For much of the last 50 years, the United States and the People’s Republic of China have made steady progress in establishing a stable relationship. But ever since Donald Trump took office in 2017, US-China relations have deteriorated sharply. His confrontational policies and “America First” approach only weakened key alliances in Europe and Asia. They failed to slow down China’s increasingly hegemonic aspirations. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic, the US-China trade war, and the Hong Kong protests have further strained tensions over the past few years. As Joe Biden begins his term as president, it raises the question: How will his administration tackle the deepening US-China crisis and prevent the “New Cold War”?
Joe Biden successfully ran his campaign on the promise of beating the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding the Affordable Care Act, increasing taxes for the wealthy, fighting climate change, and reviving the economy through his “Build Back Better” recovery plan. In terms of foreign policy, Biden has publicly reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to supporting its NATO allies and made it clear that he will not be “soft” on China. He will, however, cooperate with China in converging interests, including climate change, global health security, and non-proliferation. However, it is important to note Biden’s emphasis that China and foreign policy will not be his administration’s top priority.
Biden refers to the flagship of his China policy as: “Summit for Democracy”, a multilateral front of allied nations challenging China. He designed it to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World”, and to intentionally exclude Xi Jinping and other authoritarian leaders. Yet, determining invitees will be difficult, especially concerning allies who recently demonstrated anti-democratic trends; although, setting high admission bars will only alienate partners.
For Biden’s foreign policy to succeed, he will need to combine Trump’s antagonistic approach with a level of friendly engagement. He cannot simply ignore China– the Chinese government is possibly the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II. With its relative economic boom amidst the pandemic, China is now set to overtake America as the world’s largest economy by 2028. Therefore, Biden will need to know when to adopt a tough stance on China and when to pursue mutually beneficial cooperation on global issues. Perhaps the biggest challenge to his plan will be convincing potential partners to ally with the US after years of unilateralism under Trump. Why ally with the US instead of the soon-to-be largest economy when there is a possibility of Trump (or someone with similar policies) regaining the presidency in 2024?
Given the increasingly negative views Americans have on China, it is difficult to imagine the new administration easing up on issues concerning technology and trade. After all, there is a bipartisan consensus between Democrats and Republicans for the US to remain tough on China (according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center).
By now, I’ve learnt to accept the hard reality that a major improvement in their relationship is nearly impossible, as human rights violations and accusations of intellectual property theft continue to cause the two countries to drift further apart. If Biden’s China policy is successful, China’s aggressions and assaults on democracy will most likely be contained. If he fails, China will dominate the next decade as the world’s leading superpower, hence, Biden’s careful balancing of competition and cooperation through multilateralism is one of the best ways to approach the US-China crisis.