Since the commencement of trade liberalisation in the 1970s, the relationship between the US and China has never been more tumultuous. The ever-augmenting diplomatic conflict between the two countries revolves around a number of issues including, but not limited to, the Covid-19 pandemic, trade and tariffs, human rights and intellectual property rights.
Navigating around such conflicts and reaching an agreement often requires an adult in the room. United States (US) President Donald Trump may have not been the most ideal person for that role. Nonetheless, after four nightmarish years under Trump, Joseph R. Biden finally got elected as the 46th President of the US.
While the neoliberals are championing a Biden presidency, here's the big question: Will Biden actually be better than Trump at tackling Chinese influence around the globe?
What the contemporary geopolitical landscape looks like
Understanding what Biden can and will do to tackle China, requires thorough comprehension of the geopolitical atmosphere Biden will inherit.
To put things into context, China no longer remains the developing nation in the Far East that has no ambitions to create a sphere of political influence. Instead, China has adopted a policy of economic entanglement to extend its political sway throughout the globe, let alone the Eastern Hemisphere.
For instance, China has undertaken the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in order to rejuvenate the Silk Road – an ancient trading route that used to function as the economic lifeline in the East. The BRI comprises over 50 countries who are financially indebted to the Chinese government, raising concerns among economists and foreign policy experts alike.
Experts fear that such extravagant financial transactions may create an economic bubble capable of a global economic meltdown. On the other hand, foreign policy pundits claim that such economic partnerships pave the way for China to further its influence over these countries in the future.
Historically, China has been a country that avoided military conflicts or any form of military ambitions overseas. However, that is beginning to change. Over the last decade, China engaged in multiple territorial disputes with neighboring countries in the Asia-Pacific region including, but not limited to, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Reportedly, the Chinese government has been building military bases in the South China Sea, with a view to undermining US influence in the region.
The Chinese authorities have also shown concerning signs regarding the reunification of Hong Kong into mainland China, often introducing policies disregarding their ways of life. They have criminally mistreated and persecuted the Uyghur communities as well as the Tibetans and are going to keep on doing so in the foreseeable future.
On top of this, US corporations have been steadily shifting their production to Chinese factories due to the sheer low cost of labour – resulting in job losses in the American Midwest.
Meanwhile, tech experts are growing wary of shady practices by Chinese tech companies like Huawei Technologies and ByteDance. While the US and other Western developed countries continue to demand better regulations in terms of protection of consumer data, China has been dishonorably reluctant in doing so. They reported sheltered companies that violated intellectual property rights in order to gain a competitive advantage in the international market.
Response from the Trump administration
Since 2016, the Trump administration has adopted a more punitive approach towards Chinese malpractice. Historically, Trump has been a strident critic of the normalisation of trade relationships with China. In fact, Trump's infamous "America First" policy focused on bringing jobs back to the US from China, Mexico and other developing countries by imposing tariffs and backing out from or renegotiating trade agreements.
As per his campaign promises, Trump backed out from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement commonly known as the TPP. Later, China went on to facilitate the creation of the largest trading bloc in modern history – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It consists of the ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and China itself, covering one-third of the global economy.
Despite caution against further escalation, the prolonged friction between the two countries eventually boiled down to a full-fledged trade war during the Trump administration. As of now, the US has imposed tariffs on a wide array of Chinese products accumulating upto $550 billion in value. However, China also retaliated by imposing tariffs on $185 billion worth of US exports.
Even after losing the election, Trump showed no signs of letting up. He recently signed an executive order barring investments from Chinese firms that are affiliated with the military.
On top of this, Trump regularly blamed China for anti-competitive market practices and its failure to contain and warn about the novel coronavirus, further deteriorating the relationship between the two countries. During the Covid-19 outbreak, he went as far as to call the novel coronavirus the "China Virus" and "Kung Flu."
Where Biden stands
Although Biden has been declared as the long-sought "safe candidate" by most political experts, his record in China may leave a lot to be desired.
Firstly, Biden has always endorsed free trade throughout his political career. He pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the TPP. He also voted for the normalisation of trade relationships with China in 2000. When humanitarian organisations urged the US to reprimand China for its human rights violations, Biden proposed to bring them into the fold and let them join the World Trade Organization.
Even as recently as 2019, Biden rejected the notion of China being a serious threat to the US dominance, during an interview on his campaign trail.
However, Biden shied away from that position after being criticised as naive and soft on China. Over time, he has adopted a more stringent position and recognises that China has exploited international recognition. He recently denounced Chinese mistreatment of the Uyghur community branding it as "genocide" and went as far as to call President Xi a "thug."
In terms of long-term policy, Biden is believed to adopt a more discrete approach in dealing with China, as opposed to blatant warmongering by Trump. The difficult choices awaiting the president-elect include the decision to maintain punitive tariffs on Chinese goods. On one hand, such tariffs are keeping the Chinese government at bay. On the other hand, these tariffs are raising costs for US businesses and consumers.
The Biden administration promised that its approach will be multilateral and tailor-made to the issues themselves. It will presumably cooperate with China on global issues like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, compete with them in terms of technological leadership and confront them when it comes to human rights violation, aggressive military expansion and unfair trade practices.
Simultaneously, Biden pledged to make significant investments, including $300 billion worth of investments in the tech industries – particularly in quantum computing and artificial intelligence – that would supposedly create three million jobs, as well as channel more government funds into purchasing domestic automobiles and pharmaceutical products.
In addition, he vowed to reallocate significant resources to enhance the manufacturing capabilities of US industries, develop infrastructures and facilitate technological development, so that US industries remain competitive against those of China in the fight for technological supremacy.
Whether or not Biden would maintain the punishments imposed on China by the previous administration also depends on future behavior from China. For instance, China is yet to fulfill its commitments on buying US goods worth $200 billion by the end of the year. If China undertakes ventures that are perceived as security threats by the US Congress, President Biden might have to get his hands dirty.
Even if Biden shies away from the castigatory approach adopted by Trump, he will want to maintain some form of leverage over China. However, Biden is yet to lay out a detailed plan for China other than saying that he will collaborate with US allies to pressurise China into adopting international laws regarding intellectual property rights.
Some fear that Biden will want to fall back on the strategy to transform Chinese policies by further integrating them into the global economy, a strategy long revered by his predecessors. However, there will be pressure from both sides of the aisle forcing him to refrain from adopting such a position.
The discourse regarding the US-China relationship has become as murky as a football field on a rainy day. While encouraging promises and reasonable speculation provides considerable insight into this discourse, only time will tell how the discord between these two global superpowers will actually play out under the Biden administration.