What a Biden Administration Means for China

December 2020

It would be wishful thinking to expect dramatic improvement in U.S.-China relations from a Biden presidency. But that does not mean the relationship will continue its dangerous free fall. Five reasons why stabilization could lie ahead.

By Huang Jing

China Xi Jinping
Drop of Light / shutterstock.com

Though Democrat Joe Biden will assume the U.S. presidency in January 2021, it is wishful thinking to believe that there will be dramatic improvement in relations between Washington and Beijing, which have deteriorated steadily since Donald Trump came to power.

After all, a presidential election can hardly alter the established bipartisan consensus that China is a strategic competitor, or even an adversary. The pressure on China from a Biden administration may even be more persistent – and comprehensive. The new president will have to blend cohesion with consistency when it comes to policy making and, at the same time, coordinate the administration's approach to China with the country's allies.

Beijing must stabilize relations with Washington

But that does not mean the relationship between the two great powers will continue its free fall, not at all. On the contrary, Biden provides Beijing with a valuable opportunity to stabilize the bilateral relationship.

First and foremost, there will be an overall de-Trumpization in foreign policy. Specifically, we can expect fundamental changes in climate change, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, Covid-19 pandemic control, international trade, and financial stability.

Nor would it be a surprise to see a Biden administration re-enter the Paris Agreement on climate, the Iranian nuclear deal framework, and the World Health Organization. He has already announced to do so. It will also likely recalibrate its approach toward the World Trade Organization, which has been de facto boycotted by Trump. A Biden administration might proactively re-engage Europe and Japan with the aim of negotiating a new trade and investment framework. In all these areas, China can, and should, find substantial common ground with the U.S.

China’s "multilateralism": rhetoric or actual policy?

Second, there is little doubt that Biden will forgo U.S. unilateralism. Not only because it has done substantial damage to U.S. global standing, but also because a multilateral approach is essential if the U.S. is to restore and maintain a solid alliance system under its leadership.

During Trump's tenure, China's leadership has repeatedly emphasized its adherence to multilateralism in foreign affairs. Now it is time to see whether the "multilateralism" Beijing has advocated is merely rhetoric or a substantial policy upon which China can initiate a new approach toward a new administration in Washington that also champions multilateralism. After all, both the U.S. and China are irrevocably interconnected with the same world, despite the "strategic competition" between them. It is likely that a multilateral approach toward global affairs will lead to more constructive communications between the two powers in international affairs.

Third, the global economy is facing a substantial risk of a major financial meltdown – or at least a global recession – caused largely by the unprecedented quantitative easing triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic that has pushed policymakers to pump trillions of dollars into the market to prevent economic collapse. Here, Beijing and Washington can find solid common ground in maintaining global financial stability. And not just because China has the world's largest foreign reserves and is the second-largest holder of U.S. Treasury bills. A financial meltdown would be catastrophic for both China – the largest trading power in the world – and for the U.S., which is equally dependent on financial stability.

A mechanism for crisis management

Fourth, it is in the interests of both China and the U.S. to build a proper mechanism for crisis management – which barely exists today – to deal with sensitive issues such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.  Lingering tensions must be prevented from escalating into dangerous conflicts.

Last but not the least, it's important not to expect too much from a Biden administration, for example like building up a clearly defined policy framework for China before the 2022 midterm elections. Biden's immediate priorities will include promoting a national reconciliation in the aftermath of a deeply divided and highly emotional election, getting the Covid-19 pandemic under control, stimulating an economy reeling from the pandemic, and consolidating the Democrats' dominance by aiming for a substantial victory in the 2022 midterms.

Meanwhile, the new administration must focus on restoring U.S. leadership among its allies, which has been substantially damaged by Trump's arbitrary unilateralism. Biden and his team understand that U.S. strength is rooted not just in American might, but in the U.S.-led alliance system that has prevailed since the end of World War II.

There will be a time window for China's leadership to signal policy changes and initiatives toward the U.S., that is, if Beijing really does believe that stabilizing the U.S.-China relationship is in China's national interests. It is not unreasonable to assume that these changes and initiatives will be well received if they demonstrate Beijing's determination to adhere to the policy of reform and openness at home, and its commitment to the established norms, principles, and rules in international affairs.

As such, we can expect that U.S.-China competition will henceforth be in steadier hands. After all, what really endangers world peace and stability, as well as the future of U.S.-China relations, is not a "strategic competition" between the two great powers, but the uncertainty resulting from a competition in which neither power follows the time-honored rules of game, but behaves arbitrarily in terms of its own narrowly defined self-interest.

A version of this article was first published on Nikkei Asia.

Robert Bosch Academy/Frauendorf

Huang Jing is a Distinguished Professor and Dean of the Institute on National and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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