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Foreign Policy

A Turn for the Better?

Dec 17, 2020
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

In a year-end forum on international issues hosted by the Global Times, a hot topic was this: Can relations between China and the United States take a turn for the better? 

Most speakers at the forum expressed the belief that once U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the unpredictability might decrease and U.S. policy toward China may become less extreme, less brazen and more stable. In other words, there might be a chance for the two countries to ease tensions, increase mutual understanding and expand cooperation.

Of course it’s unlikely that a Biden administration will craft a well-defined China policy in a short time. Some scholars argue that the new U.S. approach to China and the world will be like driving through a busy traffic intersection: First you look around, then slow down and finally pass through. Unlike the erratic Donald Trump, who runs the country on Twitter and quickly resorts to maximum pressure, Biden may take a wait-and-see approach to foreign affairs in the early going.  

While Trump is known for rapid reversals, Biden, who is an experienced politician, will follow established procedures in decision-making and discuss foreign policy concepts with government agencies and even Congress before rolling them out. In other words, he can be expected to formulate and implement his policies in a cost-effective manner.

The first and second step serve his final stated goal of “becoming the leader of the world again.”  To succeed, he needs to mend domestic divisions, build connections with all sides, including Congress, Democratic Party factions and Republicans. In this way, the world may win a reprieve, when the U.S. reduces pressure on China and the two countries have a window of opportunity to mend their ties.

Another widely shared viewpoint is that U.S. policy toward China will not fundamentally change, even under Biden, and that the United States will continue to treat China as a major competitor.

There are four reasons behind this. First, national rejuvenation is the strategic goal of China, but the U.S., which perceives itself as “a city on a hill,” will resist any country the presumes to surpass it.

Second, Trump, who received 74 million votes in the presidential election, still refuses to concede defeat and has staged a campaign to reverse his loss in the courts and mobilize anti-Biden sentiment. The political legacy of Trumpism will leave a scar on Biden’s China policy.

Third, most members of Biden’s foreign policy team are in their 40s and 50s, and this new generation of strategists are not so willing to give China development opportunities.

Fourth, U.S. foreign policy is driven by two factors: national interest and  national values. The Trump administration focused on national interest at the cost of values, but Biden may integrate more U.S. values into America’s China policy. This means China will face more complex and serious challenges in its relations with the U.S., as well as in its external environment.

Some speakers at the forum expressed the view that Biden may do what Trump has failed to do. When Biden was U.S. vice president, China’s GDP was slightly above $4 trillion, but now the figure has hit $14.4 trillion, or 75 percent of U.S. GDP.

This reality may remind Biden that his approach to China in the Obama era may not work well now. Since Trump’s China policy has done damage to both countries, Biden may try to find a new way to deal with China, but with the same objective of holding back its rise.

There seemed to be a consensus at the forum that an opportunity is coming to transform the China-U.S. relationship. Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris climate deal on his first day of office. Since China has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, Biden may seek its cooperation on climate issues. Then there are opportunities for the two countries to work together within the World Health Organization and on global pandemic control. We can also see opportunities for cooperation on the Korean  and Iranian nuclear issues, nuclear security and energy security.

Given the long list of problems at home and abroad, the new U.S. administration can be expected to cooperate with China from a strategic perspective, which will have a positive impact on bilateral relations.    

The China-U.S. relationship is in “a period of both uncertainty and stability,” one forum speaker said, adding that it’s uncertain because of two technical factors — that senior officials in many U.S. government agencies, including the State Department and National Security Council, will be replaced when the new administration takes office and that the new administration will need time to review U.S. foreign policy, which may take half a year.

Yet relations are relatively stable because both countries felt the pain that came with worsening relations in the past year and undermined their interests. Thus, they might feel compelled to take a more restrained approach to each other. When Biden takes office, therefore, bilateral relations will experience an intermission that might provide respite for the United States and a cooling-off period for China.

On the future of the China-U.S. relations, some experts say that many uncertainties remain. Since neither country will change its strategic goals, will confrontation continue after a transition period? How the two sides will interact with each other also remains uncertain since they both maintain strategic assertiveness. If they interact as they have in the past few years, a period of uncertainty and stability is nothing but a temporary pause in confrontation, and the two countries will continue to confront one another. The situation may get even worse. But their relationship can turn around if they learn to interact in a sensible manner after this period.

One forum speaker observed that China seems to attach more importance to relations than the United States does. He put it this way: “If there is a 1 percent chance of improving China-U.S. relations, China will put in 100 percent effort to make it success. So it is hoped the U.S. side will work cooperatively in the same direction.” 

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