US-China relations under Biden: Continuity and change

An analysis of indicators suggests that Biden’s China approach would have larger elements of continuity with a few changes mainly on the emphasis on some issues that are on the priority list. The US approach would be based on realism and would be more calculated than his predecessor’s without shrill and loud anti-China rhetoric. It is not likely to sway from hugging Xi to declaring a trade war.

Biden’s perception of Xi appears to have changed in the last five years. This change is based on the Xi’s aggressive and coercive approach towards other countries and his efforts to re-establish the world order in which China would be in a dominating position. During the election campaign and later before speaking with Xi, Biden made three significant statements. First, ‘Xi is a thug’. This implies that Xi uses fraudulent means to deceive others for his benefits and acts violently to commit a crime. Xi’s aggressive acts in the South China Sea (SCS) and along the Indo-Tibetan border as also unfair trade practices coupled with intellectual property theft and forced transfer of technology may have led Biden to use this term. Second, ‘Xi does not have democratic bone in his body’. He made this statement in an interview on the 7 th February. This is an indication that US would continue to oppose Xi’s authoritarianism within the country. Third, that the US administration would focus on international rules- an anathema for Xi, who rejected the PCA Ruling and violates the international norms in the SCS.

On the 10 th February, Biden spoke with Xi for about two hours expressed the US concerns, which define the broad contours of the US policy towards China. The timing of the call suggests that Biden did not want to talk with Xi before consulting its allies and partners. Biden had talked with several other heads of the governments/states including PM Modi before making a call to Xi. Modi and Biden talk focused on the strengthening defensive military alliance known as Quad and free and open Indo-Pacific as a bulwark against Dragon’s aggressive activities.

The White House version over the talk suggests four priorities of the Biden’s approach towards China. First, protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life. Second, preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific based on international laws and norms. Third, his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human right abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including towards Taiwan. Fourth, the US interest in countering the Covid-19 pandemic, challenges to global health security, climate change and preventing weapons proliferation.

There may be some cooperation on the issue of climate change. The US has re-joined the Paris accord and this suggests that they may cooperate to some extent on the climate change. However, Biden’s plans to halt US funding for overseas projects would turn global spotlight on China for bankrolling coal projects as a part of its BRI scheme. This would be an irritant in the cooperation on the issue of the climate change. While in the talk, both expressed concern over the challenges to the global health security with US re-joining WHO, there are limits to which US and China can work together on this subject. On 13 th Feb. Jake Sullivan the US National Security Advisor expressed deep concerns of Washington over the withholding of information on the origins of the virus from the WHO investigators. China has responded by saying that the US had already “gravely damaged the international cooperation on the Covid-19” and now pointing fingers at some other countries, which had been faithfully supporting the WHO. In the US like in several other countries, there exists a strong perception that China had hidden the information about the origins of the virus.

There would be greater emphasis on some critical issues. China is a proliferator of weapons and the Biden administration would keep a stronger watch on this issue. The Sino-Pak axis to help Turkey to acquire nuclear weapons could become a serious issue. On Tibet and Uighur as also on Hong Kong the pressure would be enhanced as Biden administration is far more concerned over the Chinese human right abuses than his predecessor. On trade there is no hope of an early resolution. Biden has so far not changed Trump’s trade policy of imposing punishing tariffs. The US has profound concerns about China’s predatory behaviour in the technology sector and Biden would take it strongly with China.

On China, Biden would like to have a unified approach along with its partners and allies. Jake Sullivan had aptly put the new US approach in the following words, “Biden will join hands with like-minded allies to form a chorus of voices that can push back against China in the great power competition.”

Biden also made it clear that he was committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of the US allies. This means that in the SCS, the US policy would be in consultation with its allies. The US would continue to push free and open Indo-Pacific while opposing China’s coercive and aggressive actions in the region against its neighbours.

A task force in Pentagon has been set up to review defence policy and actions towards China. Its recommendations would have an impact on the overall US approach towards China.

In essence, Biden administration’s approach would be based on pragmatism taking into calculus Xi’s recent aggressive activities affecting not only against the US but also against its allies. In his talk with Xi, Biden definitely took a tough line. He is consulting US allies and partners to build a wall against China. Currently this wall would comprise Quad nations but would include others soon which are adversely affected by the Chinese activities aimed at destroying the strategic balance. Biden’s statement that if US did not swiftly raise its game, “they’re going to eat our lunch”, reflects his perception of the increasing challenges from China.

While the US approach to contain China is fairly old and has taken various shapes, Biden is likely to adopt an approach aimed at countering the Chinese aggressive activities and violation of international law by strengthening bilateral and multilateral alliances through closer political, diplomatic and military ties with its allies and partners. Biden will also engage with China when in the interest of the US. While the strategic rivalry would continue with Xi assiduously trying to create a new China dominated international structure, both sides would avoid a war. Xi also understands this and is reported to have said that that through cooperation US and China can achieve many great things but confrontation would certainly be a disaster.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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