Stabilising US–China relations after Trump
26 Nov 2020|

Devising an effective strategy to compete, cooperate and coexist with China will be one of US President-elect Joe Biden’s toughest foreign policy challenges. And over the next two months, Sino-American relations are almost certain to get worse.

On the eve of the election, President Donald Trump openly blamed China for the Covid-19 pandemic that was going to doom his second term and made thinly veiled threats. Now that he is about to exit the White House, Trump will likely approve more punitive measures to vent his anger and to bind the hands of Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Even if China refrains from responding in kind to Trump’s parting shots, some of which may be too painful or humiliating for it to swallow, the US–China relationship that Biden inherits could be damaged beyond repair.

Given the current strong antipathy towards China among much of the US political establishment and the public alike, Biden is unlikely to change the fundamental tenets of Trump’s China policy. China will remain America’s foremost geopolitical adversary, and containing its rise will be the organising principle of US foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

But the Biden administration’s China policy will also differ substantially from Trump’s zero-sum ‘America first’ approach. Biden’s strategic calculation is that the Sino-American conflict will be a decades-long marathon whose outcome will depend first and foremost on whether the United States can sustain and strengthen its competitive advantages: economic dynamism, technological innovation and ideological appeal.

Besides rallying traditional US allies, therefore, Biden will focus on strengthening America at home by addressing its dilapidated infrastructure, inadequate base of human capital, and underfunded research and development. Whereas the Trump administration sees no room for cooperation with China, the Biden administration will regard mutually beneficial collaboration on issues such as climate change, pandemics and nuclear non-proliferation as both desirable and essential.

Biden’s focus on fashioning a more nuanced and sustainable long-term China strategy will bring about an immediate and welcome pause in the Sino-American cold war. It is also in his short-term political interest to de-escalate or even end Trump’s trade war, because the US economy needs all the help it can get to climb out of its pandemic-induced slump.

Ironically, although China’s leaders have likewise concluded that they are now locked in an open-ended conflict with the US, de-escalating bilateral tensions is in their short-term political interest too. China apparently believes that time is on its side, because its economy will continue to grow faster than America’s in the coming decade, gradually shifting the overall balance of power in its favour. For now, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s main priority is to avoid a further escalation of tensions with the US while his country is in a position of relative weakness.

Although Biden and Xi’s short-term interests might be aligned, achieving a comprehensive reduction in US–China tensions will require both of them to invest a modest amount of political capital and demonstrate their willingness to stabilise bilateral ties.

The lowest-hanging fruit relates to culture. China should readmit the American journalists it expelled earlier this year, a step taken to retaliate against US restrictions on Chinese journalists. China should further commit to giving American reporters longer-term visas and greater freedom to work inside the country, with the US reciprocating by rescinding the curbs it placed on state-owned Chinese news organisations.

Reopening consulates would be another positive step. In late July, the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, citing unspecified economic espionage activities. In response, China shuttered the American consulate in Chengdu. Such tit-for-tat tactics needlessly intensified mutual antagonism. Rectifying this mistake and reversing these decisions would benefit both countries.

Next, the US and China should underscore their readiness to cooperate on climate change. China’s top climate negotiator and the new US climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, should arrange a meeting to reaffirm each country’s commitment to the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement, and to explore potential joint initiatives to inject new momentum into global efforts to combat climate change.

A thornier issue is Taiwan, which has re-emerged as a potential Sino-American military flashpoint. China will undoubtedly press Biden to reaffirm America’s adherence to the ‘one China’ policy, but the Biden administration should also demand that China tone down its threats against Taiwan, and reiterate its preference for a peaceful resolution of the island’s status. With appropriately choreographed diplomacy, a realistic compromise could result in lower tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

But the biggest obstacle to a more stable US–China relationship is the trade war. In January, the two countries concluded a ‘phase one’ agreement that temporarily paused, but did not end, the worst trade conflict in recent memory. If Trump does not abrogate the deal before he leaves office, Biden and Xi should immediately restart talks to avert a looming catastrophe—namely, the impossibility of China meeting the Trump administration’s demand that it purchase an additional US$200 billion worth of American goods and services over two years. A realistic solution may require a more comprehensive phase two agreement that extends the timeframe for China to fulfil its purchase commitment and pledge structural reforms that were left out of the phase one deal.

This modest roadmap may not alter the trajectory of the Sino-American great-power conflict. But by demonstrating their willingness to cooperate despite their fundamental differences, Biden and Xi can reassure the international community that cooler heads have prevailed in both countries.