President Donald Trump will go down in US history as the president who most openly challenged China in terms of trade wars, technological competition and geopolitics. China has suffered much from the measures that Trump has taken – but at least it was an open game.
With the possible arrival of Joe Biden and his team, US-China relations will certainly not improve. On the contrary, since Biden’s team will act in many ways using soft power and smart power, the situation risks turning from open competition into international unipolar blackmail against China.
Background: Dragging China into a globalist orbit
Trump’s coming to power – although he disappointed and embarrassed many people – was still a chance to help shape a multipolar world. Prior to that, US policy towards China was an attempt to smoothly drag Beijing into a neoliberal globalist system with transnational capitalism.
Like many Democrats and Republicans in the 1990s and early 2000s, Biden argued that China’s integration into the global trading system would force Beijing to play by international rules for the benefit of American workers. In 2000, he voted to allow China to have normal trade relations, which paved the way for China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and deepening global economic ties.
But something obviously went wrong. China’s strong domestic political system and an organized approach to government support for Chinese companies, as well as flexible foreign diplomacy, has made it the strongest economically and geopolitically, and now it is the strongest competitor for the United States.
Trump was simply not afraid to admit this fact and openly called China his main competitor.
Two decades later, Biden also admits that China has gone its own way and now his rhetoric is changing: he says the US should be “tough with China,” and rudely called Chinese leader Xi Jinping “thug”.
Not a soft approach
Biden’s course coincides with an increasingly obvious two-party consensus among members of Congress that excessively warm relations with China have encouraged him to become their technological competitor, which now threatens US unipolar leadership.
“The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Biden promises Americans he will stimulate the domestic economy and local professionals to become competitive. The initiative is right, but will Biden really focus so much on domestic policy when his whole team has made it clear that he will follow a predominantly interventionist foreign policy and will create all the conditions to undermine China’s plans?
Direct competition VS the liberal ecosystem
Trump proceeded from international trade as a big business, where there are no friends or enemies, but trade competitors.
“That would mark a departure from Trump, who picked trade fights with friends and foes alike, making it harder to enlist allies’ help in confronting Chinese trade practices”, the Washington Post notes.
Biden, on the other hand, has a fundamentally different approach: a globalist strategy to be friends with the opponent and then, using liberal concepts of “human rights”, to set the maximum number of players against them. This is an approach, in fact, much more aggressive in the future than Trump’s open challenge.
The Biden administration will soon engage in forming an alliance with an anti-Chinese consensus.
This course was announced by Joe Biden himself. “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.”
That is why, in his words, the priority will be “protecting and liberal democratic values”. Instead of competing fairly one-on-one, the US will put pressure on China through its international network.
One approach could be to support the UK’s initiative to create a new alliance of 10 democracies, or D-10, to help promote Western technologies, including for 5G telecommunication networks – UK, US, Italy, Germany, France, Japan and Canada – plus Australia, South Korea and India.
However, Chinese analysts are skeptical that allies will yield better results, given that allies like Germany are heavily dependent on exports to China and seem reluctant to confront Beijing.
To get more support from Europeans, the Biden administration may also have to make significant concessions – for example, to deal with some of their complaints against American technology companies, which European officials have accused of violating privacy and antitrust laws.
“Biden’s embrace of multilateralism and coordination with allies – rather than engaging in one-on-one confrontations with Beijing – is likely to enhance US effectiveness”. – Dr. Walter C. Ladwig III, associate fellow with the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said.
“There will also be an attempt to create space for selective bilateral cooperation with Beijing on specific issues like climate or health where necessary. Unlike in the Obama years, however, the US under Biden is unlikely to sidestep contentious issues simply to keep avenues of cooperation open.”
Techno-democracies VS techno-autocracies
Biden’s chief foreign policy advisor, Antony Blinken, supported this idea of building an international anti-Chinese consensus in September.
According to him, the world today is divided by the fault line between techno-democracies and techno-autocracies. Of course, by the former he means the US and its allies, by the latter he means China and other illiberal governments.
Blinken emphasized that the United States must work with its allies to establish a common policy on export controls, investment restrictions and technical standards to ensure “an ecosystem that protects and promotes liberal democratic values”.
“And techno-democracies have to do a much better job in working together, thinking together, acting together to try to set the standard.”
