Home News 4 experts on what China can expect from the Biden administration

4 experts on what China can expect from the Biden administration

by Torsten Weller
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After four years of tariffs and a war of words, American policy on China is likely to change under President-Elect Joe Biden. We asked four experts to give CBBC their view

Elizabeth Economy is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

elizabeth economy

We are on the precipice of a new Cold War with China, partly because of the way the Trump administration has framed China as a strategic competitor and revisionist power. In the US we now see China as an economic, military and even ideological rival. The Trump administration has shifted the US away from 40 years of an ‘engage but hedge’ approach to China.

Of course, it takes two to tango. Part of the reason why we are on this precipice is down to what has taken place in China under Xi Jinping. Xi has transformed China into a much more repressive and authoritarian country at home and a much more ambitious and expansive country on the global stage.

There is now a general belief in the US, too, that there is no such thing as a private Chinese company: Hence the pushback recently against companies such as Huawei, TikTok and WeChat. Chinese plans such as Made in China 2025 and the dual circulation strategy have had a negative impact on sentiment in the US business community.

The Trump administration has tried to push back on China’s growing assertiveness. The President himself has focused on trade mainly, and North Korea; the rest of his administration and Congress have been concerned with broader issues, such as China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. The Trump policy overall, though, has been very defensive and reactive, and focused on erecting bulwarks to prevent China from gaining ground. It hasn’t been about asserting a positive message about the US’s role on the global stage.

Under Biden, the US will re-engage in virtually every agreement that Trump pulled the US out of, such as the Paris climate accords and the JCPOA with Iran. The US may look for ways back into the CPTPP, although there will be a bit more domestic debate about that in the US. The US will be back in the WHO.

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The Biden administration will adopt a much more consultative approach to its traditional allies. There is a lot of interest in the idea of a D-10 group of leading democracies.

There will be a pause button on decoupling from China; whereas the Trump administration has seen a national security threat behind every technology, a Biden administration will look to ‘build a tall fence and have a small yard’ — ie, it will try to think through the technologies we do not want to let out of the US to China, and what technologies from China do we don’t want in the US ecosystem, but will then let the market decide the rest.

The Biden team will look to re-establish the bilateral framework of dialogues with China that has largely collapsed. It will do so not with any particular deals with China in mind, but more because it’s important just to have a formal framework for the US and China to express their views to each other. 

I don’t think the Biden people want to frame the current situation as a Cold War. But there is a wide range of views in the incoming team, and it remains to be seen where the centre of gravity will end up. 

There is a sense in Washington that this is a moment for China to reach out to the US — and to offer up some ideas on how to improve the relationship

There will be no full return to the Obama days, as there is a sense that his administration gave up too much in deals with China. For example, there will be people in the Biden team who will argue it’s not necessary to make concessions to China in order to get Beijing to take action on climate change, as acting on the environment is already in China’s own interests. 

Under Trump, there was a downward spiral in the relationship with China — but it was unclear to what end. Biden’s team will try to set more of a strategic objective.

There may not be too much action with regard to China in the first 100 days of the presidency, other than signalling a desire to reestablish the bilateral framework: I don’t think there will be an immediate lifting of all the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. There is a sense in Washington that this is a moment for China to reach out to the US — and to offer up some ideas on how to improve the relationship.

A Biden administration would face pressure if it rolled back tariffs and the US didn’t get something in return, such as better access for US business in China.

On the technology front, there is room for the Biden administration to come in and say we recognise the seriousness of the issues, but we are going to do this in a much more thoughtful way. We’re not going to say everything’s banned and then step back, as the Trump administration has done.

The striking thing over the last four years in the US is that people still want to do business with China. The broader mentality of American people is that we are not in a Cold War – that sort of debate is confined to the policy elite. 

Kaiser Kuo is the host of the Sinica Podcast

If Joe Biden were taking office in January 2020 and not 2021, prospects for improved US-China relations would look a whole lot brighter than they do at present. It’s hard to remember that before the pandemic, the bilateral relationship looked set to pull out of its nosedive, with a Phase One trade deal both sides could live with. But when Covid-19 cases began surging exponentially in the US in May, the Trump administration made the decision to pull out all the stops and pursue a full-court press against China.

