WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 09: Jake Sullivan, who was senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton during her 2016 run for president poses for a portrait at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Friday June 09, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Jake Sullivan and the Future of American Policy Towards China

Image Creator: The Washington Post | Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Image

By Raphael J. Piliero

On November 23, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced the selection of his National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. Having previously served as National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden during the Obama administration, Mr. Sullivan’s appointment comes as little surprise. During his tenure as Vice President Biden’s National Security advisor, a position he held from February 2013 to the end of the Obama administration, Mr. Sullivan was perhaps best well-known for his efforts to negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), where he extensively interfaced with his Iranian counterparts. As the upcoming National Security Advisor for the Biden administration, Sullivan will play a highly significant role in shaping American national security and foreing policy, particularly on questions related to U.S.-China relations. 


Much like President-elect Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, Mr. Sullivan is a stalwart defender of American alliances, believing that firm international commitments are necessary to collective international security. Mr. Sullivan previously characterized the Trump administration’s view of alliances as transactional, arguing that a Biden administration would reflect a belief that “the United States is stronger when it is working alongside like-minded democratic allies to achieve common objectives.” 

To actively support and cooperate with American allies, Sullivan has urged the United States to take a number of steps. First, Mr. Sullivan argues that the United States must shed the Trump administration’s skepticism towards international institutions and actively engage with them. To Mr. Sullivan, the Trump administration’s antagonistic approach towards international organizations, such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and World Health Organization, have been deleterious towards the objective of cooperation among like-minded allies. Second, Mr. Sullivan argues the United States needs to rejoin and honor past international agreements, including a renewed interest in the Paris Climate Agreement and JCPOA. Lastly, Mr. Sullivan suggests going further than past administrations in creating a unified front of democratic allies, to “develop a set of clear priorities” on everything from COVID-19 to climate change, including foreign policy towards China.

Foreign Policy towards China

Naturally, many of the issues that Mr. Sullivan has discussed in his writing closely related to United States policy towards China. For example, in Mr. Sullivan’s perspective, American foreign policy towards its democratic allies critically intersects with its policy towards China. In his remarks on alliances and global cooperation to the Atlantic Council in August, Mr. Sullivan urged “like-minded democracies” to work together, with such nations having to “choose a side” between autocracy and democracy, as well as respect for human rights – this quite clearly establishes a line between the United States and its democratic partners and states such as Russia and China. Indeed, headlines such as one recently published in the The Economist, that “Joe Biden will embrace allies and enlist them to take on China,” confirm the direction Mr. Sullivan will take the administration. 

In many ways, Mr. Sullivan’s remarks dovetail closely with the perspectives of Secretary of State Nominee Blinken on China. Mr. Blinken has urged a similar strategy of using alliances to pressure China by presenting a unified front to advance American democratic interests. Similarly, Mr. Sullivan has advocated for a dual-track approach towards China, where the US would “seek to compete from a position of strength” while also “seek[ing] to work with China.”

American Strength Begins at Home

Furthermore, part of competing from a position of strength begins at home. Mr. Sullivan, like many others in the future Biden administration, worries that the Trump administration has diminished the appeal of the United States as a democratic model. Specifically, Mr. Sullivan developed a rather zero-sum view of the internal system, stressing that the diminishment of American democratic appeal begets a view of China as a viable alternative for global governance. To Mr. Sullivan, addressing systemic domestic problems such as disenfranchisement and inequality within American society can help enhance the appeal of the American democracy and diminish China’s autocratic appeal by comparison. 

This implies that Mr. Sullivan does not wholesale disagree with the path towards China charted by the Trump administration. In a September 2019 essay in Foreign Affairs, Mr. Sullivan appeared to agree with the concept of “strategic competition” animating US-China relations. However, he argued that the concept was vague unless the United States specified the areas in which it would seek to outcompete China. Instead, Mr. Sullivan asked, “What, exactly, is the United States competing for?”

Furthermore, Mr. Sullivan rejected the notion that engagement will bring fundamental changes to China’s political system as unduly optimistic. Instead, he argued that engagement should be geared towards facilitating co-existence with China, with each “prepared to live with the other as a major power.” This necessitates both cooperation and competition, with friction sometimes emerging when beneficial to American interests. This is in line with views that others have predicted will be dominant in the Biden administration, with both nations competing while working to find areas of mutual interest.   

Competition with Cooperation

Importantly, Mr. Sullivan is emphatic that US strategy cannot be Cold War-redux – China is a peer competitor with economic strength that dwarfs any challenge mounted by the Soviet Union. Instead, US-China relations are about finding ways to co-exist and seek mutual benefit. This requires a clear-eyed appraisal of the objectives and fears of the other side – China fears threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, while the United States fears China will attempt to push American forces out of the region, threatening its security. Instead, China will need to accept some role for United States forces in the region, while the United States will have to be content with a more limited military presence than it has become accustomed to. This is in line with a broader strategy, where the US strikes a balance between accommodating a rising power and defending US interests. 

One particularly salient arena of competition has been in trade policy, evinced by the Trump administration’s so-called “trade war,” with unilateral tariffs slapped on a litany of Chinese goods. Mr. Sullivan, similar to Mr. Blinken, has been critical of the trade war as a unilateral and futile endeavor, which instead backfired and hurt American interests. Instead, Mr. Sullivan suggests there can be a role for tariffs, but that they must be pursued multilaterally, in coordination with allies. This creates the greatest change of success in addressing the root of the problem, which is unfair Chinese trade and intellectual property practices. 

Who Decides? 

Since the announcement of Mr. Sullivan, articles both in support and opposition to his appointment have been published, with many conservatives claiming he will be too supportive of Chinese interests. One such piece, published in the Washington Examiner, was provocatively headlined: “Why National Security Adviser Designate Jake Sullivan Will Be Celebrated In China, Iran, and Russia.” In this piece, the journalist argues that Mr. Sullivan is directionally right in his stance towards China, but falls short of a sufficiently strong response by not expressly labeling China as an adversary. Similarly, a Fox News piece criticized a quote of Mr. Sullivan’s in relation to China’s rise, claiming him to be unduly supportive of Chinese ambitions. While the quote in question requires more context than was presented (Mr. Sullivan was not normatively endorsing or condemning China’s rise, but explaining the conditions required for a rise to be peaceful), the criticism is one that has certainly been levied. 

While many disagree on the future of American policy towards China, one fact remains undisputed – China policy will be a defining issue for the Biden administration. As a recent headline described, “China, not Biden picks Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, will dictate US foreign policy.“ As the nearest peer competitor to the United States in economic and military strength, US-China relations can be expected to be closely intertwined with other, ostensibly unrelated American foreign policy objectives. Where US-China relations go, the rest may follow, and Mr. Sullivan will play a formative role.