China looms as Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenge Here’s where he stands
China looms as Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenge Here’s where he stands. As United States President-elect Joe Biden faces an ugly, potentially contested transition, foreign policy may be the last thing on his mind.
But in capitals around the world, foreign leaders are already clamoring for his attention, hoping to reset relationships and restore norms that shifted under President Donald Trump.
Nowhere will there be greater opportunity for a shift than in the US-China relationship, which has deteriorated to historic lows during Trump’s term in office. Over the past four years, both sides have slapped the other with trade tariffs, restricted access for tech companies, journalists and diplomats, shuttered consulates, and squared off militarily in the South China Sea.
Analysts in both countries are still debating whether Biden will embrace Trump’s more punitive policies towards China or move to reset relations between Washington and Beijing.
Even in Chinese state-run media, there are signs the ruling Communist Party is holding its breath, unsure of which direction the new administration will take.
“China should not harbor any illusions that Biden’s election will ease or bring a reversal to China-US relations, nor should it weaken its belief in improving bilateral ties. US competition with China and its guard against China will only intensify,” state-run tabloid Global Times said in an editorial Sunday.
As yet, no official policy statements on China have been released by the Biden transition team. Biden, though, is no foreign policy novice. During his almost five decades in national politics, Biden has repeatedly brushed up against China. As a senator, he played a role in China becoming a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Analysts are now looking back over past statements and more recent comments made on the campaign trail for insight into how Biden will approach what might be his most pressing foreign policy challenge.
Relations with Beijing
During the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president from 2009 to 2017, relations with Beijing were assigned a high degree of importance, stemming in part from China’s new status as the world’s second-largest economy.
Though China was gaining strength both economically and militarily, diplomacy during this period was guided for the most part by attempts at cooperation, rather than confrontation. Major disputes were mostly contained, and centered on security issues, such as China’s military buildup in the South China Sea and cyber espionage.
According to Obama, the relationship between two countries would shape the 21st century, and therefore stable relations were critical not only for the US, but for the world at large.
Biden traveled to Beijing on numerous occasions during efforts to gain Chinese support for a number of key Obama policies, including attempts to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
During one such trip in 2013, Biden met with President Xi Jinping, who referred to the then Vice President as an “old friend of China.” A scheduled 45-minute private talk between the two leaders ran for two hours.
In public remarks, Biden described relations in optimistic terms. “If we get this relationship right with a genuine new model, the possibilities are limitless.”
But despite accusations from the Trump campaign that Biden was too close to China, there is evidence that his views have shifted in recent years in line with the changing mood in Washington, where Beijing is increasingly viewed not as America’s potential partner, but as its primary rival.
During the Democratic primaries in February, Biden referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug,” and said that Beijing had to “play by the rules.” A Biden campaign ad in June accused Trump of getting “played” by China.
The renewed focus on China is evident in the Democratic Party platform document, which was released in August 2020. During the last presidential campaign in 2016 the document made only seven references to China. This year’s version had more than 22.
“Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government,” the 2020 platform said.