What will Vice President Biden find in China?
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the opening session of the 2011 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue May 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)
August 9th, 2011
12:30 PM ET

What will Vice President Biden find in China?

Editor's Note: Evan A. Feigenbaum is Adjunct Senior Fellow for East, Central and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes for the blog Asia Unbound. The following is reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Evan A. Feigenbaum, CFR.org

1.  Biden will find a China whose rise depends on economic growth but whose growth model is no longer sustainable.

Bluntly put, China’s leaders know that their capital-intensive, export-oriented approach is delivering diminishing returns and threatens to become a major political vulnerability for the government. The global economic crisis provided clear evidence that China’s export-driven economy is vulnerable to dips in demand in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, its dependence on investment has introduced distortions and imbalances into the Chinese economy.

Why should this matter to Biden and the United States?

Washington has spent years urging China to “rebalance” its economy:  China produces much and consumes little, while the U.S. consumes much and wants to produce more (in part to sell to China). The bottom line is this: Beijing lacks the political stomach to undertake the toughest rebalancing steps (for instance, a rapid appreciation of the renminbi) but the good news is that, for self-interested reasons, its leaders are committed to rebalancing and will take some steps that are in the U.S. interest.  And ironically, it’s probably worth asking whether, from a Chinese perspective, the ongoing U.S. debt crisis may even create some additional incentives to reckon with China’s own imbalances. To use the pregnant phrase from a Reuters article this morning, could China now “reprice U.S. risk”?

2.  Biden will find a China whose social and political fabric is fraying.

A spate of headlines about truckers’ strikes and ethnic unrest shows just how brittle China’s polity is. China is beset by rural protest.  It has one umbrella labor federation but faces sporadic and unpredictable strikes. China’s leaders have been effective at blunting the political effects of this discontent through a combination of carrots and sticks. Still, the challenges are growing. (And if you need more evidence, see the angry public reaction to China’s recent high-speed rail crash).

Why should this matter to Biden and the United States?

Two reasons:  First, it means China’s leaders are preoccupied domestically and will be (mostly) uninterested in what the U.S. has to say. Second, it means China’s leaders will probably dismiss U.S. calls for political reform with even more than their usual vigor.

The regime is likely to meet challenges to its stability with an increasingly assertive mix of blandishments and force. Beijing (and local officials) will co-opt some demands of the discontented, not least by hiking wages and funding social housing (which, incidentally, may be marginally helpful in promoting economic rebalancing).  But they will also build, deploy, and ultimately use paramilitary and police capabilities while cracking down hard as incidents arise.

3.  Biden will find a China whose cautious leaders prefer incremental steps to bold action.

Beijing is facing this litany of development and social challenges against the backdrop of a cacophony of voices and views. Some voices represent entrenched domestic interests and are deeply invested in the status quo. For their part, as conservative technocrats, China’s leaders tend to split the difference between these competing groups. The result is a strong bias toward incremental policy change that should persist until China’s next leaders take office in 2012, and probably even beyond that. Here are two examples:  Chinese leaders broke the renminbi’s peg to the U.S. dollar in 2010 but have chosen to implement their decision incrementally. Similarly, China voted for new sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council but offered assurances to insulate Chinese interests from the fallout with Tehran.

Why should this matter to Biden and the United States?

For one, it means domestic Chinese allies will be essential if the U.S. is to elicit cooperation from China. Foreign pressure generally only works to the extent that it aligns with the objectives of one or another of the interest groups Chinese leaders seek to balance. But perhaps more important, it also suggests that while China’s commitment to rebalancing is real, this process will move more deliberately than anyone in Washington would like. From Beijing’s vantage point, an uncertain global environment, combined with inflationary pressures and a leadership transition at home, dictate caution rather than boldness. And the kind of incrementalism that Chinese bureaucrats favor isn’t going to mesh with American expectations and exhortations.

4.  Biden will find a China that is being asked to assume global responsibilities but is (very) reluctant to do so.

To use my former boss, Bob Zoellick’s, famous phrase, China is a “stakeholder” at many of the top tables of international relationsIt is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a WTO member, and a signatory to protocols on everything from ozone depletion to chemical weapons. It is a member of the G20 (which has largely supplanted the G8) and has a seat on the Financial Stability Board. But China has proven itself to be a reluctant stakeholder, often content to continue taking a free ride on the provision of public goods by others.

Why should this matter to Biden and the United States?

