With a new president comes new foreign policy priorities – so how will US-China relations change under Joe Biden, and how might they stay the same? 

While Donald Trump may be sulking in the White House as he refuses to accept defeat, America’s allies are already preparing for the presidency of his victorious rival Joe Biden.

While Biden’s immediate focus is on containing the steadily growing Covid-19 death toll within the United States, getting to grips with the troublesome US-China relationship is surely high up his to-do list.

Which Trump-era policies might his successor choose to continue, and where will the new president forge his own path?

Speakers at an event hosted by non-partisan foreign policy think-tank Diplosphere painted a mixed picture of the route ahead for Biden, with his more traditional and constructive approach to international relations offset by the unrest on his own doorstep.

In a speech which stuck closely to Beijing’s typical talking points, Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi told the Wellington audience her country would “continue to follow the path of peaceful development” through a commitment to multilateralism and global governance.

“We are working to foster a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect and win-win cooperation as a staunch defender of the international order and the international system.”

Wu said China and the United States had a number of common interests despite their differences, citing climate change and cybersecurity as two specific areas where the countries could collaborate.

However, the US had to stop blaming China for their own poor response to Covid-19 and move away from talk of decoupling their economies, while “abandon[ing] its cold war mentality and a misguided zero-sum game approach”.

“The international community is like a big family. Family members should never force others to choose sides; if there is a side or to choose, let’s choose the right side of history.”

“This may create a very tricky situation for New Zealand and smaller allies when it comes to things like Huawei and issues that are very sensitive for us and how we deal with them, if we have a US administration that is really actively trying to build coalitions there.”

Subsequent speakers were less kind towards China’s approach to US relations, although there were plenty of tough words for Washington too.

Dominion Post editor Anna Fifield, who spent several years in the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau, said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government had “very profoundly … miscalculated” the type of president Trump would be after he took office, focusing on his transactional approach to foreign policy rather than the wider attitude shift within his country.

“China failed to see just how quickly the mood was changing in the United States, to the extent now that a weariness, a scepticism about China is now a completely bilateral issue, that these kinds of measures that have passed through Congress against China are almost always unanimous.”

While Biden would likely strike a more diplomatic and conservative tone than Trump on China, there was unlikely to be a substantive shift in American concerns about IP theft and the country’s use of “chequebook diplomacy” via its Belt and Road Initiative.

In fact, Fifield said Chinese academics and analysts she had spoken to believed things could be tougher for the country under a Biden presidency, as he sought to rebuild the multilateral frameworks and coalitions which Trump had abandoned in favour of a more unilateral, unpredictable approach.

“This may create a very tricky situation for New Zealand and smaller allies when it comes to things like Huawei and issues that are very sensitive for us and how we deal with them, if we have a US administration that is really actively trying to build coalitions there.”

On the other hand, Biden was “a much more known quantity” for China than Trump had been, which could encourage Xi’s government to make overtures to the new administration.

Former US diplomat Ford Hart, who served as the National Security Council’s China director, said he was not a Democrat but was nonetheless delighted by Biden’s defeat of Trump, as it signalled an end to the latter’s damaging and costly approach towards China.

The Biden administration would restore fundamental foreign policy processes which had been absent during Trump’s “four-year exercise in performance art”, bringing experienced policy specialists back into the fold and taking time to develop a proper strategy.

New Zealand’s former ambassador to the United States Tim Groser expects US-China relations to stay in a holding pattern for some time. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“You’ll see the US building cooperation with friends and allies from the very beginning into its activities, and you’ll see proper messaging through private channels. These are normal things usually, but first, they’re gonna appear shocking.”

While some in the US argued Trump’s ‘bull in a china shop’ approach had helped to shake up ingrained ways of thinking about Beijing, Hart believed his term in power had in fact distracted from the profound changes within China as Xi developed an increasingly repressive regime.

Former trade minister and ambassador to the US Tim Groser expected little change in the relationship for the immediate future, given the challenges Biden faced at home with a polarised nation, a deadlocked Senate and a judicial system stacked with conservative judges.

“In terms of US-China relations, I think we’ll just have to see a holding pattern. I do expect the administration to apply the first rule of politics, which is the rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.”

Groser argued some of the negative developments within China’s political system had been prompted by the sharp change of approach towards the country from Washington, citing a US national security statement which claimed China’s strategy was to “destroy the security and prosperity of the United States”.

“I just about fell out of the chair – I would’ve thought the strategy of China was to increase the security and prosperity of China. And only people that see these things as a zero-sum game, ‘if you win, I must lose and vice versa’, could possibly go along with such nonsense.”

US talk of decoupling its economy from that of China was “a complete fantasy” given the economic damage that would be caused if American businesses could no longer export goods to the country or target the growing Chinese middle class.

Dr Alan Bollard, former executive director of the APEC Secretariat and ex-Reserve Bank governor, agreed with Groser that Biden would face difficulties appointing his new Cabinet given the political gridlock in Congress, with flow-on effects for his ability to swiftly rebuild departments diminished under Trump. 

“There’s a suggestion that there’s this magical balancing point if you hit that, somewhere equidistant between China and the US, that will work for New Zealand permanently. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

There was also time for Trump to wreak more damage in the two months or so before Biden formally assumed the presidency, Bollard said.

“Are we going to see more executive orders? Are we going to see President Trump delist Chinese firms on US stock markets as he suggested at certain times, will we see other anti-reset activities to make it very difficult for Biden to come in and change policies?”

When Biden did step into the role, a more nuanced approach to China was likely – “warships plus diplomats this time, not just warships on their own,” Bollard quipped – as well as the emphasis on coalition-building mentioned by Fifield and Hart.

While the Asean nations had shown New Zealand how to play off China’s economic benefits against US security protections successfully, Australia’s tariff spat with Beijing showed what could happen if you did not play your hand well, he said.

Bollard believed China’s treatment of Australia had served in part as a warning to other nations, and New Zealand could fall victim to a similar ‘lesson’ if the Asian superpower felt it needed to send a signal.

However, Fifield said New Zealand had taken a smarter approach to balancing US-China relations, perceived as taking a more independent approach where Australia was seen as acting on behalf of the US.

But Hart offered a word of caution for Kiwis thinking they could continue to walk a tightrope between the two superpowers forever.

“There’s a suggestion that there’s this magical balancing point if you hit that, somewhere equidistant between China and the US, that will work for New Zealand permanently.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen: what I would suggest is China’s a real challenge for this country.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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