Tell Americans Where We're Headed on China

America’s workers and businesses are the best in the world - let’s keep it that way

The Biden administration has started to develop a new policy approach on China, the most consequential bilateral relationship today.  It needs to put together a political and communications effort matching the policy effort, one that makes clear to the American public what it’s doing and how it will benefit ordinary Americans’ lives. 

Getting this right can help rally the country around Biden’s national recovery project and advance a balanced policy approach to China.  It will help respond to domestic political critics already jockeying to use China as a partisan wedge issue in America’s politics. 

The Biden administration has started to assemble a team of knowledgeable and experienced China hands, and it has initiated a policy review.   Last week, President Joe Biden spent two hours on the phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.  With many veterans from the Obama administration’s interagency process on the Biden team, Americans can rest assured that no policy angle on the China angle will suffer from a lack of in-depth study and review. This will be a team that does its homework on policy. 

But how it communicates this new policy to Americans and makes the political case at home could make or break the effort. A stronger focus on domestic politics and communications will help avoid one of the biggest foreign policy political mistakes made during the Obama administration’s time in office: the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement

That scuttled deal had a direct tie to China policy: it was to link 12 countries including America, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Mexico in a web of trade rules to create an economic bloc to compete with China.  The deal collapsed in 2016 at home politically because of missteps in how it was negotiated but also because there was no serious political and communications effort mounted in America.   

Five years later, China represents the best test case for Biden’s notion of a “foreign policy the middle class supports” – as yet a policy not fully clarified in practice.    

Five ingredients for communicating China moves successfully to Americans: 

1. Put the policy first.

The Biden team is off to the right start in working to get its policy straight as the first step.  Too often in today’s hyper-partisan and advocacy-driven foreign policy debates, leaders and even think tank analysts put politics and communications first.  

On policy, the Biden administration wants to cooperate with China on climate change and the pandemic, but compete on technology and economic issues, while also defining what the impact of calling China’s treatment of the Uighurs a genocide will be.  There’s a lot going on there – and teasing it out to achieve strategic clarity is a daunting policy task. 

2.  Think in detail about how relations with China directly impact Americans’ lives. 

The U.S. policy debate on China touches the lives of key groups around the country – workers, farmers, and medium-sized companies, as well as the environmental groups and larger corporations that usually dominate and sometimes overwhelm the elite debate.

3.  Connect national renewal efforts at home with constructive China competition.

The Biden administration has an ambitious national recovery plan to address the twin crises of the pandemic and economic fallout.  It also has broader plan to invest in building a new economy that runs on clean energy with an upgraded infrastructure.  It should discuss these plans in the global context and tell Americans that we are in a new type of competition.  This competition need not lead to a new Cold War.  By avoiding the xenophobic and nativist frame used by the previous administration and some on the right when discussing China, the Biden team can connect domestic renewal to a more constructive form of international competition.

4. Tell a clear story.

The U.S.-China relationship is multi-faceted and the Biden team has signaled an initial nuanced approach that seeks to compete, deter, and engage China all at the same time. Nuance can be confusing.  The policy and communications teams should make sure they are teasing out any contradictions in the public narrative. It is not enough to tell people what the policy is – it should explain WHY steps are being taking and HOW it will improve Americans’ lives.  What’s the big idea for the American people?  That’s the part often flubbed by Democratic administrations when it comes to foreign policy. 

5.  Safeguard against deliberate misinformation.

We live in an age of truth decay, and foreign actors like China aggressively seek to shape America’s information landscape.  At times, the warring factions of America’s political tribes make the efforts of these foreign actors easier. 

These five steps are necessary to build more public consensus for the important but complicated moves the Biden administration appears poised to make on China.  Ordinary Americans are often confused about foreign policy issues – but there’s a broad understanding among a majority of Americans that China is our country’s top competitor. 

To win that competition in the world, the Biden team needs to make its policy clear to the American public.