It is less than a year before the U.S. election in 2024, when American voters will decide on the president and the governing direction for the next four years. The current president, Joe Biden, is most likely to run as the Democratic nominee, while former President Donald Trump could still represent the Republicans. In other words, we might repeat the 2020 race.
Recent polls indicate that Biden is behind Trump in several key battleground states including Wisconsin and Michigan, where Biden only won by razor-thin margins in the last election, further complicating the situation.
In recent years, China-U.S. relations have evolved into direct competition and open disagreements on numerous global issues or areas. This has been a relatively stable tendency from the Trump to Biden administrations. With the possibility of the same two candidates being in the race again next year, who would bring more impact to the current contentious China-U.S. relations? The issue has long been the concern of Chinese scholars and analysts who keep an close eye on Washington’s approach.
Trump’s Way: Unilateralism and Confrontation, Limited Progress on Certain Issues
Donald Trump has been focusing on his unique “America First” mantra across major domestic and foreign policy fields, directly affecting his stance on China policy. During his four-year term, it became clear that U.S. strategy toward Beijing had evolved into direct confrontation, except in a few areas where both sides could reach short-term cooperation or consensus.
The Trump administration’s approach to China went through three stages, according to Wu Xinbo, director and professor of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. During the early days of the Trump administration, the United States initially sought to create a positive atmosphere to “make a deal” with Beijing on regional security issues such as the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula.
However, this consideration was replaced by competitive thoughts in the second stage. The National Security Strategy released in late 2017 labeled China as “competitor” and “revisionist power,” initiating Washington’s direct competition with Beijing, including the trade war. At the third stage, under the pressure of 2020 elections and the impact of global COVID-19 pandemic, Trump administration decided to go into full confrontational mode, further deteriorating interactions. In this period, China-U.S. relations reached their darkest moment in decades.
The most apparent feature of Trump’s China approach is unilateralism, much aligned with his overall foreign policy strategy. On one hand, this feature led the administration to concentrate on direct bilateral negotiations with China, including the trade agreement signed in early 2020. The Trump administration pursued a mercantilist policy on trade and economic issues with Beijing, where trade deficits and job numbers were all within his concern, according to Weixing Hu, a professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Macau, leading to a direct deal with China on trade issues.
On the other hand, this unilateralist approach called for direct pressure and containment on China, which brought the new whole of government approach to U.S. China policy and saw the “security threat” posed by China become the growing consensus within U.S. policy circles, as been reviewed by Diao Daming, professor of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.
The Trump administration brought in more unstable factors and causes of direct conflicts to China-U.S relations, especially during the last year of his tenure. Trump’s deliberate escalation of security issues (including in the Taiwan Strait), his punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, and his administration’s full-scale restrictions imposed on Chinese tech companies including Huawei, ZTE, and TikTok, had a fierce impact, racking up the collateral damage in bilateral relations.
Wang Yizhou, professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, pointed out that Trump’s most significant “legacy” was Washington’s overall policy consensus on China, viewing China as the major opponent or adversary. This would certainly be strengthened if he is elected again in 2024.
Biden’s Way: Competition and Multilateralism, Systematic Approach to Beijing
Biden’s approach to China marked a significant contrast to Trump’s way, by restating the importance of diplomacy and the re-establishment of American approach to multilateralism. Although the Biden administration has inherited the competition idea from Trump and ensured a continued strategic emphasis on competing with China, there are numerous differences between two administrations.
Biden’s first departure from Trump’s approach was his attempt at re-engagement with Beijing via multiple diplomatic channels. On the first virtual meeting between leaders on both sides, Biden stressed the “need to establish some commonsense guardrails.” During the two in-person meetings between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping – in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022, and in San Francisco, the United States, in November 2023 – Biden reiterated that both countries need to “manage competition responsibly to prevent it from veering into conflict, confrontation, or a new Cold War.” Unlike Trump, the Biden administration is willing to maintain necessary strategic communication with China, seeking possible cooperation in several areas (i.e. climate change). However, this approach can only serve to prevent deterioration rather than truly improving relations.
Biden’s second departure from Trump is his focus on cooperation with allies and the systematic building of China policies. According to Ni Feng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the Biden administration has attempted to build a systematic approach to China, including utilizing the legislative framework to coordinate strategic competition, strengthening the association with its allies through numerous multilateral tools such as Quad, AUKUS, B3W or IPEF, and reinstating democratic ideology in diplomacy to frame the “democracy versus authoritarian” discourse. Unlike Trump’s sudden, unilateral hardline policies, the Biden administration is working build a sustained, long-term system or structure to “face the China challenge.”
Biden’s third departure from Trump’s way is in the technology and economic buildup. The Biden administration sees technology as the most important field in strategic competition, leading to its focus on the tech competition with Beijing. Biden has brought together key tech industry states to create a “small yard, high fence” strategy on high-end technology, expanding sanctions and restrictions on Chinese entities to block access to tech products.
In its economic approach, the Biden administration has promoted “de-risking” and “friend-shoring” policy designs to “reduce economic threats” from China. As Zhu Feng, professor and executive dean of the School of International Studies at Nanjing University observed, Washington is also attempting to “marginalize” China on technology standards and industrial supply chains, thereby maintaining U.S. hegemony.
Zhao Minghao, a research fellow of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, concluded that Biden’s strategic competition with China focuses more on sustainable, long-term features and cost-control, seeking effective ways to compete while reducing direct harm to U.S. interests. However, it is important to notice that Biden’s systematic, long-term approach could eventually damage the foundations of bilateral ties, so for China, the negative impacts can still hardly be neglected.
The Stakes for China
As American voters fill out their ballots in November next year, China-U.S. relations also face a choice on the future path. It could even be the same choice faced in fall 2020, between the unilateral, hardline, direct approach favored by Trump, or the multilateral, alignment approach by Biden. The choice will decide the fate of China-U.S. relations in the coming decades.
But for Chinese scholars, policy watchers, or analysts, the turns and tides in the bilateral relations under two U.S. administrations over the past seven years have proved that, whoever is elected into the White House, Washington’s overall strategy toward Beijing will remain stable. The United States will continue to view China as its most prominent competitor and mobilize resources to compete against Beijing.
With convergence on the long-term direction, the most apparent differences between Biden and Trump involve short-term policy reactions and choices. While a continued Biden administration would produce a more predictable trend toward “decoupling,” Trump’s return to power would bring direct, tense disagreements in the short term. That said, both paths would eventually emerge into the overall coordinated competition undertaken by Washington, so it is not that simple to recognize which path would impact more than the other.
In some of his last media interviews in 2023, the late Dr. Henry Kissinger, a key witness of China-U.S. relations, worried that the fate of humanity would depend on whether America and China could get along, and proposed that both sides only had “five to ten years to find a way.” The recent impacts by the Trump and Biden administrations have reminded us of the imminent risk of direct conflict, if not properly addressed and managed.
As both presidents and their administrations could produce similar impacts on China-U.S. relations, it is more important to ensure that channels between Beijing and Washington remain open, to mitigate the inevitable disagreements. All possible caution should be taken as we head into the 2024 election year with China as one of the factors in the game.