Will there be changes in US-China relations?


It was revealed recently that Biden, the US President-elect was having problems with establishing contact with foreign leaders.

Such a situation along with other factors might have led China to take some time out before conveying their congratulations to Joe Biden and Ms. Harris on their projected win in the US presidential election. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin however added: "We understand the results of the US election will be determined according to US laws and procedures."

This step was seen as important as the China-US relationship is perceived as crucial to both sides, and the wider world. It may be recalled in this context that tensions between these two countries have soared in recent times, over trade, espionage and the pandemic. Some analysts have described the relationship between China and the US - the world's two biggest economies -as hugely consequential. A trade war initiated by President Trump has also affected relations. The two countries have also sparred over espionage, China's military build-up in the South China Sea and the mass detention of Muslims in western China.

Some geo-strategists have indicated that China, despite difficulties, might have wanted four more years of Donald Trump. However, there is mixed opinion about this observation. Nevertheless, it is not fully clear how much Joe Biden would shift US policy towards China, as there is rare cross-party agreement in Congress on getting tough with Beijing over trade and other issues. Despite this, media personalities are predicting a tactical shift- where they see a Biden White House working more with allies to confront China, while also seeking to co-operate in other areas, like fighting climate change. This will be a difficult ball game.

It needs to be stressed that the US-China relationship has deteriorated to historic lows during Trump's term in office. Over the past four years, both sides have slapped the other with trade tariffs, restricted access for tech companies, journalists and diplomats, shuttered Consulates, and squared off militarily in the South China Sea. These have been punitive measures which have cast a long shadow.

These connotations within the matrix have persuaded the Chinese state-run media, to suggest that there are signs the ruling Communist Party is holding its breath, unsure of which direction the new US Administration will take. Some among them, including the tabloid Global Times have underlined that- "China should not harbour any illusions that Biden's election will ease or bring a reversal to China-US relations, nor should it weaken its belief in improving bilateral ties. US competition with China and its guard against China will only intensify."

It would be worth mentioning here that Biden has had a long associative inter-active engagement with China. No foreign policy novice, Biden, during his almost five decades in national politics, has repeatedly had significant engagements with China. It may be also mentioned that as a Senator, he played a persuasive role in China becoming a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001. This was partially due to the fact that China had acquired the new status of being the world’s second-largest economy.

 The Obama administration, in which Biden served as Vice-President from 2009 to 2017, took special care to note and acknowledge that though China was gaining strength both economically and militarily, diplomacy during this period needed to be guided through cooperation, rather than confrontation. Consequently, major disputes were mostly contained.

Biden importantly travelled to Beijing on many occasions during efforts to gain Chinese support for a number of key Obama policies, including attempts to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions. One of these visits in 2013 ended up with a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping lasting for two hours instead of 45 minutes.

 They centred on security issues such as China's military build-up in the South China Sea and cyber espionage but attempts were made to contain them through dialog. The then US President Obama clarified that the relationship between the two countries, in all likelihood would shape the 21st century, and therefore stable relations were critical not only for the US, but for also the world at large.

Views however appear to have shifted somewhat in recent years and Washington now increasingly views Beijing not as America's potential partner, but as its primary rival. This also appears to be true for Biden. He has stressed that China has to “play by the rules”. This was reflected in the Democratic Party Platform document, which was released in August 2020. During the last presidential campaign in 2016 such a document had only seven references to China. However, this year’s version had 22 and reiterated that Democrats would more carefully focus on economic, security, and human rights concerns pertaining to the actions of China's government.

An important aspect that will draw Biden Administration’s immediate attention will be the issue of bilateral trade between the two countries.

It may be recalled that since mid-2018, the Trump administration had placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, in an attempt to drive down the US trade deficit with China and force Beijing to further open its economy. There was a “phase one” of a trade deal between the two countries in January 2020, but many areas of disagreement still remained unaddressed, including China's subsidies for state-owned companies that are competing on the global market. This will apparently receive immediate attention from Biden. 

However he has also indicated that this review will have to be undertaken very carefully- otherwise imposition of tariffs might be bad also for the US in the post-Pandemic scenario where manufacturing has gone into recession, agriculture has lost billions of US dollars and taxpayers have had to make up the deficit. Those close to Biden have accordingly suggested that Biden might end up favouring the creation of a global coalition that would persuade China into liberalizing its economy.

The 2020 Democratic Platform has also been on the same side of the coin with Trump and has discreetly embraced aspects of Trump's tech war against China. It may be recalled that Trump, tried to push diplomatic partners to reject 5G technology made in China, cut off Beijing from vital US components and targeted popular apps run by Chinese companies. It will not be surprising if the Biden Administration continues Trump's push to stop allies from using 5G technology produced by Chinese tech giant Huawei on the pretext that it is trying to address threats in cyberspace.

After this comes the geo-strategic question pertaining to the South China issue. Both the Obama and the Trump Administrations have over the last eight years pursued policies that have opposed the Chinese government's expansionist claims in the South China Sea and actively threatened direct measures against the Chinese government constructing and militarizing artificial islands in the vast waterway. One hopes that the two parties will now move forward on this matter with greater sensitivity. 

Some strategic analysts have pointed out that Biden has made no major public statements on the South China Sea right now but there is no indication at this stage that he will reverse Trump's tough policies in the region -- he might even strengthen them. Incidentally, Biden in a phone call with the new Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has committed to defending the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both Japan and China.

The world will also be watching very carefully how Biden tackles the Taiwan situation- viewed as contentious by China. Trump took steps to strengthen official ties with Taiwan, especially during the past 12 months and also authorized, consistent with his approach towards transactional diplomacy, many billions of US Dollars arms sales to that self-governed island. This has not been taken as a good and acceptable step by China. Biden, in all likelihood will, in all probability continue US support for Taiwan and its democratically elected government. 

It may be recalled in this regard that during his time as a Senator, the President-elect voted for the original Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which allowed the US to maintain unofficial relations with Taipei while also formally recognizing the Beijing government. This persuades one to believe that such a background means that Biden might back Trump's policies. Interestingly, Biden tweeted his congratulations to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen when she was re-elected in January 2020 and she reciprocated when he won in November.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.