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Foreign Policy

The Biden Effect

Feb 08, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Joe Biden was sworn in as the president of the United States on Jan. 20, delivering a traditional inaugural address that differed markedly from the bombast of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden didn’t roll out a list of policies but rather called for unity among his fellow Americans, hoping to breed love and healing for a deeply divided nation. Biden made no mention of China throughout the speech, and only a few remarks regarding America’s foreign policy. But while his administration is currently emphasizing domestic affairs, China-U.S. relations will come to the fore eventually, with new challenges and opportunities.

The key challenges for Biden at the beginning originate from within. China-U.S. relations will not be a top priority in the first year or two, at least. The two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia won by the Democrats gave Vice President Kamala Harris a crucial position from which to break ties and eliminated some of the worries about gridlock had House and Senate power been split between parties. But Biden faces a far greater domestic division than Trump did when he took office in 2017. Contributing factors include the sudden onset and long-lasting effects of the pandemic, as well as economic and political crises.

Dealing with the pandemic will be the top priority and the most demanding item on the domestic agenda for Biden in the short term. During the campaign, and since his victory, Biden has rolled out policy initiatives to address the pandemic characterized by respect for science, consultation with real experts, increased testing, advocacy of masks and promotion of efficient vaccine distribution.

On Jan. 14, Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that included a new round of direct subsidies to American families, funds for school safety and a nationwide vaccination program. Still, his agendas will be hampered by a federal system of state-by-state fragmentation, growing partisan gridlock, a politicized response to the pandemic by his predecessor and problems in vaccine distribution.

Foreign policy is an extension of domestic affairs, and Biden’s inaugural address reflected the challenges at home and the important task of stopping America’s decline and restoring its leadership in the world. While Biden’s main focus will likely stay on the domestic front until the 2022 midterm elections, his team is not without ambition in the foreign policy arena, where there is far more room to maneuver. Altering the course of Trump’s retrograde “America first” policy is the top priority. Biden is expected to spend the first two years in a gradual pullback on foreign policy specifics but moving to restore America’s image as a beacon of democracy, repair relations with its allies and return to the track of multilateralism.

China-U.S. relations will also see changes against a backdrop of  Biden adjustments at home and abroad.

First, the U.S. will generally stick to its strategic positioning toward China established during Trump’s tenure, but it will revise its strategic goals. Based on a series of statements made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NSC Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, the Biden team believes that it is not wrong to view China as a “strategic competitor.” But the competition must feature vigilance and humility. Because of its own problems, America should rethink its former strategic goal of changing China and reevaluate its policies. It should pay more attention to its own strength and actions as well as that of its allies and partners, rather than attempting to isolate and weaken China.

Second, the U.S. will adjust its approaches in its strategic competition with China and attach more importance to the role of the alliance system. Unlike the anti-China alliance as seen through Trump’s Cold War mentality, the Biden administration is more likely to establish alliances in different fields, such as inviting Australia, India and South Korea to the G7, setting up a D10 group in the ideological realm and including Australia, India, Japan in an upgraded QUAD when it comes to regional security. 

Some American scholars suggest that Biden should build an alliance with clear goals and diverse allies in the fields of geostrategy, economy, science and ideology. The purpose would be to transform bilateral competition between China and the U.S. into multilateral competition and to transfer part of the strategic competition burden to U.S. allies.

Third, there is still room for China and the U.S. to cooperate and build mutual trust. While Biden’s team agrees with Trump’s overall reflection on China-U.S. relations, it also believes that bilateral relations should not be allowed to slide into direct confrontation, which would only hurt both sides. It is evident that under the leadership of Blinken, Sullivan, Campbell and other establishment figures, contact and cooperation with China can be expected to increase. This can hedge the competition to some extent. 

In the field of people-to-people exchanges, the Biden administration may restore some part of past exchanges by resuming visa issuances and visits by scholars to a certain extent. In the field of global governance, China and the U.S. are expected to work together to tackle climate change and the pandemic, as well as to coordinate their macroeconomic policies.

At the same time, Biden’s actions on the domestic front will affect the development of China-U.S. relations. If he still struggles to make progress domestically in the second half of his presidency, then displaying aggressiveness externally will be his priority. In that case, the Indo-Pacific region and even China will be the main focus. Trump has consistently portrayed Biden as weak on China. So Biden must balance the Trump legacy with the Obama legacy.

A worse-case possibility is that lack of progress domestically could encourage Biden to make Trump’s legacy his basic China policy, absorbing what are seen as effective strategies and making a hybrid Trump and Obama in return for the support of Republican hardliners to accomplish his domestic agenda. 

This way, the window of mitigating China-U.S. relations will not be open too wide or stay open too long. If Biden, under pressure from all sides, intensifies strategic competition in China-U.S. relations and continues to pressure China to make concessions, the risk of China-U.S. confrontation will continue to rise.

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