The election of Joe Biden to the Presidency of the United States of America has been a defining moment of a tumultuous 2020, wherein the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed, perhaps forever, the way the world was. Biden’s win brings with it a set of new perspectives in the White House, which under Donald Trump’s presidency became known for its “America First” ideology in the face of an increasingly belligerent China, with focus on the Indo-Pacific rising consistently in the eyes of world leaders. What will Biden’s presidency mean for this highly contested region and how will China react to the same? And how will U.S.’s China policies, largely built on bipartisan fears, proceed in coming four years?
Firstly, Beijing realises that Joe Biden in the White House does not necessarily mean a change in the American strategy towards China. If anything, it is simply a change in tactics or approach in dealings with the Chinese. Beijing knows that Biden is an astute political campaigner and career politician with vast experince. The main focus of Biden’s presidency, in his words, will be on “immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.” On an international stage, the goal for Biden can be gauged as repositioning the U.S. as a global leader across the globe and especially in regions (such as Asia and the Indo-Pacific) where U.S. presence has waned over the years. Beijing must now pursue an accountable policy towards the United States amidst its wolf-warrior diplomacy and growing revisionist tendencies.
China is a “special challenge” as per career politician Joe Biden; he understands that the Communist Party of China (CCP) and President Xi are playing the “long game” by “extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.” China recognizes that Biden’s primary focus is to rebuild economic and political ties which Trump has cancelled with key partners such as Canada and the EU to build a Western, democratic and united economic and strategic front that takes on the threat of Chinese economic prowess. Under such circumstances, China would itself want to use this change in leadership as an opportunity to put bilateral talks and dialogue back on track. Under Trump, a gradual breakdown of U.S.-China dialogue machinery has taken place, with the most elongated example of this being the almost year-long U.S.-China trade war. With the Trump administration reaching a semblance of resolution over trade with China under its ‘Phase-1’ deal, Biden’s continuation of this deal seems unlikely with him having stated that the deal brings the U.S. up short.
Secondly, for China, Biden’s presidency will also mark a return to U.S.’s focus on strategic partnerships and alliances, multilateral engagements and a break away from Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationist policies on the international stage. This adversely impacts China’s own attempts to show itself as a better strategic, trade and security partner for countries disappointed with U.S. policies; U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) under Trump inadvertently helped further China’s own push for signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Similarly, U.S. withdrawal of funding from inter-governmental organisations – take WHO for example – at a time when the international community is trying to find ways to come together to fight the pandemic further hurt U.S. image. China’s own opportunities in the multilateral nexus might improve under a comparatively more cooperative U.S. global inclusion, but the same will also limit its ability to unilaterally shape such structures. Amidst such moves, China’s efforts to present itself and its CSFH vision via the ‘Health Silk Road’ and other diplomatic tact will receive active American competition.
Thirdly, Trump’s callous approach to global warming had worked largely in its favor for China on the global stage. Biden, however, has already stated that the U.S. will be re-joining the Paris Agreement which Trump withdrew from. Climate policy will hence translate into a vital foreign policy tool under Biden – a facet China will view with alarm being the world’s largest carbon emissions emitter. Biden has expressed the opinion that China must stop “outsourcing pollution to other countries by financing billions of dollars’ worth of dirty fossil fuel energy projects through its Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Hence, a hint towards a U.S. attack on BRI from the lens of environmental policy at par with economic and security concerns can be expected.
Fourthly, China is most acutely focused on observing Biden’s agenda vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific, America’s strategic circles have argued that the same is less likely to be altered by the Biden administration. Under Trump, Washington’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region grew tremendously, with the launch of key initiatives such as BDN, Asia EDGE, ITAN and more. However, the absence of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ from all key documents, essays and op-eds by Biden during his campaign is alarming. Even in his Foreign Affairs magazine essay, while Biden highlighted his approach to U.S. foreign policy, he made no guided statements on how to enact the same or mention the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ China views this with apprehension.
The fact that the Indo-Pacific term is entirely missing is alarming, especially in its absolute nonattendance from reports that was affirmed by the Democratic National Convention on 18 August 2020. Rather, the document does reference the ‘Asia-Pacific.’ Covered in pages 87-89 of the 2020 Democratic Party Platform, the release focused on Washington’s relations with the Asia-Pacific, the requirement for the U.S. to work with its partners and allies and the need to stop Chinese hostility. Overall, the obvious exclusion was the “Indo-Pacific” term. The short sub-section in the last portion of the 91-page document that elaborated on foreign and security strategy is named “Asia-Pacific” and makes the verifiably sketchy statement that India is an “Asia-Pacific” power. On the off chance that the exclusion of the “Indo-Pacific” term is not an oversight and U.S. will be reverting to the pre-Indo-Pacific terminology, it will be a major setback for the Quad 2.0, Indo-Pacific nations and a largely moral boost for Beijing.
