An Assessment of US-China Relations under the Biden Administration

5 min read.

Following the U.S. Presidential Election last year, we analyzed how the U.S.’s foreign policy towards China will look like under a Biden administration. Overall, we predicted Biden’s administration to retain the overall general direction that the Trump administration has taken towards China, instead of reverting to a softer stance like that we saw during the Obama administration. We were also expecting to see a more consistent and rational approach from President Biden, characterized by high-level communication and a rebuilding of mutual strategic trust between the two countries.

In a statement released on 2 February this year, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the Biden administration wants to be “in lockstep with democratic allies and partners” before engaging with China, its long term strategic rival. This indicates that the Biden administration will indeed take a calculated and multilateral approach in dealing with China, as opposed to the Trump administration’s aggressive and harsh stance previously.

The newly inaugurated President Biden addressing the nation on Inauguration Day.
Source: ABC7 News

A Multilateral Approach

Last year, we forecasted the Biden administration to rejoin international organizations and treaties such as the World Health Organization (WHO), World Trade Organization (WTO), the Paris Climate Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership; all of which President Trump had extricated the U.S. from during his time in the White House. Membership in these organizations were expected to ease tensions between the U.S. and China, for not only will it give rise to avenues for dialogue, it can also allow the two countries to establish common ground and work towards common goals.

Indeed, President Biden has signed numerous executive orders on the first day of his presidency, including ones to resume membership with the WHO and the Paris Climate Agreement. He has also pledged to join COVAX, a global initiative aimed at enabling equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

Leaders of the scientific and political community have applauded President Biden’s swift and decisive move to rejoin these international organizations, many noting both the symbolic and practical implications of such moves. According to Barry Bloom, an immunologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, this move will allow the U.S. to symbolically “retain leadership in global health in the world,” given how the U.S. has been the WHO’s greatest funder, as well as a key player on the global health stage. Practically, U.S. funding will also help the WHO ramp up public health research and intervention, which will benefit Americans by protecting them from new strains from COVID-19 and future disease threats.

The U.S.’s renewed membership in the WHO and its commitment to COVAX signify, both to China and other countries, that the U.S. is committed to cementing its position as a leader in global health. It will also serve to hold China accountable in its interactions with these organizations, and vice versa.

President Biden signs an executive order to rejoin the WHO on the first day of his presidency.
Source: The Japan Times

Tariffs

We predicted Biden’s administration to retain tariffs imposed on Chinese imports by former President Trump, instead of softening its stance on China. In fact, President Biden’s throughout his presidential campaign suggested that he would continue exerting a strong stance against China during his presidency.

Given how President Biden has set his immediate priorities on securing strategic relationships with democratic allies and partners instead of engaging with China, tariffs previously imposed on China are likely to stay for the time being. Experts expect President Biden to renew pressure over bilateral conflicts in trade and technology; however, according to Louis Kuijs of Oxford Economics, it will probably take some time “before we get any shift or explicit announcements”.

By contrast, Chinese officials have vocally voiced their displeasure with current tariffs imposed on China by Washington. In a forum held in Beijing, senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi called on the Biden administration to reopen dialogues with Beijing in order to restore the bilateral relationship damaged under Trump’s presidency. He also urged Washington to remove tariffs on Chinese goods and abandon what he claimed to be an irrational suppression of the Chinese tech sector. So far, the Biden administration has yet to respond to any of these requests.

The U.S. and China will likely remain embroiled in a trade war under Biden’s presidency.
Source: Global Times

Technology

Like the Trump administration, a Biden administration is forecasted to prioritize restricting Chinese companies’ access to U.S. technology. Given how China’s threat as a disruptive competitor in areas of technology and innovation will likely persist in the upcoming years, we expect Biden’s administration to bolster the competitiveness of domestic manufacturers and restrict the entry of Chinese companies into domestic markets.

Despite having similar goals, experts predict that the Biden administration will likely adopt a different approach than the Trump administration, in that it will be more calculated and interest-oriented, as opposed to Trump’s tit-for-tat strategy. Given how American tech companies have interests in the Chinese market, President Biden will likely focus on finding more ways to open up the Chinese market to American companies, instead of cracking down excessively.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will also be likely to leverage more strength from its allies to jointly restrict China’s access to high-end equipment and technology. Given Biden’s emphasis on bolstering its relationship with allies and partners, we can expect to witness a more multilateral approach in the U.S.’s retaliation against China under Biden’s administration.

The U.S. and China remain locked in a fierce technological competition as Biden takes office.
Source: Getty Images

Human Rights

Given how President Biden has publicly condemned human rights violations in China, including the National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong and the Chinese government’s oppression of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang, we predicted Biden’s administration to adopt a more direct approach toward human rights abuses in China.

Already, President Biden has warned that there would be “repercussions” for China’s human rights abuses, saying that he has made the message clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping in their first phone call since Biden took office. In their two-hour phone conversation, President Biden emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to asserting its role as a voice for human rights on the global stage, including at the United Nations and other international agencies. 

Consistent with Biden’s campaign promise, experts have predicted human rights to be a key focus for President Biden’s foreign policy throughout his presidency. Biden’s team has also signalled that the Biden administration will continue former President Trump’s tough stance against Beijing, though with a more toned-down rhetoric.

Many Hong Kong and Taiwan residents were early supporters of Biden during the 2020 Presidential Elections.
Source: The Japan Times

Overall, we can expect Biden’s administration to adopt a more strategic approach against China, as opposed to the more transactional and ad-hoc approach taken by their predecessor. Biden’s administration is also more likely to adopt a nuanced rhetoric against China, in a bid to restore bilateral relations. While it is too early to jump to conclusions on the new administration’s subsequent foreign policies against China, we can broadly expect a greater emphasis on multilateral interventions, more attention on human rights, as well as a focus on trade and technology similar to that we have seen from Trump’s administration.