Joe Biden e Kamala Harris in conferenza stampa a Wilmington

What Would a Biden Presidency Mean for China?

In the US–China relationship, the only certainty for the past few years has been tension and aggression. American President Donald Trump took office in 2017 and immediately set about upending the diplomatic and economic ties between them.

America’s Moves Against China

Since then, Washington has managed to turn the world against Chinese technology giants Huawei and ZTE and to threaten Chinese social media apps WeChat and TikTok.

In short, the US approach toward China has been entirely, relentlessly opposed to all things Beijing. What began as a trade war with tariffs slung as ammunition, has devolved into a mission to cripple Beijing at every opportunity.

As the US election draws nearer, China could be hoping for a respite under a possible Biden administration. However, the presumptive Democratic nominee is more likely to continue Washington’s assault on Beijing.

Changed Mindset?

Although it was only last year that presidential candidate Joe Biden said the Chinese are “not bad folks … they’re not competition for us,” Biden has since come around to a more opposition-minded approach to China, however, as Foreign Policy reported. In a Democratic primary debate, he called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug.”Furthermore, an advisor said the candidate would maintain US sanctions that were leveraged as a response to Beijing’s takeover of Hong Kong.

In truth, the recent clampdown on democracy by Xi has likely altered Biden’s approach to China. Whereas Biden was a member of the first American delegation to Beijing in 1979 after the relationship was normalized, the status quo has changed considerably in the decades that have followed. 

The Fate of US Tariffs on China Under a Biden Presidency

As Trump has already taken the fall for introducing tariffs, which have been a staple of Trump’s economic policies, Biden could walk into office in January and leave them in place, Don Lee suggested for the Los Angeles Times. In doing so, the new president could use them as leverage to bring Beijing to the bargaining table. 

Biden, as a career politician and former vice president, would sport a more diplomatic tone than Trump. The change would be a welcome one for Beijing, which has been subject to the president’s bullying on issues ranging from 5G networks to the coronavirus.

“Their stylistic differences are so great. It will certainly seem different,” said James Mann, a China expert and fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “It will still be conflict-ridden, maybe at times confrontational, but certainly ridden with conflicts in ways that either weren’t there or were downplayed a decade ago.”

In the past, Biden has criticized Trump’s use of tariffs, complaining that they exacerbate the economic problem between the two states. However, even if he does roll them back — either in part or whole — Biden will certainly take China to task in other ways. 

One such way might be to renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Devised by former President Barack Obama, the policy would have brought together 12 nations within the Pacific. At the time, it failed to come to fruition because Democrats wouldn’t support it. However, times are different and both parties are unilaterally opposed to Beijing on nearly every issue: security, democracy, and human rights, to name a few.

‘A Special Challenge’

In an editorial for Foreign Affairs, Biden specifically mentioned China as one of the greatest threats to the US and identified ways he would handle it.

“China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future,” Biden wrote.

“The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden noted, further adding that “if China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.”

The best way to do that would be to “build a united front of US allies and partners” to take on Beijing, according to Biden. A new TPP would be a solid start in that direction. Trump has actually laid the footwork for coordinating allies against China by courting Australia and the UK to its cause. Adding global pressure to Washington’s rage could stir China to reverse its ways in terms of human rights, but economically, it will take more.

Focus on Supply Chain

While the Trump administration has been concentrated on cutting China off from the US, a Biden presidency would be more focused on building a supply chain independent of China, the Brookings Institution concluded in an analysis. That remains the missing piece from Trump’s plan for China. While some manufacturers have left China for other Asian states, there has not been a concerted effort to bring companies to the US.

Biden has made rebuilding US supply chains for critical products such as pharmaceuticals and personal protective gear a platform issue, Axios reported. While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly highlighted the urgency for self-reliance in terms of medical products, Biden’s policy could translate to a long-term effort of shifting away from China.

Although Biden will undoubtedly reintroduce a more tactful voice to the Oval Office, his presidency would still need to maintain pressure on China. However, Biden would likely find other ways of doing that instead of tariffs and executive orders. By establishing meaningful relationships with allies and implementing domestic policies geared at increasing production, a Biden presidency could tackle the China issue more effectively than Trump.