Democratic nominee Joe Biden has clinched the electoral votes needed to become the 46th American president. For Chinese observers, the focus has largely shifted to Biden’s cabinet picks and where they stand on China. They may be missing the point. Biden’s win over President Donald Trump will open up a new window of opportunity for the most crucial bilateral relations in the world. Accordingly, China should not situate itself in a reactive position – responding to the United States’ China policy, as it largely did during the Trump administration – but instead actively adjust its foreign policy to forge Sino-U.S. relations that lean more toward cooperation.
This year’s election has reaffirmed once again that political polarization runs deep in the United States. Although Biden notched a record-setting 80 million votes, Trump received the second-highest numbers of votes in American history with 74 million. Biden’s victory margin not only dismayed many who had high expectations of a landslide, but also shattered the hope that the election would tarnish Trump and what he represents, and, in doing so, let the United States return to “normalcy” and start to “heal” the country’s profound political polarization. Trumpism is here to stay, and it will continue to plague the president-elect’s governing agenda.
To make things worse, given the fact that the Republicans appeared poised to retain the majority in the Senate and sliced into the Democrats’ advantage in the House, Biden will almost certainly encounter legislative blockage that will stymie many of his major programs and initiatives. Even Biden, a Senate veteran known for his ability to build strong cross-partisan relationships, is unlikely to change the hostile nature of a Republican Senate, especially after the Republican Party has spent a whole year portraying Biden as a dangerous extremist.
Apart from partisan headwinds, Biden will also inherit an America tormented by public health disasters and an economic slump. The worsening COVID-19 pandemic will be the biggest challenge facing the incoming Biden administration. The vaccine seems promising but, as experts from World Health Organization suggest, pre-COVID life will not be restored until 2022 at the earliest. The Biden administration in its first year will be struggling between pandemic management and economic recovery, a somewhat paradoxical duo: opening the economy too soon will likely lead to a mounting death toll, while a harshly restricted economy is good for containing the virus but will give rise to more financial difficulties.
The deep political divide, partisan gridlock, and COVID-19 pandemic are all daunting realities that will preoccupy Biden’s early days in office. As a result, a confrontational China policy would be unwise, since such strategies would unavoidably become a notable distraction for Biden’s handling of internal affairs. It can be predicted that a temporary U.S.-China détente is in sight, with a new period of opportunity that would allow both parties to engineer a turnaround in Sino-U.S. relations. So what should China’s response be?
First, Beijing needs to tone down its occasionally assertive diplomatic rhetoric and adopt a softer approach. In recent years, the Chinese diplomatic approach has often been characterized as “wolf warrior” diplomacy – a phrase that originates from a Chinese patriotic action film franchise. The term is specifically used to describe a style of diplomacy adopted by Chinese diplomats that often involves “aggressive, proactive and high-profile” tactics. Whether or not this represents a major shift from a low profile to a new level of assertiveness is open to debate. But one thing is clear: It does not serve the purpose of bridging the Sino-American divide and left much room for those who willingly spread the false “China threat” theory to maneuver. Softening the tone is particularly important for not feeding the paranoia of so-called China hawks and letting more rational voices emerge.
Second, effective management of Sino-U.S. relations requires China to embrace different strategies designed for specific issue areas. Although the overall Sino-U.S. relationship is in a downward spiral, different aspects of relations have shown drastically different downward trajectories. There are at least three issue areas in which China should carefully orchestrate its strategies: trade, military, and ideology.
The bilateral economic relations between China and the United States became strained after Trump launched his trade war against China, the United States’ biggest trading partner. Biden has been a vocal critic of that policy, calling it “reckless” and its outcome “disastrous.” A reasonable prediction is that a Biden presidency could lead to a more rational approach to bilateral trading policy, similar to the Obama era. China, in turn, should try to resume the second round of trade talks with its U.S. counterparts, seeking more common ground on various trade issues, and reducing the damage to Sino-U.S. relations stemming from trade frictions.
To keep military-to-military relations stable, China should actively seek to cooperate with the United States on managing crisis and reducing risk to forces. In October and November this year, the Chinese and U.S. militaries held meetings on crisis communication and humanitarian relief. Such exchanges of visits between the U.S. military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should be regularized in the future. In addition, China can also actively seek to restore or establish a pragmatic cooperation mechanism with the United States over major flashpoints, such as the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the Korean Peninsula.
China should also avoid continuing entanglements with the United States in the realm of ideological competition. Trump administration officials, headed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly tried to refit Cold War slogans for China. The Biden administration, on the other hand, will likely play down ideological differences between the two counties, or at least won’t arbitrarily apply Cold War analogies. Many of Biden’s foreign policy team served in the Obama administration. The core figures of Biden’s team, such as Antony Blinken (nominated for secretary of state) and Jake Sullivan (tapped for national security advisor) have all expressed the view that the U.S. should not seek full decoupling with China. In light of this, China should also maintain its long-held position of avoiding ideological battles with the United States.
Third, for China to take advantage of the new window of opportunity, it should look beyond China-U.S. bilateral relations, paying more attention to the interactions with an “X factor” – any of a number of third-party countries that have considerable leverage over both China and the U.S. With the rising friction between China and the United States across the board, some countries that have broad interests in both sides tend to view the deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations with mixed feelings. It can be said that many third-party countries are unwilling to see a sharp decline of China-U.S. ties. Four years of Trump’s revisionist foreign policy have greatly challenged the stability and prosperity of the U.S. alliance system. Even for some European allies, the United States is no longer regarded as the most reliable partner.
In the early days when Biden takes office, his ambition to reshape U.S. global leadership and heal the rift with traditional allies is bound to be held back by domestic tensions. It is unlikely that he would accomplish major diplomatic breakthroughs shortly after his inauguration in January 2021. China should make full use of this opportunity to consolidate cooperation with third-party countries in the economic, political, and military domains. For example, after the recent successful signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), China should also upgrade its efforts on other trade negotiations, including the China-Japan-Korea Free Trade Area, Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and China-EU bilateral investment treaty (BIT), to strive for new bargaining chips against a potential U.S. economic blockade. As a result, even if the United States wants to form a new coalition (or a rebranding of the old alliance) aiming specifically to contain and coerce China, it will inevitably have to pay a higher price.
The Biden window of opportunity will not last long, however. There are various signs that Biden may adopt an even tougher approach to China. In the long run, the United States under Biden’s leadership may apply more precise and systematic measures against China in some key areas, such as human rights and technology. All that being said, China can still be the first mover in the new era, identifying issues in the bilateral relations that have the potential for improvement, and preparing for the bumpy road ahead.
Jianhao Ge is an assistant research fellow at Intellisia Institute and Dingding Chen is the president of Intellisia.