Biden’s Policy on China: Expectations versus Reality

(Photo: Al Jazeera)

By Zara Berry – Contributor

The election of Joe Biden brought a flurry of predictions of what his policies would be and particularly what direction he would take US foreign policy in after the major changes made by his predecessor. One of the main questions asked was how he would deal with China, the new second superpower. His predecessors had taken wildly different approaches to this issue; Obama was relatively friendly towards the rising power, while Trump was openly combative and even started a trade war with China. It was widely predicted that Biden would seek a middle ground between these two approaches, seeking to work with China on key global issues such as climate change, but balancing this with attempts to contain China’s attempts to increase its power. However, his actual policies so far have not exactly followed this prediction, but the general schema is the same, although it must be mentioned that we are less than six months into his term so his policies may not yet be fully developed or implemented.

While Biden was vice-president, he was very much involved in the conciliatory strategy displayed by the Obama administration. He met Xi Jinping and generally displayed a quite open attitude to China. That is has changed. A new more hawkish and competitive consensus has gripped Washington, it is a bipartisan one and views China not as a prospective ally but as a rival. This new perception of China is perhaps one of the most significant legacies of Donald Trump. Based on this most pundits predicted a shift to greater hostility from Biden, but one that uses different, more subtle tactics compared to Trump’s very public confrontational strategy. For example, many predicted that Biden would seek to utilise America’s allies to a much greater extent. The Quad (comprising of America, India, Australia, and Japan) was held up as a very likely candidate for this increased emphasis on allies. This exercise of soft power and influence was held up as a likely path as it fulfils the main tenet of current thinking on China in the US, containing China, by creating a web of strong allies to restrict China while avoiding direct confrontation which could escalate and could have very severe consequences for the US and China. Another likely path for the Biden administration was thought to be seeking to work with China on global issues, particularly climate change. This has already been demonstrated to be a key issue for Biden, with him appointing a special climate envoy – John Kerry. As China is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world it is essential to work with it in regard to global climate policy, therefore this was a popular prediction. Overall though the general consensus was that in regard to China the Biden administration would seek to work with them on some issues, but that the world could expect a frostier, more competition-oriented approach from the Biden administration, as demonstrated by the views expressed by Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan before their appointments as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. However, it was also widely agreed that more emphasis would be placed on cultivating allies rather than direct competition.

In practice, Biden has actually remained remarkably close to these expectations, although there are some differences. On the point of working with them on global issues he has not emphasised this as much as could have been expected. While he has hosted a global climate summit, and talks have taken place between John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, which has led to little substantive improvement, all that has come out of these meetings are promises for future improvement that lack measures to enforce these promises. In terms of direct interaction with China this has been stormy, the first bilateral meeting between the two administrations (held in March) featured angry exchanges of words, this is not a great indicator of a strong intention to build a cooperative relationship with China. However, on the points of utilizing America’s allies Biden has turned out to be closer to predictions. Since the start of his presidency the emphasis on the Quad has increased, with its intentions moving beyond military alliances to include vaccine distribution. This shift in focus has also attracted South Korea to possibly join the alliance as it would be a less direct provocation of China. Additionally, at the G7 summit in June Biden led other democratic leaders in unveiling a development plan to combat China’s aid to developing countries. These examples demonstrate that Biden is indeed using a policy of using America’s allies to indirectly combat and contain China, they also demonstrate the same reticence to directly confront China that was predicted by pundits. But, despite this agreement with predictions in the case of utilizing allies, the Biden administration has turned out to be firmer than expected in other cases. They have thus far demonstrated few signs of backing down on economic competition with China and have even shown a far firmer attitude on human rights – despite the reluctance of other leaders to strongly condemn China as a group at the G7 summit. Therefore, it cannot be argued that Biden has exactly stayed with predictions as his polices have differed in several cases.

Of course, when a new president is elected new predictions on policies are not far behind. In many cases they miss the mark on several issues. However, in the case several predictions were relatively on the money. Particularly on the point of utilizing allies, soft power, and indirect influence the Biden administration has acted much as predicted. However, on other points such as human rights, climate change and bilateral interaction it has demonstrated more reluctance and in some cases more firmness than expected. But it must be acknowledged that Biden’s term is still very young, it is exceedingly likely therefore that he will seek to develop several of these policies over time which may lead to a shift in position, either away from or closer to predictions.


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