The 2020 US Presidential Elections and the vitriol that has followed has shown that cleavages are aplenty in U.S. politics and reflect a degree of tribalism and rejection for compromise. The cleavages run through race, gender, income disparities, age, education, and also between urban and rural Americans. The United States will be grappling with major domestic problems -- ranging from the painful economic fallout of COVID-19 to a highly polarized and divided society. Even in the event of a Democratic win in the Senate, a Biden presidency will face constraints on US foreign policy activism, both in the security and trade agendas, from within his own party. Will the US pull away from foreign policy and focus its efforts on domestic issues? After all, pre-election working groups for Biden’s transition team have been focusing on: 1) the COVID-19 pandemic; 2) the economic crisis and potential remedies; 3) racial injustice; 4) and climate change. In recent years, defense expenditure traditionally got axed when US public budgets have been 0.5 trillion US dollars in the red. This year, the US government has already launched an expansive fiscal policy of the magnitude of roughly 4 trillion US dollars in government grants and loans that exceeded the cost of 18 years of war in Afghanistan. And in a recent co-authored report, Michèle Flournoy – a key defense planner from the Biden camp who is set to play an important role in the Pentagon – has acknowledged that “demands associated with recovery from the Coronavirus 2019 \ pandemic, addressing systemic racism, getting Americans back to work, shoring up the social safety net, and strengthening the nation’s preparedness to handle future pandemics will all compete for federal dollars. Mounting deficits and debt will curb the appetites of some lawmakers for higher defense spending.” In short, the US military will likely have to make hard choices, as suggested by security expert Masashi Murano in a recent article, and there may be a revision of the US global posture in the pipeline, with more defense cuts (likely in Europe) and more reliance on alliance burden-sharing, because China will likely remain the priority.
Trump and Trumpism have indeed moved the policy to the center right. A free trade agenda is unlikely in the short run, because of attacks from the left and the right spectrum of American politics, and a markedly more conciliatory China policy is also unlikely because of the brewing consensus between Republicans and Democrats for a tougher posture. To be sure, China attracts bipartisan consensus but not necessarily traction among the wider electorate. Although Trump has tried to frame the presidential elections along his tough China policy, and has criticized Biden for his alleged timidity towards Beijing. However, the China issue didn’t gain traction relative to domestic issues during the presidential debates and on the campaign trail. But the election was no repudiation of Trumpism, and Trump will not disappear, certainly not in the short-run. Trump is engaging in a new political guerrilla that will go through an original TV channel and a new Political Action Committee, and which will ultimately be used to bolster his position as the Republicans’ leader. Eventually, this will lead to his run in the 2024 presidential election.
This has implications for potentially divisive foreign policy issues, such as re-joining the Transpacific Partnership and doing away with the slew of tariffs on China without meaningful concessions from Beijing. In addition, Biden will be under fire also from within the Democratic Party, where vocal and influential progressive voices may challenge him throughout his presidency and in 2024. The choice of Kamala Harris as Vice President may pre-empt these challenges, but nevertheless she will have to side with Biden while in power.
In light of the above and of Senate composition, Biden will have to play to the center and engage centrist Republican voices, at least until Trump’s aura loses its power. The US Senate may well have a Republican majority following the January elections in Georgia, a traditionally red state. For this purpose, Biden may have to appoint members of the Cabinet and launch policies that are of broad appeal, and thus China-related matters need to ensure support from Republicans. All in all, domestic factors evident from the US presidential elections and its early aftermath suggest that, in all likelihood, there will not be a big repudiation of Trump’s tough China policy. At the same time, Biden’s attention will be on domestic matters. For this purpose, he will delegate foreign and security policy to experts within the national security establishment, especially the State Department. This will mean that we will not have a return to the endless race to the bottom that was the US approach towards China under the Trump administration, particularly evident throughout 2020. Nor will we have ham-fisted undiplomatic public statements with vitriolic Manichean condemnations of the Chinese Communist Party, not to mention statements hinting at regime change. After all, a degree of stability and a working-level relationship with China will be favoured, and cooperation in agenda items such as climate change, global health challenges and arms proliferation could be a springboard for a modicum of stability between the world’s largest economies. That may also be good news for the global economy.