Continuity and Changes: Trump legacy and Biden’s China Policy

Upon entering President Trump's office, the rivalry between the United States and China has become a hotspot of international relations.
15 November 2020
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Mehdi Zadehali

Upon entering President Trump's office, the rivalry between the United States and China has become a hotspot of international relations. It shapes both strategic debates and real political, military, and economic dynamics not only in China and the U.S. but also in the world. This legacy makes it easy for some analysts to see a 2020 U.S. Presidential election as a possible new game-changer has already emerged. But despite some arguments that claim Beijing preferred President-elect Joe Biden vs Trump, there are a lot of concerns on Washington's new China policy in Beijing.

It is undeniable that Trump as himself and his administration were a challenge for China – U.S. relations, he started an endless trade tariffs war and targeted China’s international image by blaming it for the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration also took a similar approach toward China and highlighting maritime disputes in the South China Sea, focusing on China's internal issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and rising human right violation in China in international institutions and Medias all were parts of its anti-China policy puzzle. The direct outcome of this policy caused China-U.S. relations to enter a political/economic dilemma leading to damaged strategic mutual trust, suspended high-level communication, and in some aspects pass the cooperation to confrontation. But it is not the whole Trump and China story. 

While China was suffered from Trump’s aggressive policy, the nature of Trump's foreign policy offers China a unique opportunity. On one hand unlike Obama‘s Pivot to Asia strategy, the Trump administration defined China as an international emerging power, not a regional power, and to push it back challenging it at the international level directly. On the other hand, the core of the “America First” strategy was a U-turn in some aspect of the U.S. role in the world that can be defined as a voluntary retreat from or abdication of global leadership and reliance on unilateralism. Implementation of this strategy shacked the pillars of American outstanding geopolitical alliances in Europe (NATO) and Asia. Besides it, Trump's behavior and his tendency to populistic action threaten the values and norms were defined and legitimize U.S. supremacy in the world.

Because of all points mentioned, some observers assess that the United States under the Trump Administration has substantially changed the U.S. role in the world and view this change as an unnecessary and self-defeating losing of something of great value to the United States that it had worked to build and maintain for them for 7 decades. Such sounds about Trump's foreign policy were heard from Beijing and this argument that he has weakened American power and continuing his presidency ramping up the American decline was strong. This long-term perspective of consequences of Trump's foreign policy was encouraging Beijing to adapt itself by Washington pressure for another four years of him in the White House to facilitate its long-term challenge with the U.S not only in Asia but globally.

However the election was done and Biden won, but the big question marked following the election is whether it will be possible for Biden to shift on Washington’s attitude toward China? It is not easy to answer this question.

While Democrats and Republicans discord on so many other fronts and Democrats encountered (more or less) all aspects of Trump’s foreign policy agenda, China is a rare exception, both parties critic Beijing on religious and ethnic minorities rights in Tibet and Xinjiang, have the same approach toward Hong Kong and urging the administration to do more to counter Beijing’s global influence. This assumption can kill any hope of reshaping relations with the U.S. in the Chinese leadership and it means that the Biden victory will offer another set of challenges for China. In the core of future challenges, it is expected that the Biden Administration will turn the U.S. policy focus on China’s trade record to Human Rights and put more pressure over it in this regard and use the leverage from other U.S. partners to control Beijing's actions in the region. According to this perception, Beijing should be disappointed to feel any changes but there are still rooms for improving China-U.S. relations.

In comparison to Trump, Biden's public image seems to be less aggressive, more reasonable, and predictable. Those characteristics can be advantages for pushing forward a tread deal with China to put the end to the trade war but when he comes to power, would be dealing with the same economy as Trump faced; same firms, industries, job market, and financial system that wants to make the most of potential opportunities and benefit in China and defend their interests strongly. The reason behind Biden championed a “Made in America” as his major economic policy during the election campaign should be understood through this structural pressure which pledged him to put an option on the table not entirely different from Trump's “America First”. It can be a sign for Beijing of the difficult way ahead for both China and the U.S to reverse course on some of Trump’s big trade moves.

However, Biden's willingness to seek multilateral cooperation on international issues could bring opportunities for China to find a common ground with the White House, particularly since the Trump administration seemed barely interested in sharing the benefit or accepting responsibility in the international community. The U.S. under a Biden administration could cooperate with China on climate change that both have a global responsibility. The U.S. historically has been the largest emitter of carbon and China, meanwhile, is the largest contributor to emissions of greenhouse gases by volume. So this is obvious the U.S. may not be able to play a leading role globally without China’s cooperation. Besides this, non-proliferation, especially revive the JCPOA and resume negotiation with North Korea provide more room for China-U.S. cooperation even as the two countries remain far apart on other issues.

Looking to the future of China-U.S. relations through the global lens has shown the signs of both continuity and changes. When Biden comes to the office the next January, he will face a different global politics and economic structure far from the one when he left the White House at the end of Obama’s presidency, it is the Trump legacy. Consequently, it can be expected that the Biden presidency will guide the suffering China-U.S. relations from geopolitical and trade tension in a period of calm and offer opportunities for resuming high-level communication and rebuilding some aspect of mutual strategic trust between the two countries but any shift is likely to be in style, not substance.


   (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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