On the west side of the Pacific, many Chinese closely followed the extended, exciting, and exhausting election process that brought Biden to the stage. Under the Trump administration, US-China relations plummeted in an unprecedented way. After Trump leaves office, what will Biden bring to the US-China relationship?
Because domestic issues—such as fighting the pandemic, revitalising the economy, and mending social, ethnic, and political divisions—are so urgent, an international agenda may not be Biden’s immediate policy priority. Further, in light of the recent bipartisan US consensus on China as a strategic competitor, both the motivation and potential for a change in China policy seem limited.
Nevertheless, Biden has the opportunity to improve, if he chooses, the deteriorating US-China relationship, which is essential not only to the two countries, but also to the world. Without U.S.-China cooperation, international institutions such as the United Nations, the WTO, and the WHO cannot function. Transnational challenges such as climate change, Covid-19, financial-system stability, and nuclear proliferation cannot be managed. It is also more difficult to coordinate regional security issues in Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.
Even in these arenas where interests overlap, it is not easy for the United States and China to cooperate. A seemingly accelerating power shift, an exaggerated ideological competition, a securitisation of economic interdependence and technological innovation, a downward spiral of public opinion, and an increasing psychological anxiety all contribute to the strategic rivalry.
Biden is regarded as more predictable and rational, and his national security team will likely be more professional, which could be good news for bilateral relations. But his inveterate policy preference for exporting liberal ideology, human rights, and democratic peace theory could well add to the volatility of bilateral relations.
The traditional statecraft of prudence, reassurance, and self restraint are still essential. If U.S-China strategic competition is inevitable, both sides need to keep it under control and on the right track, and cooperate whenever possible.