The Future of US-China Relations Under Biden Administration

President Biden taking oath of office
Credit: Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Biden has taken over the the US Presidency at a time when the country is going through a difficult phase — a deeply polarized society with minorities at the receiving end and racial tension deepening. COVID-19 pandemic has dealt the country a big blow, making it the most impacted nation in terms of infections and deaths. More than 400,000 Americans have died as of now. And in terms of foreign affairs, the alienation of allies has been a hallmark of the previous administration. Tragically, the tensions inside the country saw an attack on the US Capitol – an unthinkable episode.

Meanwhile, China is readying itself for dealing with the new US administration; it will be interesting to note how relations develop after Beijing had a tough year of 2020 the year during which it suffered many setbacks diplomatically following the outbreak of COVID-19, trade war with the US and the question of human rights. Trump administration blamed China for the pandemic and targeted it over human rights issues. Now, how the relations between the two countries evolve will largely depend on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping and  President Joe Biden get along better or friction points take the center stage. Zhiqun Zhu, Head of the International Relations Department at Bucknell University said, “There is a bipartisan consensus in Washington to be tough on China.” The new pick for the secretary of state Antony Blinken holds that he agrees with his predecessor Mike Pompeo about the need to be tough on China. Mr. Blinken has further said that he sees US revitalizing alliances to counter growing rivalry with China and Russia.

It is noteworthy that the Trump administration, during its last days in office, imposed a series of restrictions and penalties on China. To reverse them will be technically and politically difficult for the new administration. There are other issues which are likely to impact the relations between Beijing and Washington. Chief among them are Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and human rights. Since Biden administration is likely to raise these issues, as Blinken’s statement shows, some friction between the two countries cannot be ruled out. Though the new US administration cannot overlook the fact that the trade war with China for over three years has not pushed the Asian giant on the back foot, yet confrontation does not seem unlikely with the passage of time.

Due to Trump’s ‘America First’ policy damage was done to its global leadership role, as Washington withdrew from international agreements like the Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal. Earlier on when Trump took office, he hurried to impose ban on several Muslim countries on the immigration issue which hit America’s global image and popularity. The past administration also witnessed a dangerous escalation of tensions with China in the shape of trade war. That situation led to a serious impact on the US farming community.  The US trade deficit at the end of the Trump administration could be around $300 billion. 

Beijing, on its part, is likely to ensure it does not engage in confrontation with Washington because the former has lost a lot in its diplomatic field in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which first emerged in Wuhan, a Chinese city.  As Zhiqun Zhu puts it, “COVID-19 pandemic indeed hurt China’s image. Many countries still blame China for not being transparent and not doing enough early to curb the spread of the virus.” At the same time, China won some diplomatic success with a trade agreement with the European Union and in becoming part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, he added. 

In view of the loss, China is now engaged in repairing its tarnished image by exporting COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world though the vaccines have failed to gain wide acceptance. This situation has further complicated matters for Beijing both inside China and around the world with respect to the distribution and sale of the vaccines.

With Biden in office, it remains to be seen how the US perceives China’s core issue of Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific strategy. Recently China’s decision of beefing up its military presence near the Taiwan Strait was responded by the US reiterating its support for the self-ruled island. Notably, Taiwan’s role in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy was emphasized.

The growing proximity between the US and China’s regional rival India will also impact US-China relations. India and China have locked horns for many months on the borders and the tense situation is far from resolving.

Although it will be early to predict a thaw in the ties between China and the US soon, it is possible that the two sides will seek cooperation against COVID-19 and climate change two key fields which can act as confidence building measures between the two countries.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.