Joe Biden’s election will not change the fundamentals of U.S.-China relations, which, for all the drama of the last four years, pre-date the Trump Administration. President Biden is likely to return to earlier presidents’ practice of more carefully regulating this vital strategic relationship and the complex trade-offs it features. The restoration of a more effective, conventional policy process in Washington should improve the tone of the relationship, but major differences will remain. With fewer distractions from The White House, the increasing challenges of a more assertive, authoritarian China should become more apparent.
President Trump has represented himself as the first American president to confront challenges presented by China. This is simply not true. Indeed, the reality is that the U.S.-China relationship was always contentious. Given sharply differing PRC values and goals, powerful American constituencies had reservations about China from Nixon’s visit on, and it fell to successive presidents to balance these voices against strategic interests. Far from overlooking difficulties in the China relationship in the vain hope of Chinese democratization, as Mr. Trump has alleged, previous U.S. administrations grappled with knotty concerns ranging from intellectual property theft to the threat of war. Even a cursory review of the low points in U.S.-China relations — e.g., Tiananmen Square, the Taiwan Missile Crisis, the bombing of China’s Belgrade Embassy, the EP-3 incident — illuminates recurring tensions.