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.
Managing relations with Beijing became even more challenging in the 21st Century. China’s role in the global economy soared, and its decades-long military build-up expanded its capabilities. Policy changes were also significant: by 2012, Beijing had turned decisively toward a more assertive line abroad and a more authoritarian order at home.
Along with other countries, the United States began adapting its policies accordingly, with the Obama Administration directing a “pivot” to Asia and supporting membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Any U.S. president elected in 2016 would have continued these adjustments. Donald Trump’s election, however, introduced severe changes in the tone of America’s China policy and, in some areas, several important modifications. Paradoxically, Trump denied the United States its most powerful tool for shaping China’s behaviour — TPP — on his first day in office.
When an initial charm campaign failed to secure a major reduction in the bilateral trade deficit and fundamental economic reforms, Mr. Trump launched a predictably unwinnable trade war. His administration developed a national security strategy that focused on China but, aside from superficial gestures toward multilateral cooperation, concentrated on U.S. military force to encourage changes in Beijing.
Donald Trump’s China approach was noteworthy for its bluntness, overt hostility, and disregard for knock-on effects. His apparent assumption that China would continue to assist Washington on North Korea even as the United States launched its trade war is a good example. Probably no U.S. relationship involves more trade-offs than the one with China, as previous presidents recognized. Donald Trump seemed to understand this vital point only dimly.
As President-elect Biden prepares for office, he will have to live with consequences of the Trump China policy. The outgoing president abdicated his predecessors’ central role of striking a balance among competing U.S. interests. The confidence of America's allies and friends in U.S. dependability is probably at its lowest ebb since at least the 1970s. Perhaps most lasting, Donald Trump has galvanized China's domestic perception that the US wants to hold it down, as American power slips away. None of these legacies will make President Biden’s China policy any easier, heaped, as they are, on top of the very real challenges involving Beijing that he will face.
Mr. Biden nonetheless will have some important advantages. Chief among these will be a fundamentally more coherent policy and an experienced foreign policy team to implement it. They will launch a thorough U.S-China strategy review, and they will work hard to define a truly whole-of-government approach. And they'll move swiftly to reassure allies and partners, seeking to lower the temperature and return to more effective messaging strategies. These apparently new practices may well look like a change in policy, given the chaos of the last four years, but they will simply be a return to effective governance typical of modern presidencies.
In terms of substance, the new team will carefully consider whether to retain elements of the Trump Administration’s China policy approach. Tech tensions, for instance, are likely to endure — they involve a decades-old U.S. effort to constrain technology transfers to the PRC and a recognition of the security threats that may lurk in Chinese tech exports.
Helping regional friends resist increasing Chinese military and political pressure will remain a U.S. priority, with Taiwan, as usual, occupying centre stage. A strengthened U.S. military presence in the region, coordination with friends and allies, and arms sales will be necessary. While trade issues will remain a major irritant in U.S.-China relations under President Biden, it seems likely his administration will look for ways to unwind Mr. Trump’s trade war.
In my view the talk of decoupling in a general sense will subside, even if tech decoupling proceeds to some extent. The new president may nonetheless draw on some Trump Administration practices as he seeks to address the extensive list of U.S. grievances about Chinese economic policy, which is moving toward even greater state intervention and emphasis on the economy’s “domestic” cycle. Human rights will be another area of bilateral discord with China under Joe Biden, and expect the President to be personally involved.
For its part, the more confident, conservative leadership in Beijing is unlikely to acknowledge any problem exists. From a US perspective, there is little reason to expect a fruitful dialogue. President-elect Biden’s identification of the pandemic and climate change as initial priorities suggests that transnational issues will provide welcome opportunities for bilateral cooperation. Mr. Trump’s disregard for these and other transnational issues will have been one of the defining aspects of his administration’s foreign policy. As in so many areas, Mr. Biden will undertake a restoration of longstanding American concerns, lent urgency by Covid's devastation, and yet more compelling evidence of climate change.
Multilateral security cooperation could be another bright patch: the Biden team will assign more importance to the United Nations Security Council, where China’s support is vital, and Washington will have to work closely with Beijing if it wants to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Taken together, these changes in process and policy are likely to yield some improvement in U.S.-China relations.
It won’t take much: Donald Trump’s confrontational style helped bring the relationship to its lowest level in decades, and the mere silencing of his presidential Twitter account should help lower tensions.
In the absence of a U.S.-China crisis early in the Biden Administration, we should see a lull of several months in bilateral tensions, as the President populates his leadership and the new team conducts its China policy review.
A fundamental reset in U.S.-China relations, however, is unlikely. Although the effectiveness of much of Donald Trump’s China strategy is doubtful, the concerns underlying it are real. The Biden campaign seems well aware of these, and a Republican-controlled Senate will narrow the new President’s options even further. More conservative at home, assertive abroad, and influential globally, Beijing poses a host of challenges to the interests of the United States. In my view this would have been clearer to international audiences had Donald Trump not inserted himself, centre stage, into a U.S.-China downturn. If the Biden Administration can pursue U.S. objectives with less drama and nuanced cooperation with friends and allies, it will help clarify for the international community that shaping China’s emergence as a leading power is one of its most pressing tasks.
Bio: Clifford A Hart Jr is a former China Director at the White House, and Former US Consul General to Hong Kong. He spent more than 30 years in the US Foreign Service. The views here are his own.
This article first appeared in the Asia Media Centre and is republished with permission: https://www.asiamediacentre.org.nz/opinion/us-china/