In last year’s Foreign Affairs magazine article, Jake Sullivan, another key member of Biden’s team and a former Obama administration official, invited like-minded countries to consider joining forces to establish trade rules on issues that he said were not currently being considered by the World Trade Organization, such as state-owned enterprises.
Such a trade group could be “layered over the WTO system, ” wrote Sullivan
He emphasized that western countries have long complained that Chinese state companies have received unfair state support which allows them to flood the market with cheap goods.
Who would seem to be stopping these countries from introducing such an effective system at home? Sullivan does not answer that question, and instead offers a false alternative: either to force China to comply with US rules or to fall out of cooperation with more than half of the world economy.
This approach can well be called blackmail.
Trade relations: soft pressure
Under the Phase 1 agreement signed this year, China agreed to increase purchases of American goods and services by at least $200 billion. At that time, China had largely met its commitment to open up its markets to American companies.
This deal did not change, however, tariff restrictions were imposed: 25% of the tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese manufactured goods and components used by US manufacturers, as well as China’s response fee of over $100 billion in US goods.
Biden said he would not kill the first phase trade deal with China immediately.
Biden will also not yet take steps to eliminate tariffs on Chinese exports, according to the American media.
“I’m not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs. I’m not going to prejudice my options, ” Biden said.
Biden said he would pursue policies aimed at so-called “abusive practices” in China, such as “theft of intellectual property, dumping of products, illegal corporate subsidies” and forcing “technology transfer” from American companies to Chinese partners.
At the same time, Biden, who criticized Trump, immediately added that priority would be given to domestic politics – and even took the slogan of the America First tramp. “I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first, ” he said.
As for the fate of Huawei, TikTok and Wechat applications, it is still difficult to predict developments. Biden is expected to maintain a tight line on most issues, including export restrictions on Huawei.
The Trump administration banned exports of US chips and other technologies to Huawei in May 2019, hoping to undermine its ability to produce equipment for 5G mobile networks. Since then, it has tightened the rules several times, most recently banning chip factories anywhere in the world from supplying Huawei if they use American production equipment or chip design software.
The American semiconductor industry panicked, saying that without preparation such a step would harm the important American industry. The Trump administration then slightly relaxed the measures and issued several licences authorising such sales of certain types of chips. The Biden administration, while actively criticising Trump, will in fact continue to apply the same pressure and may be open to a little more relaxation for a number of chips.
In September Biden mentioned TikTok during the campaign, saying it was a matter of real concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people, particularly in the United States. Therefore, on the issue of TikTok, Biden is likely to act on the basis of circumstances, regulating the level of pressure on China.
The Biden administration will be very rigid in ideological and geopolitical terms. The neoliberal globalist character of the heirs to the Barack Obama administration will be fully revealed.
On the issue of Hong Kong, where protests are being fed and sponsored by the US, Washington’s position will be even tougher in view of the Democrats’ traditional focus on “human rights”. This will be a strong lever of pressure on China. The US will fuel and sponsor separatist sentiment under the guise of supporting the “oppressed people”, “human rights” and the need for “liberal measures” in the region.
“The extraordinary bravery shown by hundreds of thousands in Hong Kong, marching for the civil liberties & autonomy promised by China is inspiring. And the world is watching. All of us must stand in support of democratic principles and freedom. ” Biden tweeted in June 2019.
The relationship between Biden and Hong Kong will be dictated by two factors: the degree of pressure exerted by his administration on China and how deeply the US influence networks in Hong Kong will be integrated. Although Trump’s confrontation seemed tough, Biden’s focus on human rights will undoubtedly complicate the situation for China.
As part of this anti-Chinese methodology, the US is likely to demand an exemption from punishment for pro-Western activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam. They pleaded guilty to rioting in Hong Kong, and will be imprisoned for several months.
Blinken previously described China’s actions in Hong Kong as “repression” against the rights of its people and democracy in a former British colony. Rhetoric with an emphasis on China’s antidemocratism will be reinforced.
The United States under Obama and Trump spent a lot of time in the military deterrence of China. The latest statement by the Naval Secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite, is fully in line with this course: the US Navy “will reconstitute the 1st Fleet” , which operated from January 1947 to 1 February 1973 in the western Pacific Ocean. It will assign “it primary responsibility for the Indo and South Asian region as an expeditionary fleet”.
Biden is predicted to give new impetus to relations with a number of Southeast Asian countries to confront the more powerful China in the fight for the disputed South China Sea.
