Biden to continue hard line against China

November 16, 2020 08:19
US President-Elect Joe Biden has witnessed the entire history of diplomatic relations with China since their establishment. Photo: Reuters

When he becomes president in January, Joe Biden will likely continue the hard line of Donald Trump towards China – but within the rules and regulations of traditional diplomacy.

He will treat China as a competitor and demand the same concessions as Trump on opening the market and ending forced technology transfers and subsidies to state companies. He will continue the Hong Kong policies of his predecessor.

Biden’s cv makes him the opposite of Trump.

No president in history has more experience in Washington than Biden, who becomes 78 on November 20. In January 1973, he entered the U.S. Senate, as Senator from Delaware, and has witnessed the entire history of diplomatic relations with China since their establishment in 1979. He supported the Taiwan Relations Act. He served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations for nearly four years during the 2000s. When Xi Jinping visited the U.S. just before he ascended to power, Biden was his host. He was vice-president to Barack Obama from 2008 to 2016.

Unlike Trump, Biden respects experience and expertise and will choose as advisers on China those with specialist knowledge. Trump has left vacant for months, and even years, Assistant Secretaries, key ambassadorships and other senior positions without nominations for Senate confirmation.

Biden will fill these posts with qualified people and return diplomacy to its traditional track. For Beijing, that means regular meetings on trade, finance, the military and other issues. That means predictability – Biden and his team will announce their policies and implement them, and will not impose tariffs after a tweet at three in the morning.

It also means that, on China, Biden will consult with traditional allies – Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Britain, the European Union and Taiwan and work toward a joint policy with them.

During the four years of the Trump presidency, the consensus in Washington has moved strongly against China and relations have fallen to their lowest point since 1979. Biden will continue the Trump policies on Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, Tibet and China’s religious and human rights situation. While the Democrats and the Republicans diverge strongly on domestic issues, they have a large measure of agreement on China policy; this will make it easier for Biden to implement.

On trade, he will not suddenly impose tariffs and sanctions on Chinese exports as Trump did. “Trade is one of the last threads linking the two sides,” said the China Daily in an editorial on November 9. “Neither Beijing nor Washington has ventured to scrap the hard-earned so-called phase one deal they negotiated. If there is to be a resetting of relations, the trade deal is clearly the point to start from.”

A front-runner for the post of U.S. Trade Representative is Michael R. Wessel, head of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Like Biden, he has spent his professional career in Washington and is a specialist in tax and trade policy.

Nasim Fussell, former Republican trade counsel at the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, said that Biden was not going to be quick to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods. In the election, he had strong support from trade unions; they want protection for their industries, including steel and aluminium.

Advisers to Biden have said that he will consult with U.S. allies before deciding on the future of tariffs on Chinese goods. In exchange, he will make the same demands as Trump – reducing large subsidies to state firms, ending policies that foreign firms transfer technology to Chinese partners and opening China’s market for digital services to U.S. firms. The firms in this sector donated generously to Biden’s election campaign. He will also retain the measures against Huawei and other Chinese hi-tech companies.

Biden will not leave the World Trade Organisation (WTO) but instead work from inside to reform it. But he is unlikely to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal involving 12 countries negotiated by President Obama. Trump abandoned it in 2017.

In all this, there is not much positive for Beijing. It can expect the same pressure as during the Trump years.

The good news for Beijing, however, is that Biden has far more pressing issues on his plate – the world’s worst COVD-19 pandemic, a slowing economy and ballooning budget deficit, and rebuilding American infrastructure. The China file is in his inbox – but a long way down.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.