With the backing (if not indeed the urging) of the White House, multiple government departments and agencies – the Department of Justice, the State Department, Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, and even the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services – have ramped up hostility toward China. It seems clear now that with the writing on the wall and electoral defeat increasingly likely, Trump gave rein to the China hawks in his administration, so that even if the belligerent rhetoric didn’t produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect and save his campaign, at least it would make it difficult for Biden to roll things back and pursue rapprochement, let alone a reset. 

In this, unfortunately, it appears he will be successful. Joe Biden or his Secretary of State won’t be presenting Xi Jinping or Wang Yi with a big red button. While Biden will certainly pursue some areas of cooperation with Beijing – on issues like the environment, future pandemics, and North Korea – this will not remove the lens of national security through which American perspectives on China seem now to be filtered. That said, domestic concerns will be the Biden team’s primary focus, as they should be, and that will mean some pressure will come off Beijing and the temperature might come down.

The Cold War rhetoric, the veiled calls for regime change, the unbridled demonisation of the Chinese leadership will all stop. Beijing will appreciate this, and will hopefully recognise that there are relatively low-cost actions it can take to further lower the temperature – conciliatory measures that Beijing can afford to make now, as they will not appear to domestic constituencies like they were undertaken from a position of weakness. After all, the pandemic is under control in China, the recovery has been relatively strong, and the Chinese leadership can sell the idea domestically that it weathered the Trumpian storm, answering each blow without backing down.

Beijing will also recognise that Biden will move quickly to repair strained relations with traditional allies, including allies in the Western Pacific, and that this will be made that much easier if China’s truculent “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy continues. Hopefully, Beijing will recognise that the window to exploit cracks in the Western alliance system will now close, and will adjust its strategy quickly to the new reality. 

Jim McGregor is chairman of APCO Worldwide’s Greater China region

Jim McGregor

I expect Biden’s approach to foreign policy to be much more multilateral, going back to the norms of foreign policy. Biden has a Buy American’ policy that appears in part to be a response to Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ effort, with a plan to put $400 billion towards US government procurement of US products, and to invest $300 billion in technologies such as quantum computation, 5G, and artificial intelligence.

A Biden administration will impose a 10% surtax on American corporations that move offshore to sell products back to the US. It is interesting that this doesn’t go after US companies that are in China to sell to the China market.

Biden has been negative about tariffs, but I don’t see him giving them up any time soon. Many in Congress understand that tariffs are paid by US consumers and businesses, so there could be a reckoning, but they also serve as real leverage with China, and you don’t want to drop your leverage.

Biden’s policy will be much more focused on human rights than the Trump administration has been. This will inform policy towards Hong Kong, although the administration will also not want to punish the Hong Kong people with excessive sanctions.

Biden has probably spent more time with Xi than any other US official having travelled with him both in the US and China

Biden spent a lot of time with Xi Jinping when he was vice president under Barack Obama; given anti-China sentiment in the US, he has had to be defensive about that in the campaign. But in the past, Biden has talked about the importance of the US-China relationship and the fact that the two countries have to get along.

Biden has probably spent more time with Xi than any other US official having travelled with him both in the US and China. But he will want a real dialogue with Xi. They’re not going to listen to a lot of nonsense. China is going to have to climb down on its Wolf Warrior strategy in order to engage.

There is one bilateral issue in Washington on which all agree and that is that China is a bad guy. You say something nice about China in Washington these days, and you’ll be called a traitor. It’s really got that dark.

The US attitude is that many feel betrayed by China. There is a strong feeling that the US opened up its universities and markets to China, but that this goodwill has not been reciprocated. This is the strong American attitude, and I understand that.

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There is a strong feeling in Congress that the US needs to be tougher in enforcing international rules on China when it goes beyond its borders, with less emphasis on sitting round a negotiating table trying to persuade China to change its model.

A big question for Chinese entrepreneurs now is whether they will be able to build big international companies, given the Communist Party’s moves to be more involved in private businesses and China’s ability to request data from them. There’s this distrust of China Inc, and distrust of the Chinese government.

Biden may push for a revival of the Iran nuclear deal, and for the US to re-enter the Paris climate deal. He will stop the destruction of the WTO, but will push for reform to make it less easy for China to play rivals off against each other. We do need a strong multilateral trade organisation, and China needs it as much as anyone.

