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After the Apocalypse: China

After the Apocalypse is a series of policy recommendations for the new Biden administration.

Words: Daniel Markey, Tobita Chow, Ali Wyne, and Rachel Esplin Odell
Pictures: Jie

What kind of policies should the United States pursue with China? Will there ever be a time when these two powers are more friends than foes? Inkstick asked Daniel Markey, Tobita Chow, Ali Wyne, and Rachel Esplin Odell about what issues the Biden administration should prioritize when it comes to China. They call for revitalizing both bilateral channels and multilateral pathways to engage with China on various issues, ranging from mitigating territorial disputes to COVID-19 vaccine distribution to being more strategically involved in the region.

Their other recommendations are below.

Also, for recommendations on how the Biden administration can specifically confront the ongoing human rights crisis in Xinjiang, Michael Clark weighs in here.

Daniel Markey, Senior Research Professor and Academic Director, Global Policy Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

  1. Prepare for India-China Crisis: Top Biden administration officials should devote immediate attention to crisis management in the Indo-Pacific. As Obama-era veterans, they are familiar with many of the region’s hot spots, such as North Korea and India-Pakistan, but may be less well-versed on tensions between India and China, whose mountainous border saw the worst violence in over four decades this past summer and where we can anticipate new clashes when the snows melt this spring. Lessons from crisis simulations by the US intelligence community should be translated into contingency planning exercises within the National Security Council, State Department, and Department of Defense.
  2. Compete Across Eurasia, and Beyond: Global geopolitical competition with China (in renewed partnership with traditional allies in Europe and Asia) is shaping up to be the core organizing principle of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Kurt Campbell’s appointment as the NSC “Indo-Pacific Coordinator” is a smart first step intended to show the Biden team’s commitment to the region, conceived more broadly than just “Asia” or the “Asia-Pacific.” But the coordination of US strategy — including the sharing of lessons about new Chinese policy initiatives — should not end at India’s western edge. Either Campbell or another senior official should be charged with connecting the dots of Washington’s China-focused policies across South and Central Asia to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and beyond.
  3. Seek a Sustainable US-India Strategic Partnership: Similar to its predecessors, the Biden administration will rightly appreciate India’s strategic potential as an enormous Asian counterweight to China. Unlike the Trump administration, however, senior members of Biden’s team aspire to shore up America’s liberal democratic credentials at home and abroad and will struggle with the implications of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s majoritarian populism. The Biden administration should seek a sustainable balance that avoids betraying US principles or closing the door to an ambitious strategic agenda by adopting modest expectations for political partnership with New Delhi in the near term. For instance, Washington should encourage India’s participation in planning for a global democracy summit and US officials should regularly, if quietly, stress how bilateral cooperation founded on shared liberal values is materially different from a narrowly transactional partnership directed against shared security threats.


Tobita Chow, Director of Justice is Global 

  1. Work with China on COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution: The Trump administration has been one of the greatest obstacles to the global cooperation needed to end the COVID-19 crisis. Instead the Biden administration should prioritize working with China to create systems for global COVID justice, including the following measures:
    1. Ensure COVID vaccines are distributed quickly and equitably across the Global South, and agree to take down patent barriers to universal access to vaccines, including support for the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP).
    2. Create a joint plan to provide financial relief to Global South countries at risk of debt crises. This includes the issuance of trillions of dollars in Special Drawing Rights at the IMF and new systems for debt relief and cancellation.
  1. End Brinksmanship: President Biden should initiate talks aimed at the peaceful resolution of growing US-China military tensions. Also, the Biden administration should cease the dangerous US strategy of brinkmanship in the South China Sea under the guise of escalating “freedom of navigation operations.”
  2. Prioritize US-China Cooperation on Climate: The Biden administration should restart talks to transform the US-China economic relationship on the model of a Global Green New Deal, including coordinated green industrial policy and clean tech sharing. The United States should also end the Trump administration’s trade war and withdraw existing demands aimed at strengthening the global intellectual property rights regime. Both of these past practices undermine China’s use of industrial policy and are designed to force China to submit to free market fundamentalism, which has actually blocked vital investments in infrastructure and initiatives needed to deal with the climate crisis effectively. In other words, the Biden administration must drop these and similar demands that exacerbate the US-China conflict — and that are drawn from the obsolete neoliberal order — because these kinds of demands are ultimately standing in the way of a sound global climate policy.


