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Foreign Policy

A New President: an Opportunity for Rapprochement or Business as Usual?

Feb 08, 2021
  • Charles Street

    Master’s degree candidate, Sciences Po and Peking University

On January 20, 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. This momentous occasion was more than a symbolic changing of the guard; it represents a sea change from the divisive politics of Donald Trump. From "Pivot to Asia" to "America First," U.S. Foreign Policy has vacillated in a way that has eroded trust among U.S. allies and heightened the stakes for rivals. For US-China relations, four years of Trump's aggressive posture towards China and obsessive fixation on tariffs ultimately worked against U.S. interests. Biden's victory is an opportunity to repair the United State's reputation abroad and to take U.S.-China relations out from the shadow of Trump's trade war. Joe Biden has spared no time in correcting course on domestic issues such as the all-important Covid-19 pandemic. Turning to foreign policy, will President Biden now take on the challenge of repairing U.S.-China relations?

Biden has traveled to China several times since 1979, viewing its miraculous transformation from an impoverished country to the world's second-largest economy. He has met with Chinese leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping as well as many Chinese citizens. In a 2011 speech at Sichuan University, Vice-President Biden spoke about his interactions with Chinese officials and how these discussions helped to build cooperation, understanding, and trust. President Biden's views on China seem to have evolved over the years; his idealistic hope that China would liberalize economically and politically has turned into acceptance that certain expectations may never come to be. Biden's 2018 essay in Foreign Policy demonstrates a deep understanding of China and its challenges.

In the same vein as Obama's pushback against China's maritime claims in the South China Sea, Biden may continue to take a hard line on specific issues such as Taiwan and human rights. Despite disagreements on these contentious issues, President Obama achieved some progress with China, notably the two countries' commitment to join the Paris Agreement. While the Obama administration offers a model for the incoming administration, Biden is entering the White House in a different context.

Compared to four years ago, China's geopolitical power has grown alongside its economic might. It has taken advantage of the vacuum created by the Trump administration's retreat from international organizations such as the WHO and has taken a center seat at the table. While Biden has already had the U.S. rejoin the WHO, he still has to catch up to China's leadership on climate issues and its newfound importance in international development since creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The E.U. and Japan's recent trade agreements with China and have shown that even U.S. allies recognize the economic opportunities of increased international trade with China. Joe Biden cannot go back to how things were under the Obama administration because the rest of the world has moved on.

Despite his longstanding ties to China, President Biden is not expected to "go easy" on China. Biden has continued to support the status quo with Taiwan since he, among 89 other Senators, signed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. President Biden has long encouraged China to open up politically on human rights. During his 2011 visit to Chengdu, then Vice-President Biden argued to Chinese students that greater freedom brings stability and prosperity. The agreement of incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his predecessor's condemnation of China's treatment of Uighurs as "genocide" is coherent with statements made by the Biden campaign. This continuity on human rights with past administrations is important, and the United States should continue to call out human rights abuses around the globe.  

While the U.S. and China fundamentally disagree in certain areas and remain geopolitical rivals, they do not have to be enemies. There are other areas where they can cooperate and benefit. The trade relationship that the U.S. and China enjoyed before Trump's presidency helped enable China's economic rise and allowed American companies to profit from the enormous Chinese market. Until 2019, China was the U.S.' largest trading partner, and it remains its third-largest despite the trade war. China has slowly made progress on unfair trade practices such as currency manipulation, intellectual property rights, and joint venture ownership requirements. With an expected, more conciliatory Biden in office, can the remaining trade issues be dealt with through diplomatic channels and the WTO? In any case, continuation the trade war no longer makes sense when the U.S. faces unprecedented unemployment in the wake of a pandemic. Instead, we need a renewed focus on increasing mutually beneficial trade.

Beyond economic interests, the U.S. and China can find common ground on several issues. Notably, environmental issues, de-escalating tensions with North Korea, and preventing pandemics that affect the global economy. Taking a lesson from the coronavirus response, China and the U.S. clearly need to collaborate on disease prevention. China's recent decision to allow WHO scientists to investigate the origins of Covid-19 is a significant first step towards this goal.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration's combative tone has pushed China to respond in kind. If Joe Biden takes a more diplomatic tone with China, China, in turn, must tone down their rhetoric. The heated words and anti-American stance that China has espoused over the past four years no longer makes sense in a post-Trump world. To truly make amends, both sides must come to the table willing to compromise.

The inauguration of a new President is an opportunity for renewal. It is a chance to rebuild trust with allies. It is an opportunity to take back leadership on climate change and human rights issues. Above all, it is a rare occasion to mend the ties between our two nations that have frayed over the past four years. With a President that has fostered links with China for more than 40 years, it would be a shame to let the opportunity pass us by.

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