Coons says hopes for bipartisan U.S. policy to ‘out-compete’ China

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic Senator Chris Coons, seen as a contender for secretary of state in the incoming Biden administration, told Reuters on Friday he hoped to see a bipartisan policy take shape for the United States to “out-compete” China.

Coons also said that while the main U.S. focus would have to be on competing with Beijing, it was essential to cooperate on areas such as climate change, global health and nuclear non-proliferation.

“I see clearly that China is a peer competitor. And we have to be able at the same time, to cooperate with China in those areas where it’s essential,” Coons said in an interview.

“There’s a whole series of areas where the world is only going to get safer and more stable if the United States and China cooperate, but our main focus has to be competing with China,” he said.

A senator from Delaware, Coons is a close friend of former Vice President Joe Biden, who won the Nov. 3 presidential election and is due to take office on Jan. 20.

He is also a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and could expect a relatively smooth path to confirmation from his Senate colleagues, even if the body remains Republican-dominated.

Coons stressed that foreign policy had to be rooted in domestic policy and that dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy were the priority.

“Everything comes back to responding to this pandemic in a competent way,” he said.

“If the American people can’t see a way through the pandemic and the recession and a way forward towards coming together as a country … some potential hypothetical … foreign matter doesn’t really affect the daily lives of most Americans the way this pandemic is.”

But Coons said the United States also had to “to prepare for the possibility of conflict with China” and this meant “being more active and more engaged on the world stage along with our allies.”

Taking a swipe at outgoing President Donald Trump, he added that Washington “can’t just have an approach to the world that is a list of grievances, we have to offer an appealing alternative.”

“Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are convinced that America’s in decline, that the United States and our system are broken and weakening,” he said referring to China’s leader.

“It’s up to us to show that they are vibrant and strong and capable of solving problems.”

Coons said he expected the Biden administration to do an analysis with Congress on “where we are and where we’re going in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship before making any decisions about either carrots or sticks” on trade and China’s actions related to the coronavirus, which originated in that country.

Top advisers to Biden have said before that he would immediately consult with America’s main allies to seek “collective leverage,” before deciding on the future of the tariffs Trump has imposed in his trade war with China.

In the run-up to his failed re-election bid, which he is still refusing to concede, Trump has ditched decades of efforts to cooperate with China and declared it a strategic rival.

Relations have since plunged to their lowest level in decades amid U.S. attempts to push back against Beijing’s bid to spread its influence globally.

Washington has taken action to restrict the activities of Chinese technology companies, imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over crackdowns on minority Muslims and Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and urged countries to cooperate with in confronting the security threat posed by China.

Beijing has denounced the efforts as showing a “Cold War mentality.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom, Editing by Franklin Paul and Tom Brown)