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After a gruelling election, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared the 46th Presidential and Vice Presidential elections respectively by major news outlets in the United States (US) on November 7, 2020. Despite clinching a temporary victory, the Biden administration is set to face a host of challenges left behind by the Trump administration in January. The ever-intensifying trade war between the US and China, for instance, has been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Will a Biden administration adopt a friendlier approach with China? Will he ease tariffs on Chinese imports? In this article, we explore what the US’s foreign policy toward China will look like under a Biden administration.
During the Trump administration, relations with China have taken a downward trajectory amidst worsening trade tensions, geopolitical disputes over the South China Sea, and intense competition in developing new technology. According to Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, “China is kind of the radioactive core of America’s foreign policy issues”. Moreover, China’s rise to become the world’s second largest economy has made the US-China relationship a keystone of the US’s foreign policy; the relationship between these two countries will not only affect the two parties, but also the rest of the world.
Overall, a Biden administration is expected 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. However, a more consistent and rational approach will be taken, and experts have also predicted the Biden administration to bring about high-level communication and a rebuild of mutual strategic trust between the two countries.
According to Global Times, once mutual trust is established, more opportunities for cooperation and collaboration will be generated. For instance, Xin Qiang, the deputy director of the Center for US Studies at Fudan University said that he expected China and the US to resume pragmatic cooperation on vaccines, the anti-COVID-19 battle and climate change. He also expected some liaison mechanisms and stalled dialogues to resume under the Biden administration, although “it will take time to rebuild mutual trust”.
Similarly, Jin Canrong, the associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, said that Biden’s presidency will usher in a ‘buffer period’ for US-China relations, whereby relations between the two countries may still worsen, but not as quickly. Jin also noted that “Biden will be more moderate and mature in handling foreign affairs,” referencing the numerous times President Trump tweeted baseless accusations and made insensitive remarks about China.
A Multilateral Approach
The Biden administration will likely rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as international treaties such as the Paris Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, after President Trump had extricated the US from these international organizations during his time in the White House. According to Wang Huiyao, president of think tank, the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), this will give way to more dialogue and cooperation channels regarding “energy-saving and emission reduction, economic and trade cooperation, epidemic prevention and control, and [strengthening of] global communication and collaboration”.
The avenues for dialogue arising from these platforms arguably ease US-China tensions to some degree by allowing the two countries to establish common ground and work towards common goals. For instance, the World Resources Institute reported China and the US to be the largest and second largest emitters of greenhouse gases respectively. Resuming talks on lowering emission levels does not just contribute to curbing climate change, it exerts pressure on Beijing as well, given the expectation to remain accountable to the international body. Therefore, with Biden in office, the world can expect to see the two major countries leading discussions about prominent issues on the global stage.
Although Biden has previously criticized President Trump’s application of tariffs as “reckless”, and argued that the Phase 1 trade deal delivers “precious little” for the US, a Biden administration is unlikely to roll back those tariffs. In fact, Biden is expected to continue exerting a strong stance against China, and based on his rhetoric during his presidential campaign, he is unlikely to ease tariffs or go easy on China.
Earlier in May this year, Biden had told the United Steel’s workers union that he would continue to use tariffs against China “when they are needed”; meanwhile, Kurt Campbell, an adviser to the Biden campaign, told the Wall Street Journal prior to the election that the Democratic Party largely stood by President Trump’s calling out of China’s “predatory practices”.
However, Biden has claimed that unlike President Trump’s use of tariffs to “fake toughness”, he prioritized more tangible outcomes, including mitigating the effects of China’s hefty industrial subsidies on domestic manufacturers, supporting state-owned enterprises, mitigating cybertheft, and other predatory practices in trade and technology which Biden had identified to be at the heart of the trade war.
Like the Trump administration, a Biden administration will also prioritize restricting Chinese companies’ access to US technology. China’s threat as a disruptive competitor in areas of technology and innovation will likely persist, and the US is expected to retaliate by bolstering the competitiveness of domestic manufacturers and restricting the entry of Chinese companies into domestic markets.
According to Biden’s aides, a Biden administration is likely to expand federal funding to domestic companies in high-tech sectors, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G. Through increased support for domestic manufacturers, Biden hopes to curb Chinese economic power and influence, reducing dependence on Chinese technology and raw materials, as well as prop up domestic companies.
During his campaign, Biden has also identified structural inequities in China’s systematic intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer as key problems. In response, he has suggested banding together with other like-minded states to address China’s economic statecraft.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden has publicly condemned human rights violations in China, such as 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. The Biden campaign has gone so far as to call the oppression a “genocide”, stating that their candidate “stands against it in the strongest terms”. As such, diplomats have expected Biden to adopt a more direct approach toward human rights abuses in China.
In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Chris Krueger, Washington analyst at Cowen & Co., has mentioned that a tool at Biden’s disposal will be the Global Magnitsky Act, a broad sanctions law named for a lawyer who died in a Russian prison. The Act allows the US government to sanction perpetrators of serious human right abuses and corruption outside of the country, as well as to deny them visas, freeze their US-based property and any interest in property. While the Trump administration has used the law previously, Biden is expected to rely on it more if he pursues human rights abuses in China and elsewhere.
All in all, according to Lu Xiang, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, “Biden sees China as a competitor while Trump sees China as an adversary.” As such, Biden expected to take on a more rational, though tough approach in dealing with China. Greater cooperation with China on many key issues like health care and climate change can be expected under a Biden administration, however, differences between the two major global powerhouses are likely to remain, as trade tensions remain and both countries attempt to outrun each other in the technological race.
That said, with domestic issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy still rampant within its own borders, the Biden administration is expected to only start tackling US-China tensions later into his presidential term.