‘More sophistication, more backbone’: Biden’s approach to China

Hong Kong, China – While Donald Trump was tweeting, his supporters crying and New York City rejoicing as Joe Biden was declared the winner of the US presidential election, on the other side of the world, people in Hong Kong were arguing whether Trump’s loss was a defeat for the city’s protest movement, or a triumph for the democratic process.

Trump, who railed against protests in the US itself – had sometimes appeared as the poster boy of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations last year, and marchers often waved American flags as they strode the streets.

Many hoped that campaigning for US support would result in Trump responding politically to an increasingly harsh crackdown, but now that he has lost the White House – even though his words might often have amounted to little more than rhetoric – some worry President-elect Biden will be less willing to confront Beijing.

Yun Jiang, director of the Canberra-based China Policy Centre and editor of the China Story blog at the Australian National University says such concerns are misplaced.

Under Biden’s leadership, the rhetoric that many have grown accustomed to under Trump’s administration might soften, “and that could displease a few people”, but she said that does not mean Biden will be more accommodating of China.

“There are a lot of supporters of Trump in Hong Kong, as well as in Chinese dissident communities overseas, [who] see Trump as having a very tough rhetoric, even when Trump doesn’t do anything,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Under Biden, the rhetoric might change and it may not appear as confrontational – even though it is still likely to be a tough approach.”

The US election comes at a key time in the relationship between the world’s two biggest powers with Beijing tightening its grip on Hong Kong – a territory that was supposed to be guaranteed certain political and civic freedoms until 2047 – and the two countries at loggerheads about issues from trade to human rights, coronavirus and Taiwan.

Rocky relationship

While Trump has imposed sanctions on key officials in Hong Kong and the mainland, and did sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November 2019, three months before that he referred to the protests as “riots” – an echo the description of the protests used by Beijing and the Hong Kong administration – and signalled the US would not get involved when he added, “Hong Kong is a part of China, they’ll have to deal with that themselves.”

While Trump’s aggressive stance over Taiwan has won him support as he has deepened ties and upped weapon sales to the self-ruled island, his record elsewhere has been more patchy.

In July, his government imposed sanctions on the state-owned Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp, and individuals believed to be connected to human rights abuses in the far western region of Xinjiang. But earlier he had told American news site Axios he had held off on Xinjiang sanctions in order to achieve a “major” China trade deal.

Back on his home turf, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spiralled in the US, Trump has referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and “kung flu”.

Trump has imposed sanctions on some people and companies in relation to Xinjiang where ethnic Uighur people have been sent to what China calls vocational skills training centres [File: Ben Blanchard/Reuters]Trump tested positive for COVID-19 in October and so have members of his team. Across the United States, at least 10.5 million people have been diagnosed with the virus and 242,621 have died, according to data from John Hopkins University.

‘National interest’

While Biden is yet to release a detailed China strategy, he has made the pandemic a priority and is expected to focus on human rights in his approach to China. His comments there have been anything but soft.

He has called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug”, while his campaign has referred to China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang as “genocide”.

In contrast to Trump, who “did not seem to be so concerned about human rights issues in China,” for a Biden administration, “human rights will be a bigger focus” Jiang said.

Daniel Baer, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees, said Biden has made it clear that he will make “democracy and human rights central to US foreign policy”.

Similarly, Jeffrey Wilson, research director of the think-tank, Perth USAsia Centre, believed Biden will pursue “the US ‘national interest’, rather than the narrower ‘Trump interest’” in his approach to China — and this would involve matters of human rights.

As a result, Wilson expects the policy focus to shift away from trade to other areas including “concerns regarding political rights under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and economic issues, such as commercial espionage and the security of the technology ecosystem”.

In contrast to Trump, Biden is also expected to try and harness broader support from traditional US allies in order to manage China relations.

“Biden is more focused on multilateral efforts, for example, so they could do more in terms of leveraging allies and partners when it comes to issues and countering or competing with China,” said Jiang, who is also a former policy adviser in the Australian government.

As Vice President, Joe Biden met Xi Jinping a number of times. He is expected to take a more measured approach to China relations [File: Lintao Zhang/Pool via EPA]Wendy Cutler, vice president and managing director at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, DC agreed.

“The most striking difference we expect to see in a Biden administration on US-China relations is the importance attached to working with allies and partners to present a united front to China, contrasting with the ‘go it alone’ approach followed by President Trump,” she said.

“We all should be prepared for the US-China relations to continue to be strained for the foreseeable future.”

Wilson said Biden’s partnership-building agenda will be “welcomed” by allies including Australia, Japan and South Korea, as well as “non-alliance partners such as India and countries in Southeast Asia”.

During the Obama years, Biden met Xi a number of times and Baer expected the president-elect to draw on his experience of “foreign policy, in general, and Xi Jinping, in particular”, backed up by experts from across the US political divide.

But Cutler added there will also be room for collaboration with China on certain global issues — “climate and health for example, as these global issues require global solutions”.

Fascination in mainland

In mainland China, the election has garnered widespread interest especially, as Jiang puts it, “all the chaos that came from the election, and the aftermath” as Trump attempts to undermine the result with unsubstantiated claims about fraud and his refusal to concede.

Yaoji Chaogan, a Beijing restaurant where Biden dined in 2011 has experienced a surge in popularity since his victory, while posts about Biden on social media site Weibo attracted than 730 million views, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Stocks in both China and Hong Kong also rose following Biden’s victory although Xi has yet to follow the lead of other leaders around the world and congratulate the 77-year-old incoming president.

In China restaurants and bars – like this one in Shanghai – staged special election night events albeit mainly attended by foreigners [Alex Plavevski/EPA]Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, tweeted: “China hasn’t congratulated Biden on his victory as quickly as Western countries did. I think it’s because China needs to keep larger distance from the US presidential election to avoid getting entangled in its controversy. This actually shows that China respects the US as a whole.”

The official silence, Cutler suggested, is China “trying to lay low now and not draw any attention, nor accusations that it’s meddling in our internal affairs”.

As Biden begins to move ahead with the transition – making key appointments to his administration and laying out the policy priorities ahead of January’s inauguration – a tough approach on China is one area where there is broad political agreement in the US.

For that reason, the policy is likely to remain, albeit with fewer Trumpian characteristics.

Carnegie’s Baer said the Trump administration’s handling of Hong Kong will be remembered as a failure – for its inability “to marshal a serious, credible, coordinated international response to China’s increasing repression in Hong Kong and violation of its international agreements”.

Biden will be eager to craft a more effective policy in relation to a country that has become ever more assertive in the four years that Trump occupied the White House.

“[Biden] isn’t going to be soft on China, he’s going to be smart on China — it is possible to have more sophistication and more backbone at once,” Baer said.