In some areas, China will push back hard against steadily building international expectations that it match its new economic clout to tangible actions in concert with others. Often, China will continue to insist that, as a developing country with its own litany of challenges, it cannot be expected to shoulder “unreasonable” burdens.  And that will mean growing resentment of China, not least in the United States, as many argue that Beijing is punching below its weight. This, in turn, will feed a parallel process of resentment in Beijing, as some Chinese argue that the country is punching above its weight by supporting global growth and becoming a new demand driver in the face of a slowdown in the U.S. and austerity in Europe.

5. Biden will find a China where security hawks preen and posture.

Finally, here is something Biden should contemplate: For some in China’s strategic class, recent events have reinforced breathtaking conclusions about China’s “rise” and American “decline.” Many, both in and out of China’s government, want to test what Beijing’s growing weight might yield. They are confident of China’s growing strength. And they relish the opportunity to, at minimum, make Washington work harder for Chinese support of ostensibly shared objectives.

Why should this matter to Biden and the United States?

As I’ve blogged here on Asia Unbound before, the United States and China share more interests than, say, ten years ago (much less twenty or thirty years ago). But translating that common stake into complementary policies will remain elusive unless the two countries’ threat assessments begin to converge. And even when Beijing does share America’s sense of threat, countervailing interests too often obstruct cooperation. Combine that with other tensions in the relationship—not least in Asia, on everything from U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to the South China Sea—and the U.S. and China are likely to face a period of greater security tension.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Evan A. Feigenbaum.

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Topics: China • United States

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soundoff (86 Responses)
  1. Jack

    What can Biden find in China? Chinese. duh

    August 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  2. joe goingbustfaster

    I live in DE and I am immensely embarased every time Biden opens his large mouth.

    It apparently has nothing to do with DE, as we now have president (first from HI) who is the same way.
    I hear that the Kenyans are now saying that he was born in the US.

    August 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  3. Meat Puppet

    the Chinese will steal Biden's mo-jo and have it replicated before he leaves t he country
    we are at war with the yellow horde and the current administration has done everything possible to give aid and comfort to the enemy
    please explain to me why we are still giving China foreign aid? free scholarships to their students?

    August 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • That'snotTrue:(

      Scolarships are based on grades and education level....in the east, education's highly valued....not so sure now of what's happening in the west now.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  4. pld123

    What will Biden find in China – Cheap lobor

    August 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  5. Plexie

    What will Vice President Biden find in China?;
    Ummm, Chinese people?

    August 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  6. 7113

    Biden will find Ho, Lo & Cho and he's not smart enough to hang with them so it's best he find a good place to eat enjoy his ribs & rice and go home before he makes a fool out of himself again.

    August 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  7. Mr Pino

    Joe, foot-in-the-mouth, Biden is in China looking for a new source for teeth whitening strips......

    August 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  8. Dan

    The author is living in his dream.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  9. Jake Holman

    Please pass this on!!!!! AUGUST 1st to Sept..1st
    Did you see Diane Sawyer's special report?
    They removed ALL items from a typical, middle class family's home that were not made in the USA.

    There was hardly anything left besides the kitchen sink. Literally.
    During the special they showed truckloads of items – USA made – being brought in to replace everything
    and talked about how to find these items and the difference in price etc..

    It was interesting that Diane said if every American spent just $64 more than normal on USA made items this year, it would create something like 200,000 new jobs!
    I WAS SHOCKED SO FOR A FEW MORE CENTS I BOUGHT THE LIBERTY GOLD BRAND OR THE DOLE SINCE IT'S FROM CALIF. Are we Americans as dumb as we appear- or - is it that we just do not think.. The Chinese, knowingly and intentionally,
    export inferior and even toxic products and dangerous toys and goods to be sold in American markets.

    70% of Americans believe that the trading privileges afforded to the Chinese should be suspended..
    Why do you need the government to suspend trading privileges? DO IT YOURSELF, AMERICA!!

    Simply look on the bottom of every product you buy, and if it says ‘Made in China ' or 'PRC' (and that now includes Hong Kong), simply
    choose another product, or none at all. You will be amazed at how dependent you are on Chinese products, and you will be equally amazed at what you can do without..

    Who needs plastic eggs to celebrate Easter? If you must have eggs, use real ones and benefit some American farmer. Easter is just an example. The point is do not wait for the government to act. Just go ahead and assume control on your own.

