Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 29 November 2020


The World Is About to Find Out How Tough Biden Will Be on China

What You Need To Know

After four years of tussling with President Donald Trump, the relationship between the U.S. and China has changed for the long haul, perhaps for good. And the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president is unlikely to change the direction of the overall relationship.

In sending congratulations to Biden for his win, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said he hoped the world’s biggest economies could “manage differences” and avoid confrontation. But winding back four acrimonious years may not be so easy, particularly as Biden faces pressure within his own party to stay tough on China.

For decades a supporter of engagement with Beijing, Biden attacked Trump’s trade policies as "reckless" on the campaign trail. But the president-elect hasn't committed to withdrawing Trump's punitive tariffs or changing course in dealing with Chinese companies like Huawei Technologies Co. or Bytedance Ltd., which owns the popular video app TikTok.

What Biden has indicated is a more global approach to tackling China issues, hinting that he would look to work with “fellow democracies” to develop global rules on trade, cybertheft, data privacy and artificial intelligence. At the same time, he'll face pressure from even members of his own party to maintain a tough stance toward Beijing.

By The Numbers

  • 8 The number of times Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are thought to have met in 2011 and 2012
  • 200 billion The additional amount of U.S. goods China agreed to buy over the 2017 level, by the end of 2021
  • 54.8% The percentage of U.S. companies surveyed that were more upbeat about business prospects in China under a Biden administration

Why It Matters

Biden is no stranger to dealing with China, having held extensive meetings with Xi in 2011 when they were both vice presidents. For decades he has advocated a good relationship between the two countries, but over the past decade his stance has hardened along with many other policy makers in Washington D.C.

While it’s unclear which, if any, of Trump’s policies Biden will seek to reverse, he will be keenly aware that unpicking them may lead to accusations of being soft on Beijing.

In addition to trade, among the thorny issues Biden will have to face are Taiwan, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and human rights in Xinjiang. Trump’s stance on Taiwan in particular has infuriated Beijing, as the U.S. stepped up weapons sales to the self-governing democracy and sent the highest-level delegation to Taipei in 40 years.

As the president-elect begins to lay out his own China policy, he needs to decide whether to continue the Trump administration's push to isolate China on national-security grounds or develop a framework that allows for competition in some areas and cooperation in others, such as climate change.

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