As Joe Biden was projected to be the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Chinese experts predicted that the outcome could offer some “breathing room” for already-tense China-US relations, and provide an opportunity for breakthroughs in resuming high-level communication and rebuilding mutual strategic trust between the two countries.
Deteriorating relations between China and the US have entered a vicious circle, leading to damaged strategic mutual trust, suspended high-level communication and little concrete cooperation, Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for US Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times.
It might now be expected that China and the US will resume pragmatic cooperation on vaccines, the anti-epidemic fight and climate change, Xin noted. Some liaison mechanisms and stalled dialogue can be expected to resume, “but it will take time to rebuild mutual strategic trust,” he said.
Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the Global Times that Biden will usher in a “buffering period” for worsening China-US relations.
“Biden will be more moderate and mature on handling foreign affairs,” Jin said.
Biden could appoint more professional officials to his diplomatic team and so it was possible for US-China tensions to take a brief timeout.
However, the pending change in US leadership won’t change the overall direction of Washington’s China policy, observers said. Regardless of who resides in the White House, the US will to some extent maintain its current approach toward China.
Biden’s China policy won’t simply slip back into the Obama era approach of 2016 as during the past four years China-US relations and the global landscape have changed significantly, observers said.
“We should not put too much expectation on Biden,” Jin said, “because to contain and confront China is a strategic consensus between the two major parties of the US.”
Biden might mean different measures but not a different direction, Jin asserted.
The elites and public in both countries have reshaped their perspective on each other’s country, Da Wei, director of the Center for Strategic and International Security Studies of the University of International Relations in Beijing, told the Global Times.
“Biden’s China policy will be built upon the Trump era. In fact, a fundamental change in China policy is probably the major political legacy left over from the Trump administration,” Da said.
There is some bipartisan consensus in the US that its policy of engagement with China needs an overhaul and that won’t change as Biden takes office, Da warned.
The question of what alternatives he will pursue remains unclear, Da noted. “However, competition does not mean decoupling,” Da said. “I don’t think the incoming Biden administration will agree on a full-scale decoupling with China.”
Will the trade war continue? Will punitive tariffs be scrapped?
An October report by Swiss bank Lombard Odier noted that a Biden win “reduces some trading uncertainty,” according to CNBC.
A Biden presidency could lead to a more rational approach to bilateral trade even if his team could prove as hawkish on China as Trump’s, the bank’s analyst was quoted as saying in the US media report.
But a Biden presidency should automatically spell a rapid reduction in tariffs on Chinese goods, the report speculated.
Xin of Fudan University predicted that the two governments may first reassess the first phase of the US-China trade agreement.
It can’t be ruled out that some adjustments will be made due to a changing situation and then the two sides can continue negotiations on the basis of phase one agreement.
"From the perspective of the US, the tariffs imposed by Trump are actually a good bargaining chip for Biden to continue negotiations, and he is unlikely to take the initiative to cancel them," Xin said.
Democratic-supporting labor groups have always been leaning toward protectionism compared to the Republican Party, the expert said.
Trump's position on trade issues is not necessarily a mainstream GOP view. Thus in those areas where the American people are hurting from trade frictions, such as daily necessities, the tariffs against China may be relaxed, but in other areas, long-term, difficult negotiations may be required.
Biden will immediately consult with America’s main allies before deciding on the future of US tariffs on China, seeking “collective leverage” to strengthen his hand against Beijing if elected president, Reuters reported in October, citing Biden top advisers.
The two Biden aides said the starting point would be to not repeat the mistakes of Trump when he slapped tariffs on European and Canadian goods as part of his “America First” agenda, antagonizing key US partners, according to the report.
Biden’s victory has revived the proposition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement introduced during the Obama administration. The agreement was never approved by a Republican-dominated US Congress, but was generally believed to pressure China.
After Trump took office, he officially announced in 2017 the US withdrawal from the TPP, but the remaining 11 countries went on to sign the Comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP) in March 2018.
Da believed it was possible, but difficult, for the US to rejoin the agreement.
CPTPP may face opposition from both parties in Congress, as joining a free trade arrangement is increasingly political incorrect in American society, Da argued.
“Returning to CPTPP also requires negotiations with existing member states, which technically takes time,” he said.
Is the danger rising or falling of a China-US clash in the Taiwan Straits?
Sun Taiyi, an assistant professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, the US, told the Global Times both Democrats and Republicans want to improve ties with Taiwan, a position shared by the White House and both houses of Congress.
