Why a Joe Biden win is unlikely to improve relations between the US and China

Under Obama, Biden spoke of transforming Sino-American relations with trade – but now he talks of “getting tough” on China. 

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“President Xi, I want to thank you again for expanding your commitment to cooperation between our nations. I believe that it’s another reminder that as we work to narrow our differences, we can continue to advance our mutual interests for the benefit not only of our two peoples, but for the benefit of the world.”

So said then-president Barack Obama in 2015. Obama’s presidency, during which the United States was supposed to “pivot to Asia” in part to help allies challenge China’s territorial claims, was nevertheless marked by a willingness to make US-China relations work.

President Donald Trump took a different rhetorical stance, insisting that China had taken advantage of the United States. But despite the tough talk, Trump’s first term could hardly be considered that of a China hawk.

In 2017, Trump boasted he and China’s Xi Jinping shared “great chemistry”. If one believes the book by John Bolton, his former national security adviser, Trump effectively permitted Xi to detain Uighur people, a largely Muslim minority ethnic group. His withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama era trade pact between the US and Asian allies and partners, didn’t exactly hurt China; neither did attempting to punish China by hitting Canada and European allies with tariffs. Last year, Trump suggested protesters in Hong Kong should sit down with Xi, whose early handling of the pandemic Trump praised.

[See also: How US-China social ties are fraying]

But we are not in 2015, or 2017, or 2019, or even early 2020. The pandemic, which changed so much, changed this relationship, too. Trump restricted travel from China (though he did not ban all travel, as he has claimed); he insisted on calling Covid-19 the “China virus” despite warnings from Asian-Americans that they were now being physically attacked; and he now vows that China is going to pay for what the pandemic has done to the United States. He has also tried to portray Joe Biden as soft on China.

Should Trump win a second term, one can reasonably expect Trump to continue to present himself as a China hawk, placing further sanctions on Chinese officials, applying more tariffs, pulling out of various international bodies (and, as result, giving China more power within them). There is no reason to expect Trump’s specific version of hawkishness will be a thought-out plan, but it is not difficult to imagine a second-term Trump administration taking a similar stance on China as the first-term administration took towards Iran: blaming it for many of the world’s ills, applying sanctions wherever possible, attacking it in all international fora, increasing pressure between the two countries, and ultimately failing to bring it to any truly impactful negotiating table.

[See also: Trump voting states and the China paradox]

But Trump is not the only candidate who will create strain between Washington and Beijing. As senator, Joe Biden spoke of using trade to transform US-China relations and, as vice president, he was part of the Obama administration’s friendlier embrace of China. But as presidential candidate, Biden has called Xi a thug and called China’s repression of the Uighurs “genocide”. He wrote in a Foreign Affairs essay that the US “does need to get tough with China”, and has also promised to impose economic sanctions.

There are some differences, however, in how a Biden administration would position itself against China. First, Biden’s campaign, which focuses on restoring the soul of America and promises to “build back better”, suggests that his presidency would try to compete with China by reinvesting in American business and liberalism. The United States has a long record of hypocrisy, but it cannot effectively censure China over human rights abuses while committing grievous violations on its own soil.

[See also: Has Covid-19 delivered the death blow to US-China FDI]

Second, a Biden administration would almost certainly focus on working with Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea, and others around the world, in order to counter China. So, too, would it likely try to claw back some of the ground Trump has ceded in multilateral institutions. There are some areas on which Biden is expected to try to cooperate with China – namely, climate change – but a Biden presidency would be unlikely to commit to expanding “cooperation” between the two nations, as happened under the Obama administration.

The United States and China are going to be at odds in the near future. The question now is whether or not the United States tries to counter China with its allies and partners, or whether it continues to go it alone.

***

This article is part of a wider special New Statesman Media Group feature on the US-China decoupling. Elsewhere on the New Statesman, Jeremy Cliffe reports on how economic integration between the two superpowers has shifted into reverse, and Ido Vock and Michael Goodier chart the social ties between the two countries. In Tech Monitor, Ed Targett reviews the growing impact this shift is having on technology supply chains. And on Investment Monitor, there are features exploring whether Covid-19 has delivered a death blow to US-China FDI, and how drops in Chinese investment have a bigger impact on Trump-voting states.

Do also look out for the next episode of our World Review podcast, on which Jeremy and I will be joined by Courtney Fingar of Investment Monitor and Sommer Mathis of City Monitor (another new NSMG site, focused on urbanism) to discuss US-China decoupling and other mega-stories that define the backdrop to the US election.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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