Ali Wyne, Senior Analyst for Global Macro, Eurasia Group

  1. Increase America’s Commitment to the Indo-Pacific: President Biden should commit to participating in two high-profile fora: the annual East Asia Summit and the biannual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit. The administration should capitalize on the newfound momentum of “the quad” — taking care, though, to treat Australia, India, and Japan as full partners in contributing to what it calls a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” not simply as instruments of America’s intensifying strategic competition with China. It should also strive to contribute more to the region’s trade and investment arrangements. Perhaps the most important determinant of America’s posture in the Indo-Pacific will be its economic resilience. Even though many of China’s neighbors have marked apprehensions about its resurgence, they cannot afford to detach themselves from a country that is expected to account for roughly a third of global growth this year. As such, they will likely welcome stronger trade and investment ties with the United States that can serve as a counterweight or at least a supplement.
  2. Recalibrate Interdependence Carefully: The Biden administration should press pause on its predecessor’s efforts to accelerate trade and technological decoupling between the United States and China — efforts that, by the end of 2020, seemed to be proceeding more from sheer inertia than from careful calculations. It should instead pursue disciplined, selective disentanglement, aiming to mitigate the security risks inherent in complex interdependence while preserving the competitive benefits that accrue to US consumers and innovators. A new CSIS report notes that both the US policy community and the private sector are trying to determine how the United States can best achieve a “rebalanced economic relationship” with China.
  3. Integrate China Policy Within an Affirmative Vision: The administration should pursue a foreign policy that manages China’s resurgence without growing beholden to Beijing’s maneuvers. To that end, it should embed its approach toward China within a broader effort to renew America’s diplomatic network in — and bolster the country’s economic contributions to — the Indo-Pacific. Kurt Campbell’s appointment as Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council sends an important signal to that end. In his 2016 book “The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia,” he encouraged the United States to eschew a “‘China first’ approach to Asian diplomacy that places bilateral ties between Washington and Beijing at the center of the regional agenda,” advocating instead for integrating China policy “within a much wider and more inclusive regional framework.” The United States should pursue that embedded approach beyond the Indo-Pacific as well. Broadly, rather than undertaking to counter China’s initiatives on a reciprocal basis, it should invest anew in America’s unique competitive strengths and enlist the country’s allies and partners in the most exigent task of our time: constructing a post-pandemic order that is better positioned to absorb systemic shocks and mobilize collective action. Instead of determining US foreign policy, strategic competition with China should advance an affirmative vision of America’s role in the world.


Rachel Esplin Odell, Research Fellow, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

  1. Rebuild Public Health Cooperation: Most urgently, the Biden administration should restore and expand US public health ties with China to address the COVID-19 pandemic as well as future disease outbreaks. The Biden administration should increase bilateral information exchange and coordination with China in tracking the evolution of the pandemic and sharing lessons learned in pandemic management. To facilitate such exchange, Biden officials should consult with Chinese officials as soon as possible about redeploying experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to Chinese cities — officials that the Trump administration withdrew — and to reopen the National Science Foundation office in Beijing, which the Trump administration closed. The United States should also partner with China and other countries to help hard-hit developing nations recover from the pandemic and to bolster future pandemic preparedness.
  2. Restore People-to-People Exchanges: The Trump administration unilaterally canceled many essential people-to-people exchanges between the United States and China, especially in its final year in office. The Biden administration should restore those exchanges, which play a critical role in facilitating mutually beneficial collaboration between universities, businesses, and other civil society groups in the United States and China; strengthening America’s economy through facilitating high-skill immigration and tourism; and enhancing mutual understanding between the American and Chinese societies. Specifically, the Biden administration should restore the China Fulbright Program and the Peace Corps presence in China. The Biden administration should also roll back the extreme visa restrictions on Chinese people imposed by the Trump administration in the final months of the administration, including the strict limitations on visas for all Chinese Communist Party members and their families. These limitations, which are highly impractical to implement in any case, apply to around 200 million Chinese people, most of whom pose no intelligence or security risk to the United States. Similarly, the Biden administration should adopt a more targeted approach to reviewing visas for students with connections to universities affiliated with the Chinese military, rather than across-the-board restrictions.
  3. Pursue Creative Diplomacy in the South China Sea: The United States should build on its shared interest with China in freedom of navigation and maritime security to reduce military tensions in the South China Sea. My colleagues and I lay out the pathway for doing so in a new report on US strategy in East Asia. First, the Biden administration should pursue an agreement with China on safety in encounters of coast guard vessels to accompany past bilateral agreements regarding naval and air force encounters. Then, the United States and China should enter more in-depth negotiations about military activities at sea. As part of these negotiations, Washington should offer to reduce US freedom of navigation operations near China’s coasts and close-in surveillance near Chinese naval bases in exchange for Beijing’s commitment not to interfere with military navigation in key straits and sea lines of communication. China is increasingly likely to accept such a deal, since it recognizes the need for freedom of navigation for its own naval forces, which are now operating more frequently in waters farther from its own shores. Regardless, the Biden administration should reduce US military operations close to disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. These operations distort the norm-building purpose of the Freedom of Navigation Program in favor of geopolitical jockeying, dilute the effectiveness of military signaling, undermine compromise, and raise the risk of destabilizing crises.


Check out more in the series:

After the Apocalypse: Cybersecurity 

After the Apocalypse: Iran

After the Apocalypse: Climate Crisis

After the Apocalypse: Grand Strategy 



Daniel Markey, Tobita Chow, Ali Wyne, and Rachel Esplin Odell

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