What will Biden’s China policy look like? Chinese experts weigh in.

Days after the US presidential election, Chinese foreign policy experts shared their thoughts on the future of US policy on China.

In November, days after the US presidential election, the Chinese-language foreign affairs journal Northeast Asia Forum sponsored a symposium at Jilin University to discuss how the Biden Administration would approach the US-China relationship. 

Attendees included representatives from Jilin University (the journal’s publisher) and the China Institute of Modern International Relations, which is affiliated with China’s Ministry of National Security. The journal published one essay and three of the ten speeches delivered during the symposium, including from:

  • Li Xiao, Dean of the School of Economics, Jilin University; 

  • Yu Xiao, Dean of the Northeast Asian Research Institute, Jilin University; 

  • Wang Da, Deputy Director of the American Institute of Jilin University, and; 

  • Jiang Yang, Associate Professor, Northeast Asia Research Center, Jilin University

(Note: The journal does not make it clear who gave the speeches and who wrote the essay.)

My quick take: Not too many surprises. These foreign policy thinkers understand (accurately, I think) where the US-China relationship is likely to stay on rocky ground -- like sensitive high-tech issues -- and where there are opportunities for cooperation, like climate change, public health, and arms control. They are also acutely aware that President Joe Biden wants to re-engage with US allies, partners, and multilateral institutions. On many issues, the best US policy on China has less to do with how Washington handles its bilateral relationship with Beijing, and more to do with how it manages its relationships with everyone else. These experts are concerned that if Beijing doesn’t improve its relationships with its neighbors in the region, including by showing more “strategic patience” on territorial disputes with historic rivals like South Korea and Japan, that the US might successfully woo countries in the Asia-Pacific into constraining China’s regional ambitions.

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I’ve summarized some of the experts’ main arguments below, but you can also navigate to the source document here.

  • The experts anticipate that President Joe Biden’s approach to China will be less confrontational than President Trump’s approach but more confrontational than President Obama’s. Wang Da expects the US will continue to take a hard line in certain fields, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, but will relax its aggressive “decoupling” strategy in other less sensitive sectors. He believes President Biden will also marry a strategy of constraining China’s innovation capabilities in key areas with policies that increase US domestic spending in science and technology.

  • The experts agree that the United States will try to “contain” China in political, security, and economic fields by rebuilding alliances weakened under the Trump Administration, especially among European Union countries, Japan, and South Korea, and by giving greater attention to regional and multilateral groupings like ASEAN. Li Xiao observes that many members of the new Biden Administration were also part of the Obama Administration, which negotiated deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership as part of a strategy to contain China.

  • Jiang Yang writes that China must focus on strengthening its relationships with its neighbors. This includes exercising “strategic patience” on territorial disputes, including those with South Korea, Japan, India, and South China Sea claimants, and to provide “unswerving support” for ASEAN. Jiang acknowledges that some of China’s neighbors have indicated a preference for a stronger US presence in the region, but even those countries that have had serious territorial and maritime disputes with China, like Vietnam and the Philippines, do not want their disputes with China to intensify. These countries also do not want to have to “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing, Jiang says.

  • The experts agree that the Biden Administration is likely to continue to “launch wars of public opinion against China” on sensitive issues, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, human rights, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Yu Xiao thinks the “North Korea nuclear issue will become the greatest hidden danger to peace and security in Northeast Asia.” He expects that President Biden will use sanctions and a “maximum pressure policy” on North Korea.

  • However, Jiang argues that China should “not be overly worried” about shifts in US strategy in Asia. The “relative strength of the US has been reduced” in the region, he says, arguing that the Trump Administration’s strategy to apply pressure on Japan and South Korea to increase their military expenditures was a “manifestation” of the United States’ declining strength in Asia.

  • Still, Li thinks that the US will remain the world’s lone superpower for some time. People have been discussing the “decline of the United States” and writing “obituaries for the US dollar” since the 1960s, he writes, but the US is still the most powerful country in the world and there is no safer asset than the US dollar.

  • Despite the experts’ general pessimism for smooth sailing in the US-China relationship, they agree that the US and China have more opportunities to work together now that President Trump has left office, especially in the areas of: climate change, terrorism, arms control, public health, food safety, and trade. Yu anticipates that President Biden will want to “ease” relations with China and return to “dialogue and negotiations to resolve differences.”