Joe Biden's long history with China unlikely to mend Trump-era rift

Joe Biden with Xi Jinping in Beijing, 2013. (Bloomberg)
Unlike Donald Trump, whom Chinese officials had little knowledge of before he took office, Joe Biden is well known in Beijing. But that history is unlikely to quickly repair a relationship between the global powers that has fundamentally changed over the past four years.

A supporter of engagement with Beijing since the 1970s, Biden held extensive meetings with Xi Jinping when both served as vice president back in 2011. Yet his stance toward the world’s second-largest economy hardened over the past decade: On the campaign trail, he blasted Beijing for its actions in Hong Kong, dubbed its policies toward Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang “unconscionable” and called the Chinese president a “thug.”

Biden’s transformation on China mirrored a broader shift in Washington, where a bipartisan consensus began to see Beijing as a threat to the U.S.-led world order as Trump imposed punitive tariffs on Chinese goods and took action on companies from Huawei Technologies Co. to Bytedance Ltd., the creator of TikTok. In office, Biden will likely continue Trump’s pushback against Chinese assertiveness while working more closely with U.S. allies to rein in Beijing -- extending an intensifying strategic competition.

“The new administration will need to protect its flank from charges of being soft on Beijing,” said James Green, who served as a U.S. diplomat in Asia during both the Obama and Trump administrations. “A return to U.S.-China relations of the mid-2010s is not in the cards.”

U.S. public opinion on China has soured after years of criticism over the country’s trade practices, human rights policy and the Covid-19 pandemic, which originated in the city of Wuhan. That will be hard to reverse, especially as the U.S. struggles to manage a third wave of the outbreak after 230,000 Americans already died from the virus.

Allies Prepare for U.S. U-Turn as Biden Shifts Priorities

Biden’s biggest shift from Trump will likely be his approach to allies. While Trump has attacked traditional American partners like Japan, South Korea and Europe for free-riding on defense commitments and cheating at trade, Biden has promised to work with them closely to compel Chinese cooperation on priorities ranging from business ties to Hong Kong to 5G technology.

“Biden may try to improve relations with allies, and band together to try to suppress China,” said He Weiwen, a former official at the Chinese consulates in San Fransisco and New York. “Right now, U.S. relations with Europe are deteriorating, so it’s difficult to bring allies together to suppress China. If Biden improves relations with European allies, this will be harmful for China.”

Trump’s China Scorecard Has Many Defeats, and One Big Change

China’s official reaction to Biden’s election victory has so far been muted, with no public congratulations from Xi. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, said on Twitter that China’s government “needs to get in touch with Biden’s team to explore the possibility of getting rid of extreme turbulence in the China-U.S. relationship.”

China is preparing for the worst no matter what. Xi has repeatedly called on China to strive for “self-reliance” in key economic sectors, with Communist Party officials stressing last week that the country needed to build its own core technology instead of looking to buy it elsewhere. Central to that endeavor is the ability to produce its own chips, the building blocks for innovations from artificial intelligence to 5G networks and autonomous vehicles.

Xi also recently used the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War to suggest that his country isn’t intimidated by American military might, a message that comes as Beijing steps up threats against Taiwan. The war “shatters the legend that the U.S. Army is not defeatable,” Xi said in an address last month at the Great Hall of the People attended by party dignitaries, military representatives and veterans.

Government advisers in Beijing say they expect a Biden administration to keep pressuring China on human rights in places such as Hong Kong and the Xinjiang, while also continuing to sell more arms to Taiwan.

Not Many Specifics
“Biden’s stance on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea is likely to be consistent with Trump,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China and an adviser to the Chinese government.

An early test of how Biden may treat Hong Kong differently could come soon, with the Trump administration facing a mid-December deadline to name any banks that have conducted transactions with Chinese and Hong Kong officials who were singled out for undermining the territory’s autonomy. Sanctions against any major Chinese lenders could escalate tensions and ripple through the global financial system.

On the campaign trail, Biden didn’t offer many specifics of which Trump-era policies he would change. He hasn’t committed to either scrapping the “phase one” trade deal Trump reached with China in January or withdrawing the tariffs he imposed. He’s also said little about whether he’d allow Huawei to buy cutting edge chips again or let TikTok access the data of American users, much less embrace the Trump administration’s “Clean Network” program to convince allies to swear off communications networks involving Chinese companies and equipment.

This Is What Biden Has Said on Major U.S. Flashpoints With China

Tony Blinken, a senior Biden adviser seen as a potential secretary of state, said in September that a President Biden would use tariffs where necessary and seek commitments from China on subsidies and cyber theft -- areas left out of Trump’s accord after the two sides repeatedly failed to reach agreement.

When it comes to Chinese technology, Biden has voiced similar concerns about national security as Trump did -- making it likely that his administration would maintain efforts to curb access to U.S. intellectual property and data for certain Chinese technology companies.

Trump opposed sanctioning China’s government over its atrocious human rights violations to protect his hollow trade deal and serve his own personal interests.

Still, trade policy under Biden would be “less chaotic and predictable,” said Wendy Cutler, a former senior trade official in the Obama administration who is now the vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Most importantly, a Biden administration will look to build collective responses with other countries towards China, rather than unilateral actions which have largely failed to date.”

There will likely also be continuity when it comes to America’s military priorities. As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was a promoter of America’s “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia. He’ll likely sustain that focus on what is now called the “Indo-Pacific” region, a term used to indicate India’s importance to U.S.-Asia strategy, including efforts to push back against Beijing in the South China Sea.

“It captures the strategic importance of the maritime space now and into the future,” said Amy Searight, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia.

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