The past four years of US-China relations have been unpredictable, often acrimonious, and frequently conducted via former president Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Trump viewed China as America’s competition and, throughout his years in office he implemented policies designed to discourage Chinese-American trade and to punish China for the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet throughout the first one hundred days of President Joe Biden’s presidency, we can expect a very different outlook on the US relationship with China and its leader, President Xi Jinping.
Relations with China over the past four years were often hostile, with Trump instituting a trade war against China in 2017, placing high tariffs on steel and aluminum, and engaging in a tit-for-tat battle on tariffs across the board. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated tensions, with Trump first praising Xi for his handling of the pandemic but later referring to the virus as the “China virus” and insisting that China pay for the effect of the virus on the United States. This aggressive relationship has put the United States in a confusing position when it comes to what’s next in relations between the two countries.
Upon Biden’s electoral victory, Xi released a congratulatory statement to Biden that said, “It is hoped that both sides will uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation . . . and work with other countries and the international community to advance the noble cause of world peace and development.” China is clearly hoping for a less head-to-head, competitive relationship, as has been the case in the past four years of relations between the United States and China.
Yet some of Biden’s cabinet choices, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state, suggest that a hardline policy is likely. Blinken has previously stated his willingness to push back against China and use US allies to punish bad behavior, including the abuse and detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, which Blinken called a “genocide” in his recent confirmation hearing. In this spirit, Biden has spoken about his desire to create an international coalition to push back against China. The European Union, however, is moving ahead on the front to integrate China even further into the global economy, with the recent announcement of a deal that will ease investment into Chinese companies. This makes it harder to pursue a global alliance against China and their economic and military might.
China’s combativeness and refusal to play by the global rules of the game has been visible in nearly every aspect of government, from their attempts to influence the governments in Taiwan and Hong Kong to their increased bellicosity in the South China Sea. A senior Biden adviser said to expect a stronger stance against China’s aggressions abroad and repressive internal policy. What this looks like in practice, however, may not be a full departure from the past four years of policy. Rather, it seems that the Biden administration will implement a mix of recent Trump strategies on China and Obama-era strategies.
First and foremost, China is not currently the United States’ biggest issue. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis are the paramount issues for the Biden administration, and Biden will likely not pursue attempts to make China pay somehow for COVID-19, as Trump has threatened. Additionally, the Trump administration had issued a flood of directives on China policy in the last year alone, with 159 policy changes in 2020. Rather than implementing new policies, Biden may reverse many of Trump’s old policies in the first one hundred days, as he has with many domestic policies.
Biden’s focus on rebuilding the American economy and getting jobs back also means that the economic relationship between China and the United States will still be based mainly on competition, rather than cooperation. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki echoed this in a recent press conference, saying, “The president is committed to stopping China’s economic abuses.” Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen also demonstrated her commitment to continuing economic competition, saying, “China is undercutting American companies by dumping products, erecting trade barriers, and giving away subsidies to corporations.” This comment is noteworthy given that it reflects many of the Trump-era views on trade with China and justification for high tariffs and a trade war.
However, Biden’s time in the Obama administration also means he has a respect for global cooperation to solve big problems, such as climate change and global health, a prediction echoed by policy advisors and journalists. Biden’s own statements have demonstrated this dual competitive and cooperative strategy, saying that “to win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, the United States must sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world,” as well as that the United States, and “not China” should be leading global trade. He was even so blatant as to say that the United States must “get tough” with China. These statements point more towards the Trump worldview of China as a competitor, rather than a partner.
While Biden likely won’t make any large policy moves in China policy in his first one hundred days, opening up dialogue between the two countries will be key. The tone of said dialogue will also make a big difference, as much of the contact with China in the past four years has come in the form of so-called Twitter diplomacy from Trump’s now defunct account. The Biden administration has already begun more engagement on a global scale, including rejoining the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accords. In terms of China specifically, the Center for Disease Control office in Beijing is set to be restaffed, after Trump removed most staff from the office, and Biden will direct the United States to rejoin organizations like the UN Human Rights Council, which could be important in urging China to respect the rights of Uighur Muslims and other marginalized ethnic groups.
China too is preparing for a new chapter in foreign relations with the United States. Communications from the country have revealed worries about political divisions within the United States spilling over into relations with China, especially after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. After the attempted insurrection, social media and political leaders compared the event to the Hong Kong protests, which many US political leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, supported. China could be looking forward to the Biden administration as a potentially friendlier ally than the previous administration, especially given House and Senate Republicans’ hawkish outlooks on China in the past.
Overall, Biden’s policy on China is likely to be a mix of the Trump view of China as a competitor, along with elements of Obama-era diplomacy. The United States has a number of issues to tackle before it comes to China policy, but Biden has taste neither for Trump’s Twitter communications with global leaders, nor hot-and-cold diplomacy. If anything, the next four years under Biden will be a search for stability—albeit not friendship—in the relationship between the United States and China.
Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.