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By Peter Beinart
Mr. Beinart is a journalist and commentator who writes frequently about American foreign policy.
The choreography has been exquisite. President Biden spent his first nine months in office trying to gain leverage over China: He patched up trade disputes with America’s allies. He hosted the first-ever in-person meeting of leaders of “The Quad,” which forged deeper ties between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, all of which sit on the periphery of Chinese power. He convinced NATO, for the first time in its history, to describe China as a challenge to “alliance security.” He cajoled Congress into spending a trillion dollars to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, which he pitched, in part, as a way to counter China. Then, earlier this week, on the very day he signed the infrastructure bill into law, he held his first formal meeting with President Xi Jinping. The message was unmistakable: The United States will work with China to address common challenges while competing from a position of strength.
The strategy is clear, the execution — a few hiccups aside — impressive. But there’s a problem: Mr. Biden is trying to have it both ways. His aides insist there’s no tradeoff between treating China as an adversary and as a partner. Or, as a State Department spokesperson put it, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” That’s wishful thinking; the two goals collide. And for all the recent talk of better relations between Washington and Beijing, the Biden administration is still not prioritizing cooperation — although it is only through far deeper cooperation that the United States can address what menaces Americans most.
Take climate change, the single greatest long-term danger to life in the United States — and everywhere else. It should be the Biden administration’s top priority when it comes to China. But it’s not. Although the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart made headlines by signing a joint declaration on “enhancing climate action” earlier this month in Glasgow, the document was weaker than a joint statement the two governments signed seven years earlier, before U.S.-China relations nose-dived.
America’s hard line toward China undermines the fight against climate disaster in less obvious ways, too. To reduce carbon emissions, the United States must rapidly switch to cleaner energy sources like solar. The cheapest place to get solar cells is China. But the Biden administration has defended the Trump administration’s tariffs on solar technology. Some Chinese solar producers are based in Xinjiang, where Beijing brutally represses Uyghurs and other Muslims, and are thus subject to U.S. sanctions for using forced labor. But the solar tariffs are not restricted to Xinjiang. Why? Because the Biden team wants to weaken China’s hold over a prized industry. In so doing, however, it is making solar energy more expensive for Americans, which delays the United States’ transition away from fossil fuels.
It’s not just solar panels. Many green technologies will advance faster if American and Chinese researchers collaborate. But the Biden administration has maintained Trump administration visa restrictions that prevent students who attended Chinese universities with military ties from doing graduate work in the United States — even if there’s no evidence those students ever worked for the Chinese military themselves. The Biden administration is working to counter China’s mammoth Belt and Road infrastructure program when the two superpowers could more effectively fight global warming by jointly financing clean energy in poor countries. And by depicting China as a threat, Mr. Biden justifies higher Pentagon budgets — which, given the U.S. military’s status as the world’s largest institutional producer of greenhouse gasses, constitutes a climate disaster in and of itself.
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