As the Biden administration takes office, many observers are wondering about the escalation in U.S.-China tensions in recent months. The rocky transition of power, as many U.S. commentators note, has left the United States in an especially vulnerable position.
What will a new U.S. administration mean for U.S.-China relations? Here are four areas to watch.
1. The Trump presidency was a mixed blessing for China
For Beijing, Trump’s America First foreign policy and failure to contain covid-19 presented a strategic opportunity to spotlight an acceleration of the global decline of U.S. power. But Beijing also saw short-term costs in the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.
Trump was not exactly a hawk or dove, especially since his policies often conflicted with official strategy. His administration launched tariffs and sanctions against Chinese companies and individuals, but Trump also praised Xi Jinping and reportedly told him to “go ahead” with forced internment camps in Xinjiang.
As Jan. 20 approached, the Trump administration unleashed new restrictions and penalties on Chinese companies and officials and designated China’s suppression of the Uighur minority as “genocide.” Yet the violent mob that Trump incited at the U.S. Capitol — and scenes of the National Guard clearing Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters — also gave Chinese officials opportunities to rebuff Western criticism as hypocrisy.
2. In Biden, Beijing sees reason for hope — and concern
China’s state councilor, Wang Yi, heralded Biden’s inauguration as a “window of hope” for restoring bilateral relations. Efforts to scapegoat China for the coronavirus — a Republican campaign strategy — may now dissipate. Rather than compete over who could be tougher on China, the Biden campaign instead focused on the Trump administration’s disastrous pandemic response.
But Chinese commentators also express ambivalence about what a Biden presidency will mean for China. Chinese experts expect the Biden foreign policy agenda will emphasize values and human rights — making the heightened importance of ideological factors in U.S.-China relations “inevitable,” say several leading Chinese scholars. Many fear congressional action on Hong Kong and Xinjiang may leave U.S.-China negotiators little space to negotiate.
On trade, many Chinese experts expect Biden to renegotiate tariffs on Chinese products, given their counterproductive costs for U.S. families and industries. Some note Biden may first use tariffs as a “bargaining chip,” demanding expanded market access in China and equal treatment for U.S. companies. Others seem skeptical the Biden administration will lift tariffs — but note new tariffs seem unlikely.
Chinese experts anticipate a continued U.S. effort to decouple the two economies, especially in areas most relevant to national security. Many experts say Chinese companies like WeChat and TikTok could get a reprieve — but others expect U.S. commercial blacklists will continue to suppress leading Chinese tech companies. But the Chinese government is already looking to build “self-developed, controllable supply chains” as part of a “dual circulation” strategy to strengthen domestic innovation and demand, while insulating China from external shocks.
Chinese experts appear somewhat more optimistic that the Biden administration will take a more stabilizing approach to Taiwan. Many blamed the Trump administration for undermining the U.S. long-standing one-China policy, including removing diplomatic restrictions just days before Trump left office. Such moves, they argued, could accelerate an incremental drift toward Taiwan independence.
In contrast, a Biden transition official recently affirmed the one-China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act, which maintains a U.S. commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as arms sales to Taiwan. But Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, also said he would favor “creating more space for contacts” with Taiwan.
3. Beijing is likely to prioritize stability in the short term
Political scientists and commentators often warn that leadership transitions are fraught with potential for international conflict. Foreign rivals may try to test the resolve of new leaders, or push their interests as a new administration gets its bearings. But our research shows China has generally sought to stabilize relations and avoid testing new U.S. presidents.
China’s desire for short-term stability seems especially acute. From Peking University, Wang Jisi emphasized the need for the Chinese government to “seize upon this opportunity” to put the bilateral relationship on more stable footing and take advantage of what Wang Dong, another Peking University professor, described as a brief “window of opportunity” to stabilize relations.
The Chinese Communist Party is gearing up to celebrate its 100th anniversary this summer, making it unlikely the leadership will take risks that could result in embarrassing losses, especially on sovereignty issues like Taiwan. But if challenged on these issues, the coming anniversary could create even more domestic pressure for China’s leaders to push back hard to preempt a nationalist outcry.
4. But Beijing remains confident that long-term trends are in its favor
China is reportedly planning to send top diplomat Yang Jiechi to Washington to explore potential avenues for cooperation. But beyond diplomatic efforts to stabilize short-term relations, Beijing is unlikely to make major strategic adjustments. In October, Xi Jinping told party cadres “time and momentum are on our side” in an increasingly turbulent world. On Monday, a senior Chinese official observed “the rise of the East and the decline of the West has become [a global] trend.”
Still, Chinese experts caution that the U.S. “has not yet reached an absolute decline,” implying the need for strategic patience rather than precipitous moves to challenge the United States directly. Beijing’s economic leverage was bolstered by positive economic growth in 2020. Though polls show heightened public distrust of Beijing around the world, China recently signed an investment deal with Europe and a trade agreement with 15 Asian countries, including many U.S. allies. Those allies may question the credibility of the Biden administration’s commitments if U.S. political polarization remains entrenched. These factors may give Beijing confidence as it reaches out to the new Biden administration.
Xi Jinping recently called for both China and the United States to “uphold the spirit” of “win-win cooperation.” But China is unlikely to make major concessions to reassure or appease the United States, given Beijing’s perception that the Trump administration has irreversibly damaged U.S. global standing. The Chinese leadership is unlikely to show flexibility on issues it deems central to its domestic survival and territorial integrity — including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. So while stabilizing the relationship is likely to serve the short-term interests of both Beijing and the new Biden administration, tensions over these major issues probably are here to stay.
Kacie Miura (@kaciemiura) is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego.
Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, a Monkey Cage editor and the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford University Press, 2014).