed to a five-year truce in their 17-year-old trade dispute over subsidies for aircraft manufacturers. But he did not remove Trump’s tariffs on European steel and aluminum. He and his European counterparts say they are “working toward” a deal, but even if they reach one, it will reflect nothing like the vision and ambition that animated the two sides during TTIP negotiations in 2015.
So, when it comes to trade, the US isn’t “back” at all. And China is wasting no time in taking advantage of this situation to raise its trading profile even further. Already, it has been instrumental in forging the world’s largest free-trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes 15 Asian-Pacific countries.
China has also declared its intention to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was forged by 11 countries after the US walked away from the TPP. Earlier this month, the CPTPP members agreed to start accession negotiations with the United Kingdom. The EU — which has been pursuing trade deals with these countries — should consider joining the pact as well.
What will come of China’s ongoing trade efforts remains to be seen. But it is clear that Chinese leaders understand the critical importance of their country’s trade linkages to its global clout. America’s leaders need to relearn that lesson — for the benefit of Americans and Europeans alike.
Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.
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