What does a Biden presidency mean for China?
The FT's global China editor James Kynge and US national editor Edward Luce discuss how the relationship between the world's two superpowers will change once Joe Biden takes over as US president
Produced by Tom Griggs, graphics by Russell Birkett, images from Getty, Dreamstime, Shuttershock and AFP
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Biden's going to have a fairly conventional view of America's predominance in the world.
China's been able to gain a lot of ground internationally by playing off the US against Europe.
One of the most important differences between Biden and Trump is Biden does believe in diplomacy.
China has shown itself to be highly pragmatic in terms of its foreign relations with the US.
The US election was a month ago. The legal challenges are all over, bar the tweeting, so a presidential transition is now fully underway. For president-elect Biden, how he manages the relationship with China is likely to shape his presidency and a big part of how the world works.
Ed, you've written a lot about the impact the Trump presidency has had on the US's standing in the world, and that his reframing of the west's attitude towards China is regarded, in the US, as one of his biggest achievements. So what would you say are the key topics that are going to define the US-China relationship in the next four years?
So the most surprising thing, I think, is just the element of continuity here. As you say, Trump has kind of branded a new bipartisan attitude towards China, which sees it not as a potential partner any longer, but which sees it as a threat, a strategic rival, and that includes Democrats. There was, in my view, less Sinophobia in the presidential election than you might have expected, but there was still quite a lot, and it pushed Biden quite sharply to the right in terms of where he used to be as vice-president, a much more hawkish voice on China.
So I would expect the Biden administration to pick up from Trump in terms of the hawkishness on trade and on the deficit and on intellectual property. I would expect there to be considerable attempt to shore up America's military presence in the region, to continue that arms race, if you like, with China, but also - and here's the real departure from Trump - to approach China with allies, with partners, not through an 'America First' prism, but through multilateral means.
One of the most important differences between Biden and Trump is Biden does believe in diplomacy. He does believe in working with allies. He does believe in what I call the "constant gardening" of talking to people and working in concert with them. And he believes in the multilateral system, and, this means a couple of things.
First, that he's going to try and work with Europe, and with America's allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region to develop a common approach to China on a range of issues. But he's also going to, perhaps a bit more controversially, and really in stark contrast to Trump, and even to Obama, is to set up a conference of democracies. In other words, a kind of ideological sort of rivalry to China's authoritarian model, a conscious sort of ideological opposition there that has been lacking in US foreign policy, at least since the Iraq war.
Now, this common approach, whether it's a la carte minilateralism with allies who want to join in, or more conventional multilateralism, presumably, James, is not something that Xi Jinping and the China leadership wants to see.
It's really China's worst nightmare. For the last 40 years of China's phase of reform and opening up to the outside world, China's been able to gain a lot of ground internationally by playing off the US against Europe and really winning some concessions in the process. If the vision of the future is the US and Europe working together to constrain China in some way, that really closes off a lot of doors to the Chinese leadership.
But I think there is a valid question as to whether or not the US and the EU can actually pull this off. There's an awful lot of co-ordination that would be required to actually achieve this type of constraining attitude towards China, and I think if we look at the cards that China has in its hand, you quickly see how difficult it could be. Obviously the main one is commerce and trade.
China's the biggest trading country in the world, has a huge surplus with the US, has a big surplus with the EU. There are all kinds of trade levers and other commercial levers that the Chinese can pull to frustrate and prevent the US and the EU working together against China.
Biden will have the same sort of overall view that the commercial relationship with China is of transcending importance that Trump has, but it will be a very different, very different approach to how he handles it. Trump saw it as in very much 20th-century terms, as where the bilateral trade deficit was distributed on aluminium or steel or whatever it might have been, or soybeans.
Biden won't be obsessed with that. His team are looking more at the strategic investment-driven high-tech stuff, particularly in AI and 5G, and the strategic advantages, as well as the commercial advantages, that China is gaining on the United States. And I don't think they see the Trump administration as having really addressed any of that. So they will share one thing, which is China is a grand commercial strategic threat, but at that point, tactically, they - Biden and Trump are in different universes.
From a Chinese perspective, they look at the trade war that Trump launched in 2018, and I think they feel that it hasn't gone that badly. For instance, in the last few months, the Chinese trade surplus with the US has been rising very sharply indeed. I think a lot of observers in this part of the world, when they think about the trade war, they think that China may have won.
But the points that you mention, the sanctions by the US government on key Chinese technologies, particularly in areas such as artificial intelligence and 5G telecoms, and sanctions directed at particular Chinese companies such as Huawei, I think in those areas China remains very exposed, and those sanctions have been very painful for particular Chinese companies. So while the leadership in Beijing would be wanting those to be eased or lifted, I think they're realistic in knowing that progress on that front is pretty unlikely.
But beyond trade and this type of commercial relationship, Ed, let me ask you, how do you see a President Biden dealing with the geostrategic rivalry that's come to characterise the US-China relationship?
The interesting thing, James, is that Biden's going to have a fairly conventional view of America's predominance in the world and the need to maintain its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. So there'll still be patrols of US naval - freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. There will still be a strong treaty alliance with Japan. There will still be military exercises, probably more emphasised with the quad of the US, Japan, Australia, and India. It'll be referred to as Indo-Pacific.
So that conventional role that America has always had, and which Obama stepped up with a pivot to Asia, Biden will pick up on, update, and strengthen. There's not going to be any radical departure there from the standard American administration. Very radical departure, though, from Trump because there will be strong emphasis on Hong Kong's freedoms, or diminishing freedoms on the Xinjiang situation. They'll probably meet the Dalai Lama at some point, so that that's something that China will not like, and with which it will be very familiar.
On the other hand, Biden wants to work with China. He wants to reach out and develop common positions on issues like climate change. Without China, very little can be accomplished. With China, you can get dramatic global progress, and the appointment of John Kerry as Biden's climate envoy is a signal that Biden doesn't just want rivalry with China, he also wants friendship. You could call it a sort of 'frenemy' situation.
So my question to you, James, is, can China do this sort of walking and chewing gum of being a rival and a co-operator at the same time? Would it... will that work?
Yes, I think walking and chewing gum for China is situation normal in international relations. I mean, I think for probably a decade or more before the Trump presidency began, China became used to balancing rivalry on the one hand and co-operation with the US on the other. So I really don't think that this will be a stretch.
Of course, when the US criticises China on human rights that will annoy Beijing and there will be some kind of a backlash. Of course there'll be other irritations, many other irritations in the relationship, but China has shown itself to be highly pragmatic in terms of its foreign relations with the US.
However, this time around I think there is one area that is significantly different from pre-the Trump presidency, and that is the situation and the tensions around Taiwan. Taiwan is regarded by China as an inalienable part of its territory, but more and more is showing self-determination under the encouragement of the US. If tensions over Taiwan start to really spiral then we are genuinely in new territory, and very scary territory, I think, for the whole region and for the rest of the world.