Biden has also talked about forming a group of democracies partly in an effort to withstand China. There will be a lot less worry in Washington that this might offend China. Under Biden, the US may look to rejoin the CPTPP, but it may be hard to get back in. Withdrawing from the deal may have been the dumbest thing the US has done since invading Iraq. It was so upsetting to those countries, they’re going to extract a big price to let us back in – and they should.

Biden is likely to be careful in his approach towards Taiwan. There is a lot of support in the US Congress for the US to pursue a free trade agreement with Taiwan, while Biden may support its entry into bodies such as WHO.

China is now going through a period ofreform and closing’, in contrast to the post-1978 ‘reform and opening up’ period. Beijing is focusing on reforming its own companies, but closing up to foreign companies that it can replace.

US multinationals do still need to be in China: If they are not in China they are going to lose out globally – you’ve got to be a player in China. You can’t not be there. Most US companies are in China for the China market, and those companies are doubling down.

Under Beijing’s new ‘dual circulation’ strategy, China may give more opportunities to companies in the tech and retail sectors. But companies have to go in with both eyes open. China will welcome you – but it’s not their goal to have you there for the long term. To quote Mao Zedong, China will ‘Use the past to serve the present, let foreigners serve China.’

US business wants to be allowed to carry on operating in China, but they also are going to have to show they care about the United States and are investing in the US at the same time.

Doing business in China used to be like all-star wrestling. You got bounced around, but never really got hurt bad with no lasting damage. Now it’s like UFC – where it’s much more brutal and you can get hurt bad. You’ve got to really pay attention to policy – that’ll help you get through the minefield and you might even find opportunities.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute

Kerry Brown

The consensus amongst commentators on US-China relations is that this is one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats see eye to eye. There was little discussion during the 2020 US presidential campaign about whether China was a threat and a problem. That was taken as a given. The only real issue was about how hard to go on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Trump offered the Xi Jinping leadership the novelty of a transactional-based, amoral foreign policy approach. Trump’s final Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo (going at least by the social media accounts of prominent Chinese official spokespeople and state media figures) aroused levels of loathing and opprobrium seldom ever seen before towards senior American government figures.

This was probably because of the very palpable way in which he instrumentalised human rights and values discourse simply to attack the People’s Republic. There has been general stupefaction in Beijing at how someone can, in one breath state that they will work for a second Trump administration despite the incumbent clearly losing the 3rd November election, and on the other hand berating Beijing for its anti-democratic actions in Hong Kong. The 45th president of the US reached places in the Chinese leadership psyche with his unorthodoxy and inconsistent behaviour that few others have ever done, or are every likely to do. In that sense, he is irreplaceable.

Biden will offer at least two changes, however. The first will be a reversion to more multilateral modes of diplomacy. That carries positive and negatives for China. On the one hand, the US will most likely recommit to climate change action, and to the World Health Organisation, and to working within the World Trade Organisation. The wrecking era of Trump towards US alliances will, perhaps temporarily, end.  This will also mean creating a stronger united front between the US and its allies on contentious issues. Criticisms of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, aggression towards Taiwan, and then on Chinese behaviour in the Belt and Road area and the South and East China Sea, will now be done in a more structured, and co-ordinated way. The era of a more divided chaotic international response to the China challenge is coming to an end. That may well raise the spectre of a sense of Chinese isolation and containment. In some ways, the country has missed the opportunity to gain more sympathy and standing for itself internationally during the Trump upheaval. It may regret that in the years ahead.

Secondly, there will be a change in tone. Tone matters in diplomacy. Trump deployed the language of the business deal and the commercial falling out to matters of high international politics. It certainly stirred things up, but it also meant that the US’s reputation took a huge dent. Biden is certain to use a very different language and style – in diplomacy, where style is often substance too, this will make a difference.

Despite these changes, the underlying structural issues won’t be changing. Because of Covid-19, China is now in a trickier position than ever before, and the US is divided, and wounded – and unlikely to view a Communist-led country slowly overtaking it to become the world’s number one economy. No matter who is president, this issue will work itself out in the years ahead, and at the moment, China on more fronts than ever before has a strategic advantage – something, ironically, the Trump years with their aggression and pushback only accelerated.

The views expressed in this article are of invited contributors and not necessarily those of the CBBC.


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