The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sent a polite but blunt message to the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joseph R. Biden, urging the resumption of high-level ties while at the same time showing off China’s military and economic might. In his belated congratulatory message to President-elect Biden, PRC President Xi Jinping, who is also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), said that it was in the common interest to “promote [the] healthy and stable development” of bilateral relations. “We hope both countries [will] uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Xi added (Xinhua, November 25). The nationalistic party tabloid Global Times said with cautious optimism that a Biden presidency might “bring changes to deteriorating bilateral relations that have been trapped in a vicious circle under the Trump administration” (Global Times, November 8).
Chinese Foreign Policy Experts Weigh In
Jin Canrong, associate dean of the Renmin University School of International Studies in Beijing, predicted that Biden would usher in a “buffer period” for China-U.S. relations,” adding that, “relations may still worsen, but not as quickly.” Professor Jin said that “Biden will be more moderate and mature in handling foreign affairs” (Business Standard, November 9). However, most Chinese experts do not expect the Biden team to relax on the issue of tariffs (which now affect some $370 billion worth of Chinese imports), or lift sanctions on dozens of PRC corporations. “It’s too early to make a call [over Biden’s trade policies on China] and we should keep watching,” said Xu Hongcai, a senior scholar at the Beijing-based think tank, the China Association of Policy Science (SCMP, December 4).
“The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote in the preeminent foreign policy magazine Foreign Affairs earlier this year. (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020). Specifically, Biden told the New York Times in early December that he would not “make any immediate moves [on China policy]” and also indicated that he would not immediately lift the tariffs that the Trump administration had imposed on China (New York Times, December 2). In line with these statements, Beijing’s U.S. experts expect that Biden will in the foreseeable future maintain the multiple sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese companies, particularly those in high-tech areas that are associated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
There are expectations in China that both countries have room for a minimum of cooperation in global affairs such as climate change; nuclear non-proliferation (including the issue of Iran); and global health—particularly the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Shi Yinhong, one of Beijing’s top experts on the U.S., has maintained that Biden will be willing to expand bilateral ties to avoid a hot war with China. “Under Biden, there will likely be selective high-level communication and agreement,” Professor Shi said. “The possibility of military conflicts has greatly lessened [since Biden’s election], which is beneficial to relaxing China-U.S. relations” (Hong Kong Economic Times, November 9; Apple Daily, November 9.)
The party mouthpiece Southern Daily summarized many Chinese foreign policy experts’ beliefs in a Weibo post that said, “we should not have any illusions” about a Biden presidency. “One thing is for sure, things will never return to the way they were before” (Southern Daily (Weibo), November 7). It is for this reason that Xi, who is China’s highest decision-maker on national security issues, has stressed the country’s leaps-and-bounds growth in military technology. At a recent meeting of the CMC, China’s highest decision-making body on defense issues, Xi indicated that the PLA must “comprehensively strengthen training in real warfare.” Xi said, “We must raise the level of our training in an all-rounded manner and [increase] our ability to win wars.” Without explicitly mentioning the potential threats coming from the U.S., the supreme leader noted obliquely that “new changes have taken place in national defense and the goals of military modernization.” “We must take a firm grip on new tasks [and] new demands in new situations in the new era,” Xi said (CCTV.com, November 26).
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang gave a scathing response to the recent suggestion of U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite that an additional fleet be created to police the Indo-Pacific and to counter China’s rise in the region. Ren characterized Braithwaite’s comments as an “old trick” to “create enemies and hype up ‘threats’” as a justification for seeking hegemony abroad (China Military Online, November 26). Ren also denigrated the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces Kenneth Wilsbach’s claim that the Chinese Air Force was America’s “primary adversary” in the Pacific, and said that these perceptions smacked of “a typical manifestation of the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game” (State Council Information Office, November 27).
