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Foreign Policy

How Does China Fit into Biden’s Foreign-Policy Framework?

Dec 04, 2020

During his election campaign, President-elect Joe Biden refrained from detailing many of his foreign policies. Nonetheless, one can surmise many of his positions given Biden’s lengthy government career as well as the well-publicized views of his advisors and affiliated think tanks. 

Biden is expected to bring a different style to the White House than his predecessor. He will probably conduct more regularized exchanges and negotiations with global partners, engage with a diverse portfolio of experts before making decisions, and eschew announcing major new policy initiatives on Twitter—at least before they have undergone extensive interagency vetting beforehand. 

Biden’s initial focus will be on domestic rather than foreign policy, especially efforts to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and the recovery of the U.S. economy. He might delegate some policy areas to Cabinet heads or other senior officials, but will likely regularly oversee the critical issues that concern China. 

Even in the foreign-policy domain, for the first few months, the new White House will be preoccupied with recruiting the large team of political appointees mandated by the U.S. executive system. Another lengthy task is writing a new National Security Strategy (NSS), Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and recrafting related documents to reflect the new administration’s policy principles. The new administration will also conduct a series of comprehensive interagency policy reviews, including strategies towards China. 

The tight political balance in Congress, which will make it easy for Republicans and Progressive Democrats to block funding for major partisan initiatives, can force the White House to rely on executive orders, exhalatory declarations, and low-cost diplomatic initiatives rather than expensive projects or formal treaties that require congressional ratification. Rejoining the WHO or Paris Climate agreement by presidential decision will be much easier than funding a global green growth initiative. 

Biden will have more maneuvering room regarding Russia thanks to his predecessor, but he is unlikely to use it. The Biden team has not indicated plans to attempt another comprehensive “reset” in relations, given previous failures toward that end. It will probably take a change in leadership in the Kremlin for any substantial improvement in bilateral ties. Until then, the Biden team will likely focus on reaching limited agreements on arms control and regional security—the same issues that have dominated Russian-U.S. negotiations for decades. 

Biden-affiliated experts seem prepared to optimize the sanctions on regimes that the U.S. government has constructed in recent years—focused mostly on Russia and Iran but have often affected China—to improve their effectiveness and reduce collateral damage. Unless provoked, the administration will probably extend the application of some existing ones, such as the Global Magnitsky Act rather than add new measures. 

A Biden priority will be comprehensively improving relations with Europe by, for instance, reducing excessive tariffs, mitigating the Airbus-Boeing dispute, and agreeing on regulating digital service providers. The Biden team will partner with Europeans to promote liberal norms--globally by setting international standards and within Europe by countering democratic backsliding. They also want to make European states less vulnerable to Russia’s hybrid threats by increasing their resiliency against Kremlin-linked corruption, energy dependence, and media disinformation.   

The Trump administration made substantial progress in securing European support for U.S. policies regarding China. European governments have become more aware of the complexities of relying on PRC loans and information providers. They also have supported U.S. demands that China engage more directly in Russian-U.S. nuclear arms talks. Future steps to strengthen transatlantic solidarity regarding Beijing could include pooling resources to develop alternative 5G suppliers, sharing intelligence on China’s acquisition of strategic infrastructure like European ports, and coordinating the screening of inward Chinese investment. 

A Biden administration will elevate the promotion of democracy and human rights in China, but could deemphasize direct attacks, at least by name, on the Chinese Communist Party. The new administration seems prepared to compete more directly with Beijing for leadership in global and regional international institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN-linked structures. It also may create some new institutions, such as the proposed D-10, consisting of the existing group of seven as well as the three democracies of Australia, Japan, and South Korea. As part of its multilateral focus, a Biden administration will likely renew attempts to reconcile Japan and South Korea as well as decrease U.S. demands for greater host-nation payments. 

In its economic policies, the Biden team shows little enthusiasm for additional tariffs, given their market-distorting impact and costs they impose on U.S. consumers, as well as for one-off negotiated purchase deals in which Beijing agrees to make major purchases of U.S. products. They insist on addressing the structural imbalances in the Chinese-U.S. economic relationship. 

If they secure sufficient congressional support, the Biden administration is inclined to emphasize strengthening U.S. competitiveness through targeted industrial policies, more federal R&D funding, and other measures to boost national innovation, manufacturing, and human resources. Less certain is how a Biden administration will respond to the newly launched Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a de-facto Beijing-led free trade bloc, since U.S. political support for joining any large multilateral trade agreements has been waning even before the Trump administration withdrew from the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership

Biden’s advisors want to move beyond company-by-company sanctioning of Chinese entities and apply regulations and restrictions on Chinese companies by class of business and behavior. For example, the United States could limit the data that PRC firms collect from U.S. consumers, make them comply with U.S. accounting and environmental standards, and demand reciprocity on how PRC authorities treat U.S. companies operating in China. They aim to increase U.S. leverage by working with other countries to incorporate such standards of behavior globally, including for the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The Biden administration seems open to cooperating with China on areas of common interest, such as mitigating global climate change. They aim to adopt stronger emission and fuel standards at home as well as encourage the use of renewable energy sources globally, but they appreciate that the United States needs Chinese cooperation to address the global magnitude of the challenge. The new Biden administration may also set aside the dispute over the origins of COVID-19 in order to mobilize global support behind a comprehensive international campaign to mitigate the current pandemic and avert new ones. 

Since the incoming administration does not believe that engaging in further North Korean-U.S. leadership summits would presently be profitable, it may seek to work with Beijing to secure some incremental agreements with Pyongyang rather than strive for a near-term comprehensive final agreement with North Korea. At a minimum, they will want Beijing to continue to discourage North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile testing or other provocations, which has been the standard means by which Pyongyang tests a new U.S. president. The Biden team will seek similar Chinese support for its efforts to roll-back Iran’s nuclear activities even as it seeks an updated nuclear deal with Tehran. 

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