Fifthly, highlighting China’s potential expectations via-a-vis the Indo-Pacific under Biden, a Global Times op-ed anticipates a continuation of U.S.’s present Indo-Pacific strategic outlook towards the region as well as China; but, maybe under a different name. As per the Chinese state-run agency, Biden may relaunch a “Rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy 2.0” or refocus on the Obama time ‘pivot to Asia’ with a focus on the Asia-Pacific. Nonetheless, even under a new name the strategic mentality will likely remain the same. This deduction however may not hold true, as a break away from the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ (which marked a major policy change for the U.S.) might come across as China appeasement and downgrade the efforts India, Japan, Australia and the Quad 2.0 have put over the years for the security of the region. While Biden accused Trump of being “too soft” on China and the nation’s response to COVID-19, as president while domestically his focus on renewed lockdowns to curb spread of the virus may rise, internationally his China policies are unlikely to be too confrontational from the get go. Furthermore, much to China’s favor, with respect to the Quad 2.0 and creation of an ‘Asian NATO’, Biden has been largely mum. Militarization of Quad 2.0 is unlikely to be top-priority for Biden especially if his goal is to strike the beginnings of a balancing strategy with China before the two nations move beyond what strategic circles are calling the ‘new cold war’ and into proper direct conflict, bringing into reality the ‘Thucydides Trap.’
Sixthly, overall, concerning strategy toward China, there is a bipartisan agreement that China is a strategic competitor. This recognition will not change under Biden but there are significant contrasts about precisely what that implies. Trump administration has not characterized the terms, limits and cutoff points of rivalry with China. Rather it has decried China, sought financial decoupling and campaigned against the Chinese socialist coalition in addresses by top U.S. authorities. Trump administration’s demonization of China is something Biden may not choose to follow; his election winning speech called for an “end to the grim era of demonization.” Rather, Biden would probably try to end the descending winding down of U.S.–China relations, wanting to create a structure for serious conjunction and coexistence. In an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine, top Biden counsels Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan stated that “the goal should be to establish favorable terms of coexistence with Beijing in four key competitive domains — military, economic, political and global governance.” This will require continued and coordinated tact, Congressional support and a China that is willing to meet the U.S. midway conduct. All in all, Biden would in all likelihood move away from the exclusively United States versus China bilateral trade and diplomatic war methodology and instead fashion multilateral alliances on shared concerns.
Lastly, Biden will advance U.S. values, exhibiting a union of democratic allies at a worldwide culmination of democratic systems in 2021 as a support to counter dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to reshape a disturbed world order. Such a move, which has its roots in democracy, could be seen as U.S. pressure by countries like South Korea, Israel, Indonesia, Vietnam and others to pick an openly anti-China side. Such focus on democratic systems will also be reflected in the Biden administration’s technology, 5-G and development sector wherein Biden wants to join democratic allies (which can see consonance by active engagement by the U.S. in the UK’s D-10 framework) to create secure networks based on rule of law. Biden wants the U.S. to lead the technological future, which is “made in all of America,” with a focus on ensuring Russia and China do not beat it to the punch. With respect to North Korea, Biden plans on creating a version of the U.S.-Russia “New START Treaty” while ensuring that in its quest for denuclearization and non-proliferation, the U.S. does not go back on deals it itself negotiated. Hence, a refocused attention to revive the Iran nuclear deal can also be expected. Further, Biden is keen on renewing negotiations with North Korea by including democratic allies and other nations, “including China,” into the process.
Overall, the presidency of Biden holds a continuation of transactional approaches of the U.S. but also signals a break away from isolationism amidst ‘America First’ that Trump built over the past four years. How the relationship between the two powers unfolds under new leadership in the U.S. is to be seen; bipartisan acceptance of Beijing as a national security threat and China’s progress that curtails its unwillingness to share the global stage anymore highlight a road that requires delicate balancing and dialogue.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Eerishika Pankaj is an Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for the Routledge Series on Think Asia and has previously been employed as a Research Associate in Bengaluru. She has also worked as a Research Intern with the Delhi Policy Group (DPG). Ms. Pankaj has been selected as a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program.