China Prepares for an “Encirclement Strategy”
President-elect Biden has reiterated that a major difference between his and Trump’s China policy will be that under his leadership, Washington would work closely with American allies and friends to form a kind of encirclement strategy aimed at countering China. “We need to be aligned with the other democracies… so that we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town,” Biden said following the projected announcement of his electoral victory (Nikkei Asia, November 17; Channel News Asia, November 17). For example, in addition to formulating a common China policy with the EU and NATO, there are expectations that Washington might beef up the Quad, a quasi-alliance between the U.S., India, Japan and Australia (see China Brief, October 30). But Beijing is also putting together a “counter-containment” policy. China under Xi’s leadership has scored some recent successes in ensuring that Beijing will be able to rally a certain degree of support on economic issues within the Asia-Pacific region. In November, China signed the historic Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement with the ten ASEAN member states as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Xi also indicated a recent willingness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP) during his televised address to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference on November 20. “We must continue to promote regional economic integration and strive to establish an Asia-Pacific free-trade zone at an early date,” he said, adding that unilateralism exacerbated risks for the global economy (PRC Foreign Ministry, November 21). Formerly known as the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), the CPTPP’s current signatories include Canada, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
The TPP, which enjoyed the support of U.S. allies Canada and Japan, was commonly seen as a trading scheme designed to exclude China. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. dropped out of TPP negotiations in 2017. Xi’s APEC remarks could be interpreted as a challenge to President-elect Biden. If China succeeds in joining the CPTPP, it would underscore the U.S.’s exclusion from yet another international trading agreement as well as the ongoing decline of its regional presence. But despite Xi’s offer to join the CPTPP, the reality remains that key requirements for CPTPP membership include a higher degree of marketization and protection of intellectual property rights than current standards in the Chinese economy (Caixin, November 21; Global Times, November 21).
Decoupling, Taiwan and Hong Kong
At the domestic level, the CCP leadership is also preparing for some degree of decoupling of the world’s two largest economies. But while Trump seemed to be aiming for a comprehensive parting of the ways, Biden might confine his vision of the so-called “decoupling” to selective economic sectors such as high technology. Beijing’s determination not to rely on imports of key technological components from foreign countries has been influenced by the Trump administration’s blacklisting of Chinese tech giants as ZTE and Huawei, as well as the more recent inclusion of Chinese firms with ties to the PLA on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Entities List (Caixin, December 3; SCMP, December 4). Xi’s answer to these provocations has been to underscore the imperative of “dual circulation.” This means that while China continues to trade with the outside world (the international circulation), the focus of economic policy will be to rely on the consumption and innovation capacity of its 1.4 billion people (the domestic circulation) (Japan Times, November 3; Xinhua, September 5). At the recently concluded Fifth Plenum of the CCP Central Committee, Xi revived the Maoist concept of self-reliance specifically in regards to innovation. “We must insist on innovation as the core of our country’s modernization,” a government communique summarizing the Fifth Plenum said. “Technological self-sustainability is the strategic pillar of national development.” In particular, high-end areas such as AI, computer chips, robotics, genomics, green technology and space-related know-how are expected to be allocated state funds for development (China Brief, November 3).
Chinese analysts are pessimistic about the incoming Biden administration’s stance on the issue of Taiwan. Beijing has dramatically increased its military maneuvers off the Taiwan coast over the past year, including the frequent deployment of war planes past the “middle line” over the Taiwan Strait. While Biden has in the past publicly subscribed to the theory of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan, analysts in both Beijing and Washington expect him to continue the Trump administration’s increased provision of military and other forms of support to the self-ruled island. Beijing is keen to prevent the incoming president from emulating Trump’s intimate ties with Taiwan, which included selling F-16 jetfighters and sending high-level officials to visit what Beijing considers a “breakaway” province under Chinese sovereignty (Radio Taiwan International, November 8; VOA, November 11).
Beijing is also worried about both President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s concern with human rights in China. Biden has called out China for its suppression of Uighurs – which he describes as an attempted “genocide” – as well as other ethnic minorities. During her time as a senator, Harris was a co-sponsor of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that authorized the U.S. government to sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for cracking down on Hong Kongers’ freedom of expression and pro-democracy protests (Congress.gov, November 2019). In response to the Chinese leadership’s systematic dismantling of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework underlying political autonomy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Biden has promised to be “clear, strong, and consistent on values when it comes to China” (Medium, May 22; HKFP, November 10).
According to Fudan University international affairs expert Wu Xinbo, the ascendency of Biden implies to some extent “the U.S. returning to the establishment line [of thinking].” “Yet due to the domestic situation, the U.S will henceforward become more conservative. There is no way that the country will return to the era of liberalism under [former presidents] Clinton and Obama,” Wu said (Sina Finance, November 11). Indeed, four years of Trump’s confrontational stance toward the CCP have brought about a bipartisan consensus about the need to contain China; a view that is also widely shared by politicians, academics, journalists and opinion leaders. Trump’s policies about halting the technological, military and geopolitical advance of China – as well as his related domestic drives to stop Chinese influence from further infiltrating the U.S. – are supported by the majority of members of Congress. And according to the Pew Research Institute, 73 percent of Americans harbor negative feelings about the PRC (Pew Research Center, October 6). Under these conditions, Chinese cadres and observers seem correct in their thinking that even if he were interested in mending fences with China, Biden’s presidency is bound to follow the path of containment, albeit with tactics different from those of the Trump administration.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in July 2019.