Biden foreign policy adviser Anthony Blinken, a strong contender for secretary of state in the future administration, told media in May that he would adopt a "balanced strategy" to handle cross-Straits relations.
Such a strategy would not be as "pro-Taiwan" as Trump, but would help create a more secure and stable environment across the Straits, he said.
The US would not try to provoke China by crossing a "red line," which in turn would reduce the possibility of a Beijing military strike on Taiwan, Blinken noted.
"The good thing about Trump's Taiwan policy is that he won't risk a war with the mainland for Taiwan, but his recklessness and lack of understanding of the sensitivity of the Taiwan question may lead to unexpected risks," Xin said.
Biden should be more cautious and restrained about Taiwan, Xin believed.
While US efforts to sell arms to Taiwan and support the island will continue, Biden has a clear understanding of the dangers and red lines of the question, which would reduce the chances of a clash across the Taiwan Straits, he said.
Chinese experts predicted that the Biden administration would not go far beyond the traditional US policy on Taiwan and that it was highly unlikely to push for a clear strategy on the island during its tenure.
Will Biden back more sanctions against China over Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has quoted observers saying that Trump's previous moves to sanction Hong Kong officials and end the region's special trade status are unlikely to be reversed, even if Biden is elected president.
The report said that Biden would likely maintain a tough line on China on technology, economics and other fields, but was unlikely to use Hong Kong as a pawn. The Biden administration would prefer to return to traditional US-China competition and diplomacy.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, told the Global Times he did not expect Biden to add to existing Hong Kong sanctions.
“In the US, and China’s Hong Kong and Taiwan, there are some anti-China forces, such as Hong Kong separatists and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party authority, that bet on Trump and even create disinformation to attack Biden amid the election,” Jin told the Global Times.
“This will make the Biden administration reduce support for them, but the US won’t abandon these forces as they are still useful to the US.”
Will sanctions on Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and TikTok be eased or intensified?
An opinion piece published by the India Observer Research Foundation (ORF) on Friday said that if Biden's pre-election political rhetoric translates into post-election action on Chinese technology, the technological decoupling will intensify between the US and China.
Da suggested that after Biden takes office, the US crackdown on China’s core technology may not relax, but its scope might narrow.
Trump previously proposed a catch-all scope defined by “national security” and “technological competition”that was unrealistic, Da said.
"For example, for companies like TikTok and WeChat, the ban could be lifted as they do not have irreconcilable conflicts with the US,” Da said.
But in areas where Huawei was at the heart of an irreconcilable rivalry between China and the US, the situation was “more complicated,” Da said.
"I expect there will be some loosening of chip sales to Huawei in the US, but it will be very difficult to change the policy on 5G construction," he said.
Xin believed Biden would not follow Trump into US-China entanglements over non-critical technology.
The essential difference between Biden and Trump would be in core areas such as aerospace, quantum communication and artificial intelligence, Xin noted.
"It is inevitable that China and the US will partly decouple from each other in the high-tech sector," Xin said.
The victory of Biden, who “represents the pro-establishment camp of the US,” would make some voices within China harbor the illusion of a US policy reversal, Jin said, but China should “keep vigilant and stick to the right path of strengthening self-reliance.”
Such forces would “try to spread the opinion that China doesn’t need to improve its self-reliance capability anymore because Biden will fix US-China relations so China can still import high-tech products from the US,” he said.
That was plain wrong, Jin asserted.
“China should not put its destiny in the hands of a change with the US,” he said.
Will the US exhibit a ‘final madness’ in its China policy over the next 70 days?
There are 70 days to go until the inauguration of the new president on January 20. What risks will China and the US face during this period? Chinese analysts posited a possible “final madness” from Trump in his relations with China.
Da said Trump would logically use his last two months in office to solidify the policies of his presidency and prevent them being reversed by the Biden administration, including China policy.
Trump administration’s officials like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would likely use this last chance to undermine US-China relations, he said.
The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that tensions would likely increase between China and the US over Taiwan, the South China Sea and other issues ahead of the inauguration ceremony in January.
The Trump administration might step up efforts to confront China politically, economically and diplomatically. Trump would reduce the risk of a major crisis if he instead focused more closely on his domestic electoral battles and legal proceedings.
How should China respond? China's recent diplomatic approach toward the US has been “very clear,” Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times.
"We will not go toward a comprehensive confrontation with the US, but pressure will surely lead to countermeasures,” Li said.
Previous rounds of Chinese countermeasures against US sanctions have sent a clear signal to Washington that Beijing would decide its policy toward the US in its own interests and at its own pace, regardless of any US domestic agenda, he said.