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Foreign Policy

China’s Possible Approaches to the US under Joe Biden

The new American president faces a China that believes increasingly in taking the fight to the opposition.

With a new administration taking over in the US, how will China deal with the legacy of hard-line China policies left behind by Donald Trump?

For one, expect Beijing to try deflection. It will talk about being misunderstood and of overriding “common interests” as Foreign Minister Wang Yi did in December 2020,[1] and his deputy Le Yucheng[2] as well as Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan[3] did at the end of January 2021 or to spout vague inanities as “cooperative competition” as former Chinese diplomat Fu Ying did earlier in November in The New York Times.[4] The objective is to sound conciliatory even as China puts forward its interests clearly. For instance, the People’s Daily’s Zhong Sheng column, which during the Trump years did not mince words in attacking the US and its actions, welcomed the Biden administration with a toning down of language and offers of cooperation.[5]

Two, since the paramount concerns for American leaders have usually been economic ones – jobs, exports and competitiveness among other things – expect a degree of appeasement in the form of limited or selective access for American agricultural produce and private enterprises. 

Three, since climate change is a particular priority of the Democrats – as the appointment of heavyweight politician, John Kerry, as new president Joe Biden’s special envoy on climate suggests – there will be plenty of Chinese ‘concessions’ on this front too. But these will inevitably be linked to American concessions on other fronts. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson indicated as much when in response to Kerry’s remarks at the end of January, he said, “China-U.S. cooperation in specific areas, unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole”.[6] Chinese scholars have pointed out China’s priorities in the bilateral relationship – security and sovereignty interests, covering Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea, and the economy and trade.[7]

Kerry, on the other hand, had declared “The issues of theft of intellectual property and access to markets, South China Sea… will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate” and insisted that “climate is a critical standalone issue that we have to deal on … [and] find a way to compartmentalize, to move forward…”[8] Kerry will have a harder time of achieving his objective than the Chinese will have sticking to their position and if he seeks to compromise in the interest of his primary agenda, then this could potentially drive a wedge between the principal actors in the US national security establishment[9] on China policy.

Four, ideological competition, meanwhile, is now a feature of Chinese foreign policy and it will be impossible for the Communist Party to not also attack the US directly for faults both real and imagined. Thus, it is that Chinese media[10] and the country’s Foreign Ministry[11] have regularly alleged that the US was the source of the coronavirus. The announcement of sanctions against senior Trump administration officials later[12] is another sign of an increasingly no-holds-barred approach to the US.

Five and related, expect China to continue to highlight and exaggerate domestic dynamics in the US as a way of explaining away US-China tensions as well as other American problems around the world. There will be snide remarks aplenty. As one Chinese scholar of the US declared, 

“The Biden administration should wake up, and even as a competitor to the US, we don’t want to see our rival keep hurting themselves like this. We understand the US has low confidence at this point as it has a great mess and troubles at home, so it wants to appear tough to cover what’s inside in front of us. We have patience to wait for them to issue a mature and clear policy to fix ties with us.”[13]

The attempt really is to showcase China’s own political system in a positive light while criticising American-style democracy as somehow flawed or in decline.[14] As Yuan Peng, head of one of China’s most important think-tanks, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, declared, “The United States is sick, China has stabilized, and the world has changed”.[15]

Six, as China has increasingly done in recent years – from New Zealand[16] to Nepal[17] – it will also more confidently interfere in US domestic politics. Last year, in fact, saw US officials claim China had attempted election interference[18] as well as reports of influence operations against its politicians.[19]

Seven, China will sustain pressure against American allies and partners everywhere – note, for instance, Beijing’s provocations against Japan in the East China Sea[20] and economic coercion against Australia.[21] Elsewhere, China’s conclusion of a bilateral investment treaty with the European Union on the eve of the Biden presidency[22] is classic divide-and-rule tactic against the West. Beijing has been helped along by the unilateralism and walking out of multilateral regimes of the Trump administration. Biden declared his intention to repair this state of affairs in remarks at the end of December, where he said he would “build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies to make common cause with us in defense of our shared interests and values”.[23] Prominent Chinese scholar, Jin Canrong of the Renmin University in Beijing however, interpreted this to suggest the US was not confident about facing China alone.[24]

Finally, China will continue to suborn foreign private enterprises to do its will and it will create conditions as well as offer public support for these enterprises to actually make it look they are doing the right thing. The inability of most American and other foreign enterprises to acknowledge, let alone take a stand against the oppression of China’s Uyghur minority should be a concern for the Biden administration, as too, the reality that Western and Japanese enterprises remain reluctant to leave China despite their governments asking them to.[25] A Chinese publication characterised these efforts by foreign governments as “trying to stop the wind across the prairie”.[26]

Under Biden, American pressure on China’s domestic political and economic system and on its external policies is not going to be particularly unexpected for the Chinese leadership. But he will also face a China that believes increasingly in taking the fight to the opposition.

This is a longer version of an article originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘How China might tackle the Biden presidency’, The Hindu, 26 January 2021.


[1] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/wjbz_663308/2461_663310/t1841380.shtml

[2] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1849233.shtml

[3] https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/156442?mc_cid=a5067148f6&mc_eid=59dff47196

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/24/opinion/china-us-biden.html

[5] http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2021-01/22/nw.D110000renmrb_20210122_2-16.htmhttp://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2021-01/29/nw.D110000renmrb_20210129_3-03.htm

[6] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1849185.shtml

[7] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1214313.shtml

[8] https://www.axios.com/john-kerry-china-climate-9c2f3a13-9c6f-46ef-a63e-26a8962059af.html

[9] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/12/23/the-risk-of-john-kerry-following-his-own-china-policy/

[10] https://www.insider.com/china-conspiracy-theory-claims-us-created-coronavirus-2021-1

[11] https://twitter.com/zlj517/status/1238111898828066823

[12] https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/20/asia/china-trump-us-official-sanctions-intl-hnk/index.html

[13] Lü Xiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences cited in https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1214313.shtml

[14] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202101/19/WS60061e6ea31024ad0baa36f2.html

[15] https://www.chinanews.com/gj/2021/01-18/9389685.shtml

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/31/new-zealands-relationship-with-china-is-at-a-tipping-point

[17] https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/12/27/beijing-is-sending-a-senior-party-leader-to-nepal-as-political-crisis-unfolds

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-53702872https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-china-idUSKBN25V2NY

[19] https://www.axios.com/china-spy-california-politicians-9d2dfb99-f839-4e00-8bd8-59dec0daf589.html

[20] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3116179/air-and-sea-chinas-two-pronged-strategy-grind-japan-down-over

[21] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-17/china-s-attacks-on-australian-goods-take-many-different-forms

[22] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3116147/china-eu-trade-deal-strengthens-beijings-hand-power-game-us

[23] https://buildbackbetter.gov/speeches/national-security-agency-review-teams-briefing-remarks-as-prepared-for-delivery-by-president-elect-joe-biden-in-wilmington-delaware/

[24] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1214313.shtml

[25] https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Trade-war/China-exit-limited-to-some-American-sectors-and-not-for-home

[26] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1214312.shtml  

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