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Foreign Policy

Biden Wins: What a new U.S. President Means for U.S.-China Relations

Nov 10, 2020

It has been a rocky four years with President Trump at the helm of the USS Ship of State when it comes to maintaining U.S.-China relations – by far, the most important bilateral relationship in the world today

American voters have now divorced Trump, making way for a reset of our U.S.- China relationship. But the consequences of 4 years of Donald Trump as U.S. president will be debated and felt for decades to come. 

Trump ran for office accusing China of manipulating its currency to “rape” America’s economy. He made false promises to weary American workers harmed by automation, technology, and global trade that he would end China’s rogue behavior on trade and “Make America Great Again.” 

President Trump began his presidency by sticking a thumb in the eye of China’s Chairman Xi, breaking with established practice by speaking on the telephone with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, bringing into question the long U.S. commitment to the One China policy. This was the first such contact with Taiwan by a U.S. president-elect or president since President Jimmy Carter in 1979. 

Foreshadowing trade tension at the time, Trump told Fox News, “I fully understand the ‘One China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” 

In 2018, The Trump administration further escalated tensions by announcing huge tariffs on China, raising trade war anxieties. American businesses, farmers, and consumers have since paid for these Trump policies. 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in what was viewed as a turning point in US-China relations, stepped up attacks on China in a speech to the conservative Hudson Institute. Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on the United States and China at the Wilson Centre called the speech, “a declaration of a comprehensively adversarial relationship with China. And U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blistered China leading up to the presidential election saying, “China will be a rapacious authoritarian nightmare, intent on destroying democracy itself.     

When the COVID pandemic burst on the scene in early 2020, an already splintered relationship was shattered. 

Surrounded by China hawks, Trump blamed China for  COVID in an attempt to obfuscate his own obviously inept mishandling of the pandemic in the U.S., calling it the “China Virus” and Kung Flu”. Trump’s GOP has their fingerprints all over the ‘blame China strategy’ in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. Trump has played the China blame game right up to, during, and after Election Day. 

Will Change Bring Progress? 

The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, reminds us that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

Historically, U.S.-China relations have never been a straight line or an easy journey. When Mao Zedong came to power establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, after defeating the U.S.-backed Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, he set the stage for the next several decades of struggle between our two countries. 

Collateral Damage 

Through its own actions, China has certainly brought on many of its own problems. But Trump and his merry anti-China crew have also left significant collateral damage to clean up, not only in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. but with the American people and around the globe. 

The favorable reception of China has grown more negative around the world, especially in advancing economies. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, unfavorable opinion of China has soared around the world, showing a majority in each of the surveyed countries holding an unfavorable opinion. In Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain, and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points since Pew began polling on this topic more than a decade ago. 

Elections Have Consequences 

Elections are an artery through which American ideals, freedom, and democracy flow. While Trump garnered a significant portion of the vote, the majority of those voting clearly rejected his erratic behavior, gross mismanagement of the COVID pandemic in the U.S., and his theatrical antics during the past 4 years. 

U.S. elections are the American people’s way of hitting the reset button. Reading the Biden - China tea leaves, what then might we expect from the new Democrat Biden administration? 

The well of goodwill between the U.S. and China has soured in the halls of power both in Washington, D.C. and in Beijing.  

On both sides of the U.S. political aisle, there has been consensus building that the U.S. needs to hold China “accountable” on a number of issues. A month before the election, both Republicans and Democrats in separate reports concluded the U.S. should re-examine all aspects of its relationship with China, including investment, trade, defense and intelligence capabilities. Both parties concur China poses a generational threat akin to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

Expect Biden’s China policies to differ more in style than in substance from the past four years of Trump. Biden has framed China’s actions under Xi as a serious challenge and threat to the West and democracies in general, specifically to the USA’s place in the world. There is genuine concern about China pulling ahead of America on multiple planes. 

Biden will continue to push back against China while working to build coalitions among our allies to counteract Beijing’s climb. Friction will remain with China on trade, human and workers’ rights, intellectual property theft, the breaking of international trade rules, and unfair subsidies provided to Chinese companies while discriminating against U.S. firms. 

Biden says he wants to work with President Xi and believes building deeper U.S.-China cooperation is possible and essential on climate change, nuclear weapons, the pandemic, the global economy and other issues. 

He also understands that remaining competitive and ahead of China hinges on U.S. creativity and innovation, leading the future along with uniting the world’s nations to stand up to China’s authoritarianism around the globe. 

America needs more than bellicose chest-thumping to counteract China on issues of vital national interest. While finding opportunities to partner and join forces in combating the instability on the Korean Peninsula, climate change, threats to peace, nuclear weapons, the global pandemic, and the economic tsunami it has unleashed around the planet. 

Biden seems to understand that America cannot coast and remain number one. He understands America cannot bully China and that going forward, every major global issue will intersect at the corner of Washington D.C. and Beijing. America needs to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate our actions when and where we can. 

Biden has watched China build up its nation constructing roads, rail lines, air and seaports while investing in its people, education, and technology. He seems to have taken this investment to heart and knows that we, too, need to invest in America if we wish to lead in the future. 

Build Back Better 

The Biden campaign theme “Build Back America Better” will require more than making China the bogeyman and playing that old ‘China blame game’. America has serious problems that need to be addressed stateside. America needs to focus its efforts on investing in America’s future

Biden’s campaign has focused on and championed the ‘little guy’ – working and middle-class Americans. He has pledged to stand up for them. 

We may see a new and improved revision of the Obama Administration’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to not simply counteract China’s influence in the region but to leverage the strength of the West in the 21st-century competition with China. 

These questions remain: How much geopolitical capital will Biden use when it comes to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and  Tibetans and Uighurs? Will China’s economic strength and the need to jump- start the U.S. and the global economy take a back seat to these historically important issues? Will Biden let China’s economic silencer cause him to suffer moral laryngitis? 

Trump is gone. The U.S. and China remain superpowers. How our respective leaders      manage the issues of conflict will impact America, China and all humanity. 

If a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then the new year and the U.S. President in 2021 may well set the start of a journey that resets a relationship vitally important to us all.


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