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A Return to Rationality?

With Joe Biden's victory in the US presidential election, China counts its potential losses and gains under a new administration

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

Joe Biden and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden at a bookstore in Beijing, December 5, 2013 during his visit to China when he was US vice president

Most analysts believe that former US vice-president Joe Biden’s victory over US President Donald Trump in the presidential race marks a turning point for US foreign policy, with governments around the world bracing for potential policy reversals on many issues. But for China, the situation appears much more complicated.

Trump’s Legacy

Under the Trump administration, the US launched a trade war against China by raising tariffs, restricted Chinese tech companies’ access to American technologies, shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston, stepped up political support and arms sales to Taiwan, sanctioned Chinese officials over Hong Kong, and repeatedly blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic. 

While many have accused Trump’s domestic policies and his rhetoric on diverse issues for widening divides in American society, his campaign against China has successfully forged a bipartisan consensus to counter China’s rise. The only appreciable difference between Republicans and Democrats is how to best to approach countering China.  

Under the Trump administration, public sentiment toward China in the US took a turn for the worse. According to a July Pew Research Center survey, 73 percent of US adults said they have an unfavorable view of China, up 26 percent since 2018.  

In the run-up to the US presidential election, China continued to face strident accusations of interfering with the US election, despite alack of substantiated evidence. Both candidates claimed that Beijing would favor their opponent as the next president. While Trump said Biden is a weak leader who was and would be fooled by China, Biden accused Trump of undermining the US’s global leadership so much that it had been rendered incapable of dealing with China. Given the strong domestic political pressure, many believe the US-China rivalry will continue and possibly intensify under a Biden presidency.  

‘United Front’
So far, with his primary focus on combating the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden has not released a detailed and comprehensive policy toward China. In an article written for Foreign Affairs magazine titled “Why America must lead again: Rescuing US foreign policy after Trump” in January, Biden said China represents a “special” challenge, and he agreed with Trump on economic matters, writing, “If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property” and that the US needs to get tough with China.  

Having criticized Trump’s trade war against China as “erratic” and “self-defeating,” Biden’s China strategy centers on building a united front with allies. “The most effective way to meet that challenge [from China] is to build a united front of US allies and partners,” Biden wrote in the article.  

In contrast to the Trump administration’s “America First” agenda, China has tried to establish a role as a guardian of multilateralism and globalization.  

In a speech during a visit to France last August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the essence of the disputes between the US and China is not about power, leadership, ideology or political systems, but between multilateralism and unilateralism, and between the spirit of win-win cooperation and the mentality of a zero-sum game. Under a Biden administration, it would be hard for China to make such an argument.  

As leaders of many Western democracies have welcomed Biden’s elevation to the White House, it appears that a united front is already on the horizon even before Biden assumes the presidency. In Japan, the media highlighted that in a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden reiterated that the security guarantee provided by the US to Japan includes the disputed Diaoyu Islands (known as Senkaku in Japan), which soon drew criticism from China.  

After speaking with Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he expects the US will help pressure China to release two Canadian citizens detained by China.  

Beijing and Ottawa have been at odds with each other since Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese Huawei executive and the daughter of the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei at the request of the US in December 2018, which was followed by the arrests the same month of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, although Beijing has denied any connection. The two were charged with spying in June.  

Cautious Optimism
But for many Chinese analysts, Biden’s return to multilateralism and the resumption of a global leadership role for the US could help stabilize the bilateral relationship. “The greatest challenge posed by the Trump administration is its erratic, volatile style,” said Professor Jin Canrong, associate dean with the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China. “The difference with Biden is that his foreign policy team will be staffed with professional diplomats, which will inject some rationality and predictability into the US-China relationship,” he added.  

In his victory speech, Biden said on his first day in office he will rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Previously, Biden also expressed the intention to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining bilateral arms control agreement between the US and Russia. On Iran, Biden has said that he would rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal if Tehran returns to strict compliance. On North Korea, Biden has stated that he will jump-start a “sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others, including China, to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.” 

There are areas in which the US and China can find common ground. Biden said in his Foreign Affairs article that the US could still “seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation and global health security.” 

“The return to multilateralism is also the return of the spirit of cooperation, which would be welcomed by China,” said an editorial by dwnews.com, an overseas Chinese media outlet. “Biden may adopt a new strategy and build a united international front against China, but as long as the competition is rational, it should be acceptable to China,” it added.  

According to Professor Xin Qiang, vice-director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, Biden’s victory over Trump means that the US-China relationship could take a “breather” from its downward spiral over the past four years. 

“The Trump administration’s damage to the US-China relationship can be generalized into three levels, the collapse of strategic trust, the suspension of almost all high-level talks and the termination of cooperation on almost everything,” Xin told the State-run Global Times. “While strategic trust will remain shattered under a Biden presidency, the two sides can make some repairs to the other two areas.”  

After the election, Trump not only launched multiple lawsuits, but also fired top Pentagon and other officials, which could put China on alert. On November 13, Trump again escalated US sanctions against China, signing a new executive order banning Americans from investing in 31 Chinese firms that the White House says “enable the development and modernization” of China’s military. 

According to Professor Jin, China’s immediate task is not to prepare for the upcoming Biden administration, but to safely wait out the remaining days of Trump’s tenure. “Believe it or not, the last two months of the Trump administration could be the most dangerous period for the US-China relationship,” Jin said.