    THINK ABOUT THIS: If 200 million Americans each refuse to buy just $20 of Chinese goods, that's a billion dollar trade imbalance resolved in our favor. . . fast!!

    Most of the people who have been reading about this matter are planning on implementing this on Aug. 1st and continue it until Sept. 1st. That is only one month of trading losses, but it will hit the Chinese for 1/12th of the total, or 8%, of their American exports.

    Remember, August 1st to Sept. 1st!!!!!! START NOW.
    Send this to everybody you know..
    Let's show them that we are Americans and NOBODY can take us for granted.
    If we can't live without cheap Chinese goods for one month out of our lives,

    Pass it on, America.....

    Instead of doing it for just 1 month, why not try to do it all the time?

    August 10, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Reply
    • mgunn

      Your math is bad. 200 million x $20 is 4 billion. However, the vast majority of mark-ups is internal. The chinese get pennies on the dollar, let's say 5 cents. So $200 million goes to them. Note: even if we buy American we benefit greatly from the price lower effect imports provide. Mom and pop stores won't hesitate to rip you a new one. Don't believe me? Look at what lawyers and doctors charge.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Reply
    • U2ovrUs

      I haven't bought a thing that says "made in China" for about ten years now (and I built my computer without Chinese
      components!) Most of my friends don't think it is possible to boycott China but it IS possible...

      August 11, 2011 at 4:04 am | Reply
  10. Bill

    simple, Biden will find mother fuk***s in china

    August 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Reply
  11. fiskenmann

    Besides slant eyed people, he'll also find Kristi Noem, Tim Johnson and John Thune selling out Americans!!!

    August 10, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      Most likely he will find you kwok zucking the Chinese.

      August 10, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Reply
      • U2ovrUs

        Chinese zombie...

        August 11, 2011 at 4:06 am |
  12. lucy

    Return all the money which US lent from China. And then you can do whatever you want. But please remember, everything has two sides. Always try to resist the others will finally hurt yourselves. Look at the economy in US now. Be nice to China and the other countries.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Reply
    • U2ovrUs

      Boycott China...

      August 11, 2011 at 3:37 am | Reply
  13. Goodgold

    At least he is out of this country so he can't screw up too many things here.

    August 10, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  14. U2ovrUs

    Biden will only find what the CCP wants him to find. He'll also find a bunch of American businesses that got suckered
    into investing in the nastiest, most corrupt society on earth. The CCP and the PLA run that plantation (and take the lion's
    share of the profit from it). What Biden should discover is that all American businesses (and citizens) should get OUT of
    China. China is a catastrophe just waiting to happen...

    August 11, 2011 at 3:35 am | Reply
    • That'snotTrue:[

      The US is a catastrophe that already happened and is attempt to drag the rest of the world down with it.

      August 11, 2011 at 11:37 am | Reply
  15. dave

    he will find all OUR MANUFACTURING JOBS!!! which if our country doesnt start producing MADE IN USA, even though things will cost more it will produce jobs which is what we need to get our economy going WE WILL NEVER RECOVER!!! beside the loss of electronic stores and repair shops [items are cheaper to replace then fix old one] the biggest loss weve had is manufacturing,causing the loss of millions of jobs,as you can drive through almost any town and find EMPTY USE TO BE MANUFACTURING BUILDING/BUILDINGS. the other big killer of jobs is TECHNOLOGY, as each year goes by they [companies] figure more ways to REPLACE PEOPLE with AUTOMATION,ROBOTICS,ROBOTS, which may cost at first BUT THEY SAVE by NOT PAYING BENEFITS,HEALTHCARE,TAXES[ less people less taxes less revenue to state&fed gov.] and then the HUGE OUTSOURCING, it seems every time i call a 1 800 its NOT an AMERICAN and NOT someone in the U.S.

    August 11, 2011 at 7:17 am | Reply
  16. One Fai

    Joe Biden will find a fake iPhone 5 in China?

    August 11, 2011 at 7:26 am | Reply
  17. Stephen Perkins

    Q: What will Biden find in China?
    A: He'll find that he's a perfect fit for their communist nation. Revoke his American citizenship! Quick!

    August 11, 2011 at 8:29 am | Reply
  18. skeptic

    Q: What will Biden find in China?
    A: 1.3 billion Chinese.

    August 11, 2011 at 9:42 am | Reply
  19. Pete

    Biden will NOT find Waldo.

    August 11, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
  20. Bubble Shooter

    This post was saved like a favorite :), I like your site!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply
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