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Foreign Policy

Inside Biden’s China Policy

Aug 26, 2020
  • Yang Wenjing

    Research Professor, Institute of American Studies, CICIR

The newly approved, 92-page Democratic Party platform issued during the Democratic National Convention provides worthwhile information for understanding and predicting Joe Biden’s future China policy. If he is elected, one would hope he would allow some room for a more stable and predictable bilateral relationship with China, in contrast with Trump’s confrontational Cold War approach.

Undoubtedly, deterring China and competing comprehensively will still be the first priority of Biden’s foreign policy agenda, if he wins, although up until now, the Democratic Party has not characterized what the nature of China’s “threat” is in their eyes or how they perceive the general features of the U.S-China relationship. Trump did so in the National Strategy report in 2017, labeling China as the foremost “adversary” and vowing to pursue a whole-of-government competitive approach. Judging from their platform, the Democrats seem to have already inherited this premise, and the only thing they have yet to do is provide specific measures.

First and foremost, the platform informs us that the Democrats will not pursue a new cold war with China. This implies, if they take office, that they will end the current fierce confrontation with China, which would inevitably lead to such a situation over time. (Note that before the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump government had also denied the possibility of a new cold war, although it had stuck to a fully competitive mode.)

The Trump government also mentioned building a “results-oriented constructive relationship,” which means that while competition would be predominant in the relationship, limited cooperation would still be needed and tailored to the U.S. will and interests.

However, after the pandemic spread widely in the U.S., the bilateral relationship deteriorated rapidly as a resut of the quarrel over its source and the economic stagnation in the US, which irritates Trump greatly as the election draws near. Moreover, the hawks inside the government began to seize the opportunity to frame the relationship as a completely confrontational one, the extent and scope of which will be more serious than the U.S.-Soviet Cold War.

A deep study of the Democratic platform tells us the party will continue to regard China as the top competitor, but it will not seek a cold war as Trump does. This positioning is similar to Trump’s attitude before the pandemic, yet its specific approaches will be somewhat different from the latter, since the two administrations hold varied interpretations on world affairs and the domestic agenda.

First, in the economic field, Biden will continue the decoupling trend with China. The platform harshly criticizes Trump’s “failed trade policy,” which “has shown the risks of relying too heavily on global supply chains.” Also, Democrats will “take aggressive action against China that tries to undercut American manufacturing by manipulating currency, dumping products like steel and aluminum in our markets, providing unfair subsidies, stealing intellectual property, and conducting cyberespionage.”

Although the document doesn’t provide any solid suggestions on how to promote these goals, it promises to stand up to “misconduct.” The Democrats also decry the lack of labor protection, safeguards for human rights and environmental awareness in Trump’s trade deals and say they will “aggressively" instill these in future talks.

From this analysis, we can see that the future Biden administration will continue to reshore manufacturing and vital supply chains back to the country, and also heavily punish perceived Chinese misbehavior, all of which coincides with Trump on these topics. But the methods may be different: The Democrats have denied the value of the trade war, yet based on past experience, anti-dumping measures, trade investigations and sanctions may be important tools.

Without a linkage of economic issues with other issues in the Sino-U.S. relationship, as well as the drag brought about by the trade war, tension in the economic sphere may be reduced a little. And the inclination to stick to rules and treaties will also raise the possibility of negotiating with China to resolve problems.

Second, Biden has emphasized once again that he would repair and reinvent alliances and partnerships, put diplomacy as the first priority instead of the military and rejoin international institutions to restore American leadership. These on the whole might be better for China than the current situation. But China should also not overlook the fact that repair of U.S. alliances and a restoration of prestige — as well as deeper and more consistent coordination by the U.S. with its allies — will increase the hedging against China in its relations with the rest of the world.

Third, while condemning Trump’s overexpansion of the U.S. military, the platform promises to make “smart investments to keep military’s competitive edge,” ensuring that the U.S. military has no peer in the world and can deter and win the conflicts of the 21st century —which is not much different from Trump’s position. Biden might also replace Trump’s slogan of Indo-Pacific with Asia-Pacific once again. Yet the underlying logic is virtually the same. For example, the platform reiterates the commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and emphasizes the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act without mentioning the “one China policy,” showing a shift of position on Taiwan.

In terms of the security of data and the openness of the internet, Democrats promise to work with allies and partners to develop to secure 5G networks, address threats in cyberspace, protect individuals’ data and defend critical infrastructure. This means the countermeasures against Huawei and other Chinese high-tech companies may persist. 

Last, from a party that has long clung to values of free speech and human rights, Biden will “fully enforce” the Hong Kong and Uyghur acts. Yet, besides pushing back on China’s “malign behavior,” he will also pursue cooperation on issues such as climate change and nonproliferation, while attempting to ensure that the U.S.-China rivalry be kept under control. For Biden, the stability of the bilateral relationship still counts. 

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