Obama has been campaigning what has been described as “Pivot to East Asia” since 2011, when the region became a particularly important economic interest for the US. He has tried to strengthen military agreements with Asia-Pacific treaty allies and promoted a free trade agreement as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Supporters of this concept from the Obama administration now form the backbone of Biden’s foreign policy team. China hawks are among them.
As early as July, Michele Flournoy, the main contender for the post of US Secretary of Defence, wrote that the US will “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”
According to the Financial Times “Joe Biden considers appointing a White House tsar for Asia” who will focus on confronting China.
Washington sees many countries in Southeast Asia as allies that could put pressure on China if necessary.
Biden has already started negotiations with some politicians – for example, he held talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, during which they discussed a joint commitment to strengthen the US-Japanese alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
At the same time Blinken is actively involving other players in the anti-Chinese game: in his opinion, India should be a key partner in attracting China from a position of strength.
“We have a common challenge which is to deal with an increasingly assertive China across the board, including its aggression toward India”, he said.
Thus, under Baiden, escalation in the South China Sea is a reality with which countries have to deal. The US will conduct provocative FONOP operations in the South China Sea, and the Chinese will react – regardless of who the US president is.
Beijing is already reacting: it is strengthening alternative economic partnerships to avoid being bullied under American leadership. For example, China has signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a pan-Asian trade pact that includes Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam, and will help strengthen China’s image as the dominant economic power in the region.
The battle for the region will therefore be fierce.
The Biden administration is preparing for talks with separatist Taiwan, which will certainly cause indignation in Beijing. Experts note that the US under Biden will not make concessions in Taiwan.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has increased arms sales to Taiwan and intensified diplomatic cooperation with the region, knowing very well that this is traditionally a Chinese zone of influence. US Navy passages through the Strait of Taiwan, which serve as a warning to China, became regular rather than occasional since 2018. In 2020, two members of the Taiwanese Cabinet also visited Taiwan, which caused resentment in Beijing.
In November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “Taiwan is not a part of China.”
China has long been opposed to Washington’s strong support for the island government, a policy that has contributed to the deterioration of Sino-US relations.
Biden made it clear that he would support separatist tendencies in Taiwan.
“We’re a Pacific power, and we’ll stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Asia-Pacific region, ” Biden wrote for the Chinese-language World Journal newspaper.
“That includes deepening our ties with Taiwan.”
Biden tweeted in January that “the United States should continue strengthening our ties with Taiwan and other like-minded democracies. ” (congratulating Tsai Ing-wen, who won the reelection in January).
Uyghurs and Xinjiang
Included in the same neoliberal thinking, the alleged “repression of the Uyghurs” will be part of Biden’s anti-Chinese campaign. His team stated the day before that the Chinese government’s actions against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are “genocide” and that Joe Biden is opposing it.
“The unspeakable oppression that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms. If the Trump administration does indeed choose to call this out for what it is, as Joe Biden already did, the pressing question is what will Donald Trump do to take action. He must also apologize for condoning this horrifying treatment of Uyghurs,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
Trump did give priority to pragmatism in the matter: he postponed imposing sanctions on Chinese officials related to the situation in Xinjiang because it would have prevented him from trading with China.
In Biden’s case, it is the “human rights” issue that will be the principal cover. This is necessary to prevent China from establishing relations with Islamic countries such as Turkey.
With regard to Tibet, it is not yet clear what the administration will do, but obviously it will also use it as an anti-Chinese lever.
The Dalai Lama has officially congratulated Biden on his election victory.
“I would like to thank you for your support for the Tibetan people, during your time in Congress and the previous administration, as well as for your statement in September this year. It has been the Tibetan people’s good fortune to have received the friendship and encouragement of the American people”.
If Trump’s actions against China were dictated by an attempt at a pragmatic rigid approach – yes, often chaotic and inconsistent – then at least this was compensated for by an attempt to negotiate trade terms favourable to the US. That is, Trump created great problems for China, but it was at least dictated by a policy of protectionism.
Under Biden, the emphasis will not only be on real problems, but also on operating with abstract neoliberal concepts of ‘human rights’, ‘freedom of speech’, etc. in difficult regions. The Biden administration will feed separatist sentiment to the maximum extent possible, as well as tune other countries against China.
That is, while Trump openly confronted, Biden will press for more underhanded globalist methods in the interests of a unipolar world where the US is the undisputed hegemon.