Politics, World, Analysis, Americas, Asia - Pacific, US Elections 2020

ANALYSIS - What will Biden presidency mean for US-China relations?

Covert containment strategies, implemented for a ‘rebalancing’ during Obama era, will be reinstated toward China, albeit more harshly this time

Dr. Huseyin Korkmaz  | 20.11.2020 - Update : 22.11.2020
ANALYSIS - What will Biden presidency mean for US-China relations?


Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States, albeit unofficially, following the intensely controversial Nov. 3 US Presidential Elections. In spite of Donald Trump’s oft-repeated claim that “If Biden wins, China wins”, Biden is preparing for a comprehensive China policy that will also involve US allies. While how he will strike a balance between domestic concerns and the US foreign policy with all the economic woes raging on at home remains a matter of much curiosity on the one hand, how the declining and eroding US hegemony could be restored, given the fiercely competitive current global circumstances, stands out, on the other hand, as an important question. In such a global context, the Biden administration, it seems, will prioritize rivalry against China in its foreign policy.

The US approach that developed around the Trump presidency’s motto of “America First” and was bent on estranging allies compounded global uncertainty while also minimizing the credibility that it once enjoyed abroad. The election results, however, show that this political approach of Trump apparently drew substantial support at home. For this reason, the Biden presidency will have a hard time weaning the US public off it. Despite lacking a wide toolset in terms of the options that will be available to him, Biden will have to deal with these hardships on the one hand, and on the other, he will have to respond to the Chinese competition on a global scale.

Biden will certainly attempt to restore transatlantic relations by developing a more liberal approach than Trump. A diplomacy-intensive model will probably be employed towards China and the covert containment strategies, implemented for a “rebalancing” during the Obama era, will be reinstated, albeit more harshly this time. Throughout this process, Europe will be Biden’s biggest helper in terms of ideological and institutional capacity. In addition, Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia stand out as critical US allies in China’s region. Therefore, Biden’s attitude towards China will not be departing from the US strategic framework. The national security strategy documents published by the US bespeak a similar approach.

US-China rivalry will continue on a strategic level

The National Security Strategy document of the US published in 2017 [1] is extremely significant in terms of revealing the US approach towards China. The said report defined China and the Russian Federation as revisionist powers while also accusing them of building a world that runs counter to American values, additionally claiming that China was trying to drive the US away from the Indo-Pacific region. This haughty containment policy initiated during the Trump era was actually not a novel move. We can define it as an updated version of the "American Pivot to Asia", whose roots can be traced back to Barack Obama's term.

A similar National Security Strategy document had been previously published in 2010 during Obama’s first term. [2] That document too contains striking remarks on China. One such statement is that the US will be monitoring China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that US interests and allies, regionally and globally, are not adversely affected. In fact, China’s military modernization and regional military activities have been featuring prominently on the US administration’s radar for quite some time. In fact, it can even be said that the US Navy began to shift its center of gravity towards the Asia-Pacific in that period.

It is also necessary to remember former President Obama’s speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 [3]. Obama said in that speech: "As we end today’s wars, I’ve directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia-Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in US defense spending will not, I repeat, will not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific." Needless to say, Biden was part of that foreign policy team. During Obama’s term, it came to be recognized that China began to transform into a global actor to be kept in check, and the US took comprehensive steps to that end.

While these steps were taken to a very advanced level during Trump's presidency, how fruitful the US efforts have been in actually preventing China's rise is worth discussing. China was not affected too negatively by Trump's leaving a number of economic partnerships, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and his turning his back on his allies as per his isolationist approach. In fact, the US disinterest in alliances also allowed China and the Russian Federation extra maneuvering space. Trump adopted an extremely harsh political approach towards China, but it was seen that this approach had not been meticulously thought out. China's swift economic recovery in this pandemic and the deterioration of the US economic shows that Trump did not get a satisfactory outcome in his fight against China. Although the deepening of the military relations with India and Japan as part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy as well as a number of wins in Europe on the Huawei issue thanks to the shuttle diplomacy of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are seen as advantages, the US could not establish complete dominance in any sphere in the global competition.

