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Shanmugam '23: Why the new administration's approach to China will make America safer, stronger and richer

In his tell-all book The Room Where It Happened, former National Security Advisor John Bolton reveals the chaos of the Trump administration’s inner circle. He also exposes an incoherent foreign policy towards China that conflicts with the narrative of hard-nosed toughness that the White House has sought to create. While publicly blasting companies for outsourcing manufacturing to China, President Trump privately begged Xi Jinping to increase Chinese purchases of farm goods in order to boost his reelection chances. And as his trade officials openly threatened sanctions on China over its violations of Hong Kong’s political and civil liberties, President Trump secretly supported the construction of Uighur detention camps. This duplicity has been constant over the last four years. 

Given President Trump’s inconsistent, ill-formed approach to America’s relationship with the world’s second largest economy, the results of his foreign policy are unsurprising. His trade war, designed to pressure China economically and put an end to state support for its enterprises, only made life harder for domestic consumers. China is as geopolitically well-positioned as ever: It exerts enormous control over webs of alliances across Asia while the US spurns trade deals and ignores human rights violations

In this light, Joe Biden’s victory is a breath of fresh air for Americans that depend directly on the United States’ ties with China. His approach to the relationship is more consistent and geopolitically pragmatic than President Trump’s. After four years of decay and economic conflict in the United States-China relationship, the incoming administration’s approach to China will make America richer, stronger and safer. 

One of President Trump’s biggest economic mistakes was to view international trade as a zero sum game that determines its losers by the size of their trade deficits. It is this worldview that motivates his distaste for multilateral trade deals and caused him to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The reality is that trade allows countries to specialize, producing what they are best at and increasing the total variety and quality of goods available to consumers – the TPP would have done just that. But perhaps more importantly, the TPP would have granted the United States more economic influence in Asia and the ability to shape trade and intellectual property regulations overseas. Had the United States stayed in the TPP, the 11 countries that joined America in making the deal would have been less likely to take governance cues from China, the other power in the region. Today, most of them have joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a new trade deal spearheaded by China, bringing those countries farther from democratic values, as an isolationist America continues to distance itself from Asia and the rest of the world.

While President Trump rejects conventional economic wisdom when it comes to trade, Joe Biden’s outlook on trade aligns with that of most economists. His administration understands the economic and geopolitical benefits of trade. Biden has promised to realign with Asian nations strategically and economically, reopening the door to trade and allowing America to once again become a counterweight to China in the Pacific. It is crucial that the United States reestablish itself as a force for democracy, human rights and free trade in Asia. A world where China’s influence matters more in Asia than that of the U.S. is one where human rights are violated, democratic values are hard to come by and American economic prosperity is threatened

Since President Trump’s election, the United States hasn’t just retreated economically:  Under Trump, the U.S. has also been less willing to speak out about human rights violations. In the Xinjiang region of China, government officials have conducted a brutal crackdown against the Uighur ethnic minority, seeking to enforce Han Chinese cultural unity on a Muslim group that has for centuries maintained a cultural identity far removed from Beijing. Laws prohibiting hijabs and long beards grown for religious purposes are only one part of the crackdown – more than a million people in the area have been detained in “vocational training centers” that are little better than concentration camps. Yet for years, President Trump has prioritized trade talks with China instead of addressing the country’s human rights abuses. Only as his time in office winds down, with the potential for a deal deteriorating quickly, did he finally impose sanctions over their human rights abuses. 

Fortunately for the people of Xinjiang – and for the sanctity of human rights going forward – the Biden campaign has declared Uihgur mistreatment in the region as “genocide,” providing assurance that the administration will work to hold abusers accountable. From a moral standpoint, that is crucial. But even from a strategic standpoint, Biden’s statement bears good news for American alliances. After all, America’s standing in the international community depends in many ways on a perception – valid or not – that our country’s government is committed to human rights and acts as a global watchdog. 

China’s strategic and economic goals are fundamentally opposed to those of the United States. A continuation of the inward retreat catalyzed by President Trump would perpetuate a shift towards Chinese interests, at the costs of U.S. interests in trade, diplomacy and security. The Biden administration will be far from perfect. But at the very least, America’s foreign policy apparatus will have one less thing to worry about.

Arjun Shanmugam ’23 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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