WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Former President Bill Clinton said Chinese president Xi Jinping’s long-term reign has upended US-China relations, and will require Mr Joe Biden’s incoming administration and its allies to take a more coordinated approach to dealing with Beijing.
Speaking in conversation with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Mr Clinton said the US could strengthen its negotiating position with China by enlisting partners, from Europe to Asian nations which were part of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact abandoned by President Donald Trump.
President Xi has abolished term limits and could rule for years to come. Last month, he laid out an ambition to double the size of China’s economy by 2035 – suggesting he planned to remain in power for the foreseeable future.
“The old Chinese system, which was by no means a democracy, still guaranteed enough debate, and play, and openness because there was a regular rotation of leadership,” Mr Clinton said.
“Now that it appears that a person is in charge of China who intends to stay there for life, in essence, that changes things. But we shouldn’t accept or assume that it’s all going to be bad without working to make it better.”
Mr Clinton noted “clear disagreements” between Washington and Beijing over its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and the internment of Uighur Muslims in western China, but added that there was a “desperate need to work together” on climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The former president said it was clear that Mr Biden would work to strengthen the US role in international organisations like the World Health Organisation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Mr Trump has moved to withdraw the US from the WHO, which he blames for early missteps handling Covid-19.
“We got to give the new administration a chance to articulate an approach,” Mr Clinton said, “and then try to achieve, in cooperation with Europe and the United States and the international bodies, a strategic partnership which will enable us to do good things together and try to minimise the bad things that we think will happen if we just walk away.”
The New Economy Forum is organised by Bloomberg Media Group, a division of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
Mr Blair agreed it was time for the president-elect’s team to take a more coherent, coordinated approach to China rather than relying on the more unpredictable mix of measures – from tariffs to sanctions – pursued by a Trump administration. Those policies often surprised even close allies like Canada.
“For the new administration in the US, I think the big challenge with China is to get what I would call a strategic framework for dealing with China, rather than a series of ad-hoc reactions to whatever the Chinese may be doing,” Mr Blair said.
Mr Trump’s team is considering a range of hard-line moves against Beijing’s that could impact how Mr Biden’s China policies are perceived, Bloomberg reported earlier. John Ullyot, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, said in a statement that “future US presidents will find it politically suicidal to reverse President Trump’s historic actions.”
Mr Blair said China’s more recent foreign and domestic policies had undermined his belief that Chinese politics would gradually become more open as it joined the world economy. When he and Mr Clinton were in office, there was hope that China’s political system would liberalise as its economy opened up, Mr Blair said.
“That was our hope, and possibly and certainly, it was my actual expectation. You’ve got to say in the last few years, there’s been more external aggression and more internal repression. That’s just a fact,” he added, noting those changes justified a new approach.
“The strategic relationship is very important to define, because you need America and Europe to work together,” Mr Blair said. “It would be bad if, as it were, Europe is kind of navigating between the US and China. I think that strategic framework has to accept that there will be areas of confrontation.”
Mr Clinton added that he thought Mr Biden was being stymied by Mr Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential election.
“I don’t want to say too much right now because over on our side of the Atlantic, the current government in America is blocking a normal transition,” Mr Clinton said. “The less we say right now, the better, because we want to leave them as much maneuvering room as possible.”
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