Biden: Different methods, same fundamental approach

Trump's term has seen severe damage done to steadfast adherence to democratic rules, which protect the foundations of American democracy. There is, on the other hand, an alarmist approach tending towards authoritarianism in the rest of the world. It is certainly not a coincidence that four years ago it was Trump who was elected. Protectionism and populism have emerged as strong trends in the country. Therefore, one should keep in mind that the social environment feeding this Trumpist aura will not disappear and may even undergo a process of becoming more radical. For this reason, Biden will not have much latitude in his policies.

In fact, it can be said that Trumpist practices will continue over the course of Biden's term as well. The latest polls carried out by the Pew Research Center [4] show that 73 percent of Americans have negative views about China. This is a very high percentage that Biden could not possibly overlook. But, what might Biden have in mind about China? He will not back down on the technological rivalry against Chinese companies, since he accepts that it is a national security threat for the US. In addition, the Indo-Pacific strategy will continue at full speed as well. [5] The alliance structure already built to a certain extent in the region will apparently be strengthened with a great discourse of democracy.

We can say that Biden will put into practice his determination to establish multilateral military mechanisms. In fact, this has become a necessity due to the excessive expenditure of the military bases spread over the entire globe. It is also not hard to foresee that Biden will be using NATO in very practical ways as well. Ideologically, the concepts of 'Europe' and 'democracy' can present a projection towards China’s borders under the institutional leadership of NATO. Already at the last summit of NATO, a perception of threat with regard to China found its place in the closing declaration. Tensions in US-China relations may ease in the short term, but it seems unlikely that Biden, the centerpiece of whose rhetoric is "why the US should lead again", will be able to keep rivalry with China a low-profile one. But in order to do all that, Biden must first take care of the internal problems.

Economic inequality has now become a source of cultural and political unrest in the United States. Unshared earnings and an economy mobilizing as a result of globalization and the use of digital automation technologies open doors to rapid social change. [6] This was reflected in the elections as "polarization". The fact that Trump still managed to receive 70 million votes against Biden, who received nearly 73 million votes, highlights the necessity of understanding the circumstances that led Trump to leadership, rather than Trump himself. And when we consider the nearly 70 million people who did not vote, we see an interesting profile emerging that needs evaluation with respect to Biden.

Should America lead again?

Given the existing internal and external issues, it seems that the coming period will be challenging for the US and Biden despite the strong characteristics of his discourse on "mobilizing the allies", which he formulated in his article "Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump: Why America Must Lead Again" published in Foreign Affairs in April [7]. In the article, it is noteworthy that Biden, while mentioning China, sets himself the goal of combining the economic power of democracies around the globe by sharpening the innovative side of the US in order to win the global competition.

Biden states in his article that China represents a particular challenge and that it is playing a long-term game by expanding its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future. However, Biden also leaves an open door in topics such as climate change, nuclear weapons, and global health issues, denoting that he could collaborate with China in these fields. Possibly the most interesting part of the article is his statement that the "United States does need to get tough with China". Therefore, it seems that Biden will follow practices towards China similar to those introduced during Trump’s term, with only rhetorical differences. At this point, Biden can be expected to heavily criticize China over liberal values. We can also say that the Biden administration will use tariffs as a bargaining chip in the trade wars. For this reason, he will not consider removing tariffs.

All in all, Biden's presidency seems problematic for China as well. While China does not have a clear attitude on the issue yet, we can say that China is particularly wary of Biden's discourse on "democratic alliance", because it may lose the significant maneuvering space that it carved out during Trump’s term. For this reason, it seems that China will engage in intense diplomacy to strengthen its efforts in order to prevent the deepening of initiatives that may create problems, especially in the region, such as the Quadruple Security Dialogue (QUAD).

In conclusion, China and the US will continue confronting each other often in the following period as well. The important question here is whether the US will be acting alone in this rivalry or stand with its allies.

[ The writer works as an independent researcher on US-China relations and Chinese foreign policy. ]

*Translated by Can Atalay in Ankara

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.​​​​​​​

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