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Foreign Policy

Prospects for US-China Relations After the American Election

Oct 27, 2020


Click to read the October issue of China-US Focus Digest

Which is the lesser of two evils for the future of US-China relations: Trump or Biden? Prominent analysts agree  that, regardless of who wins in November, bilateral relations face increasing friction and even mutual hostility into 2021. Each of the  two US Presidential candidates has adopted a distinctly different approach to China, both of them with varying degrees of confrontation. 

These dissimilarities go beyond style and strategy; they  touch on fundamental differences of substance. Frictions with China will remain, but the two candidates look at the world, and with it, China, inversely.

As An Gang lays out, Trump is by nature a nationalist, putting America first in a populist conception of zero-sum global competition. A second term Trump administration would continue to walk away from international institutions in  its lurch towards confrontation with China. 

A Biden administration is at least in part aiming to revive the globalist tradition in American foreign policy. It would attempt to strengthen international institutions and work more closely with allies. China would be perceived in a different light, both as a competitor and a potential partner. Most importantly, the idea that China can be shut out of the global system and relegated to a kind of present-day Soviet Union would likely yield to a more realistic policy framework. 

Trump actually did not begin his term with an adversarial China policy. For sure, his rhetoric during the Presidential campaign in 2016 was unusually hostile towards China. Once in office, though, a glimmer of hope appeared and a relationship that is competitive yet amicable seemed possible. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, and Trump visited Beijing in November 2017. This was the first phase of US-China relations under the Trump administration. The two powers tip-toed around each other to find a new modus vivendi. 

The second phase began in the first half of 2018. Symbolically, it was marked by the beginning of the trade war. However, already in February 2018 FBI director Christopher Wray told a Senate panel that China was not just posing a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat to the United States. The Trump administration turned increasingly hawkish and confrontational towards China, though there was still a balance of power between senior officials, such as Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, advocating negotiation and interaction with China and those intent on severing all ties, exemplified by Peter Navarro. 

Although Trump himself seemed at times willing to work with China, even heaping praise on Xi Jinping, the U.S. federal government began to unleash one punitive policy after another. As David Shambaugh lays out, these covered virtually every area imaginable , ranging from trade, investment, and technology to education and media relations. Reacting to their perceived  China  threat to the whole of society, U.S. government officials moved rapidly to an all-of-government approach encompassing all major bureaucracies. The Justice Department, for instance, opened a “China Initiative” to nip Chinese intelligence threats in the bud, while the FBI similarly intensified its counter-intelligence operations against Chinese entities and persons on U.S. soil. 

The third phase of U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration began with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Trump saw the spread of the virus in the United States undermining his own reelection chances, he took out his ire on China. Within the administration those advocating for a rational (even if confrontational) approach to China lost sway. Relations deteriorated as every branch of the U.S. government sought to deploy measures to counter China and sever ties wherever  possible. 

Many of these actions will have unintended consequences and incur  hidden costs. But for now, it looks as if Trump’s third phase China policy is dead-set on creating a new “Cold War” to decouple from and contain China. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has become the most vociferous China hawk, aiming to cajole and threaten smaller powers to side with the United States. Even in the depth of the U.S. Presidential election he is tirelessly working to form an anti-China coalition, recently warning Brazil against economic dependency on China. 

As hostility to China built within the Trump administration, Congress began to enact its own “get tough on China” legislation. More than 300 bills involving China are in the works, many with bipartisan support. In fact, recently passed bills on Hong Kong and Xinjiang have already caused fundamental frictions with Beijing, since they strike at core principles of Chinese sovereignty. 

So, even if Biden is elected, hostility towards China will remain. There is no way he would, or for that matter, could roll back the all-of-government approach the federal bureaucracy is implementing. A policy framework with China that allows for competition, coexistence, and cooperation, as Biden has advocated, will first need to dismantle  the far-reaching policies to counter China implemented by the Trump administration. 

Nonetheless, the fundamental outlook of a Biden administration would differ in stark terms from those of Trump. They will be more pragmatic, rational, and diplomatically seasoned. Most importantly, they are likely to accept that China is an enormously important global player, deeply integrated into the global capitalist system with far-reaching trade and financial ties. 

A Biden administration is therefore likely to recognize that China cannot be contained à la the Soviet Union of yesteryear. Decoupling and a new Cold War would be disastrous for both sides, with no assurance that American sway will truly convince all allies and friends to side with it. It is perhaps for this reason that Biden has mostly avoided and dodged questions on his China policy, including during both U.S. Presidential debates. 

Naturally, Biden has also taken a highly critical tone of China, indicating that he would be just as tough on China as Trump. But there is little doubt that Biden would work with allies, partners, and other countries. Such a more collaborative effort would find many more willing partners than Trump’s strongman tactics. The rapid ascent of Chinese power, even more so now that China is the only major economy to have rapidly recovered from the shock induced by COVID-19, is troubling many countries all over the world. 

However, re-building U.S. alliances and partnership to counter China more effectively will necessitate adjusting U.S. policies. Most European allies, for example, take a much less aggressive and strident tone when confronting China. They have interests that run counter to those of America as framed by the Trump administration. This includes the crucial technology war that is cutting Chinese firms off from advanced chips manufactured with American technology. 

From Beijing’s  point of view, a potential Biden administration is thus a double-edged sword. American policies will become more measured, less chaotic and, for sure, less impulsive. But they will be much more closely coordinated with allies and partners globally. The tariffs from the trade war are likely to be gradually rolled back, perhaps after another round of economic negotiations with Beijing. And overall, a willingness to talk and negotiate might open at least some room for compromise, including in the technology war. 

Given differing domestic policy goals under a Biden administration, there are certain areas that could lead to greater cooperation, such as on climate change, nuclear proliferation, and global public health. Faced with a choice between Scylla and Charybdis, the fabled immortal and irresistible monsters who beset a narrow shipping strait that Odysseus had to traverse during his voyages, Beijing might well perceive no good options. Nonetheless, a Biden administration promises to bring more certainty, less outright and uncontrolled confrontation, and perhaps a final chance for some form of peaceful coexistence between the globe’s two biggest powers. 

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