Shenzhen, China – With Joe Biden preparing to become the 46th President of the United States in January, China is unlikely to be in the foreground.
A once-in-a-century pandemic raging across the US and convincing a possibly divided Congress to pass an economic incentive bill is likely to be the problem keeping him up at night for the first few months of his activity.
But after incumbent President Donald Trump lost this month’s elections – although he has not yet suffered a defeat – he leaves Biden with a deeply scarred foreign policy legacy, especially when it comes to the world’s second largest economy, China.
In the final months of Trump’s presidency, his administration’s rhetoric against China has become more vigorous than ever. In a speech on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described China as “the world’s greatest threat to freedom today” and a “Marxist-Leninist monster”.
Once Biden addresses the China issue, he will have to tackle it on multiple fronts: trade, technology, human rights and regional security. The fact that they overlap will make its task enormously difficult.
According to analysts, Biden is unlikely to stray too far from Trump’s key strategic goals: ensuring China cannot undermine the US’s key economic, geopolitical, and military strengths.
But Biden’s tactics will be fundamentally different from those of his predecessor.
“The Biden administration will not make any significant changes in direction [with regards to China]But there will be a lot of technical adjustments in its approach, ”Victor Zhu, an analyst at Rhodium Group, who focuses on China’s macroeconomic development, told Al Jazeera.
[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]And Biden’s approach to China is likely to have a different character than Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who was Biden as vice president.
“[Biden] will have many of the same advisors who worked with Obama, but they look different [regarding] China, ”Shen Dingli, professor at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told Al Jazeera. “You don’t want to repeat Obama’s approach either. You want to be tough. “
When it comes to closing the U.S.’s $ 345 billion trade deficit with China late last year, Biden is likely to seek to work with U.S. traditional allies rather than fighting them like Trump did. The incumbent president has imposed trade tariffs on the European Union, India, Japan and other countries traditionally considered US allies alongside China.
Trump launched the trade war against China from 2018. Despite a “Phase One” trade agreement signed in January, US tariffs on Chinese goods valued at around USD 370 billion – and China’s retaliatory levies – remain in place.
China’s pledge to increase its purchases of U.S. services and goods – including agricultural and manufactured products and energy – by about $ 200 billion above 2017 levels under the deal is behind schedule.
“Whether Biden would cut existing tariffs is a great unknown,” said Zhu. “I don’t think we have any evidence at this point
The US-China trade war was a defining element of Donald Trump’s presidency [File: Martin Pollard/Reuters]We know, however, that Biden has very little interest in escalating or escalating the trade war. “
Allies like the EU have their own allegations against China’s trade practices and the treatment of their companies’ intellectual property. Biden has said he would use this disagreement to build a coalition against China.
“China is playing the long game – expanding its global reach and investing in the technologies of the future – while Trump calls our closest allies – from Canada to the EU – national security threats to introduce harmful and pointless tariffs.” Biden said in a speech last year.
“By cutting us off from the economic clout of our partners, it limits our ability to deal with the real economic threat,” he added.
The other arena in the emerging economic Cold War between the US and China is technology.
Trump’s efforts to stem the rise of Chinese tech giants like Huawei are forcing China to produce its own technologies [File: Dado Ruvic/ Reuters]The Trump administration put China’s Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of devices for the latest generation of 5G cellular networks, on the Entity List last year and accused it of helping Beijing to spy on US concerns. Huawei has repeatedly denied this. The move prevents US companies from doing business with Huawei.
Trump is also trying to force ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the popular video sharing app TikTok, to sell the platform’s US operations to American companies. The Trump administration accuses them of collecting US user data for Beijing, which TikTok has also vigorously denied.
Steps like these are driving Beijing to become more self-sufficient for its technological endeavors. The company aims to become the global leader in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, for which it has relied heavily on US chipmakers and other fundamental technologies.
However, China’s upcoming five-year plan for 2021-2025 will emphasize what the government calls the “double circulation” development model, which focuses on domestic production, consumption and distribution of goods and services. The latest version of the “Made in China 2025” development plan, which received backlash from the US and the EU and is now known as the Strategic Emerging Industries Plan, calls for support for local high-tech companies.
China sees this not only as an economic priority, but also as a national security imperative, analysts say.
“This will be a direct conflict or a source of fierce competition with the US,” said Zhu of the Rhodium Group.
How Biden responds to China’s drive to become a technological superpower will be a crucial part of his presidency.
Whether he will be able to convince a possibly hostile US Congress to provide the funds to go head-to-toe with China in a tech space race will be closely monitored by analysts and investors.
The Chinese video sharing app TikTok is very popular in the US, just not with Trump [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]”Increasing competitiveness can begin with simply leveraging and openly supporting America’s current strengths: basic research and development, semiconductor equipment and intellectual property, open source technology, space technology,” said Kevin Xu, founder of the bilingual tech newsletter Interconnected who worked on the White House and Department of Commerce under the Obama administration.
“When it comes to technology policy towards China, increasing national competitiveness is a race to the top and not a race to the bottom.”
Regional security and human rights
Questions about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, tensions over the future of democratic Taiwan, and a whole host of other issues, from diplomatic disputes over consulates and journalists to repression and mass imprisonment of ethnic Uyghurs in the Chinese region of Xinjiang pose different challenges for the new US president.
But as with the US trade and economic disputes with China, Biden is expected to bring US allies together to try to contain Beijing on these issues too.
And rifts between China and several of its neighbors in the past few months could be Biden’s opening needs, according to analysts.
Brutal hand-to-hand fighting in June along the controversial Sino-India border in the Himalayas killed 20 Indians and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers, escalated tensions and triggered large-scale operations in the remote, barren border area.
Indian soldiers waged bloody hand-to-hand combat with Chinese troops along the Himalayan border in June [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]Meanwhile, China has slowed or stopped imports of raw materials such as wine, barley, coal, wood and lobster from Australia in recent months. Beijing hasn’t specifically said the move is in retaliation for Australian actions, but Canberra has angered China over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Other regional powers like Japan and South Korea have longstanding territorial disputes with China.
“As part of Biden’s new approach to China, we expect the government to adopt a multilateral strategy,” said Nick Marro, head of world trade for the Economist Intelligence Unit, in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.
“There is currently a strong regional appetite for it, especially given China’s border dispute with India, the nascent trade war with Australia, and longstanding economic and political tensions with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.”