[Analytics] How Biden will shape the US–China relationship

This file photo shows Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shaking hands with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 4 December, 2013. (AFP Photo). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The downward spiral in US–China relations during the Trump administration prompted many to assert that the United States and China were entering a ‘new Cold War’, The Australian National University reported.

This framing was partly the result of the Trump administration’s confrontational stance on China, and the tendency of senior officials such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cast the relationship as a fundamental competition between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism.

This adversarial view of US–China relations always extended far beyond the Trump administration, and has now taken firm hold — albeit with some notable exceptions — within much of Washington’s political, scholarly, and think tank communities.

The arrival of the Joe Biden administration offers the chance to pause and examine the now widespread view that the United States has no choice but to compete with an adversarial China.

We are already starting to see subtle signs that the Biden administration sees the US–China relationship in less binary terms than that of its predecessor. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described the relationship as a ‘complicated one’, containing a mix of ‘adversarial’, ‘competitive’, and ‘cooperative’ dimensions. And Biden’s special climate change envoy John Kerry has made clear that cooperation with China on climate change will be one of his central goals.

Yet while the Biden administration offers the possibility of a reset in US–China relations, powerful structural factors within the United States make it likely that zero-sum competition will continue to dominate its approach to China.

As Dan Slater argues in our lead essay this week, entrenched political polarisation within the United States will occupy the Biden administration’s attention, with unintended consequences for US–China relations. Biden’s determination to curb America’s domestic polarisation could, inadvertently, lead to spiralling polarisation in relations with China. ‘In a time when Democrats and Republicans agree on virtually nothing, they are increasingly unanimous on the China threat. A shared enemy abroad can serve as a soothing balm for polarisation at home’, Slater suggests.

While framing the US–China relationship in adversarial terms may be a tempting fix for US domestic polarisation, it will limit US influence particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where countries do not view the US–China relationship in such zero-sum terms. In their view, a ‘win’ for China does not automatically translate into a ‘loss’ for the United States. Countries in the region want the United States to remain engaged in Asia, and are dismayed by the external effects of US domestic rupture. But they have no desire to follow the United States in demonising China because they must find ways to live alongside China, a country with which they are geographically, historically and economically intertwined. Forcing countries to choose sides in a US–China competition ignores ‘the needs and interests of even major players in Northeast and Southeast Asia’, Slater argues.

Biden’s determination to curb America’s domestic polarisation will be further exacerbated by the profound domestic economic challenges his administration now faces. As Sourabh Gupta argues, the combination of globalisation and digitisation mean that ‘between a quarter and a third of American prime-age males might be out of work by the mid-century, a predicament unseen since the Great Depression and perhaps even since the end of the Reconstruction era after the American civil war in the late 19th century’. This economic predicament is particularly felt in America’s blue-collar, rust belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where, the combination of Biden’s ‘razor-thin margin of victory’ and the ‘Democrats’ natural electoral college disadvantage’ means that ‘the blue-collar vote will be on the ballot again in 2024’, Gupta argues.

The combination of these political and economic forces will incentivise those who demonise China as the source of America’s economic woes and will make it politically difficult for the Biden administration to take policy positions that look ‘soft on China’.

Worryingly for those who hope that the change of administration will herald a shift in US–China relations and US global standing more generally, the Biden administration has already signaled a similar tendency to divide the world into ‘clubs’ of democratic and authoritarian countries. The idea of a ‘democracy summit’ to solve the world’s major global governance challenges may play well in certain Western capitals, but it ignores the fact that challenges ‘such as climate change, developing country debt, and nuclear proliferation require democracies and authoritarian governments to work together’, as David Dollar and Ryan Hass have recently noted.

Moreover, such framing sidelines the United States globally, and demonstrates a profound failure to understand the sources of China’s appeal in much of the developing, non-democratic world. Some of that appeal lies in China’s willingness to offer resources to developing countries that are typically unavailable elsewhere. Just as importantly, though, China offers an attractive model of rapid economic development, a shared identity as a country still grappling with developing country challenges, and a vision of global governance that champions a place at the table for countries that have been traditionally overlooked by the Western-led international order.

Consumed by domestic polarisation and the economic downturn, the Biden administration will find it exceedingly difficult to adopt the kinds of international trade, development and foreign policies that would be needed to forge new US leadership beyond a narrow club of Western democracies. Biden is unlikely to be able to marshal the political support at home to join major multilateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and ‘will lack the deep pockets to marshal a coalition and mount a sustained challenge to Beijing’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Asia and Africa,’ Gupta argues.

At this moment in US history, domestic political and economic factors will ultimately determine whether the Biden administration can recast the US–China relationship and restore United States’ global standing.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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