‘Either way, an anti-China hawk wins’: Why Beijing does not expect Joe Biden victory to change relationship with US

Cissy Zhou

Former US vice-president Joe Biden is expected to take a tough stance towards China on the campaign trail after being formally confirmed as the Democratic candidate on Saturday.

Chinese observers said that from Beijing’s point of view, the result of November’s election is unlikely to make much difference and Washington would continue to put pressure on Beijing whoever wins.

“Mr Biden has never been a China-friendly guy and China knows it, but at least Biden is open to negotiation,” Yu Wanli, deputy director of the Lian An Academy think tank in Beijing.

But that does not mean China will face less tension internationally, as Biden is known as an internationalist and it is likely he would improve relations with traditional US allies, many of whom Donald Trump has alienated.

“Biden will unite US allies to deal with China, so the multilateral struggle will intensify,” said Yu.

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“For China, Biden will be a similar anti-China hawk even if he wins the election, just in different ways than Trump,” said Wang Yiwei, an international relations expert from Renmin University.

“Biden will accentuate multilateralism and internationalism, and focus more on labour rights, balanced trade and privacy protection, which would exert more pressure on China.”

It is clear that the US-China rivalry is set to be a century-long competition, Wang continued, but Beijing will not challenge the US, instead it should focus on areas such as new cooperative measures and changing the political framework.

Joe Biden welcomed Xi Jinping to California as vice-president in 2012, but described the Chinese President as a ‘thug’ during a debate earlier this year. Photo: AP

China is currently locked in a bitter rivalry with the US over trade, technology and economics with flash points that range from Huawei to Hong Kong and even the blame game over the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden has repeatedly promised to take a tough approach towards Beijing and described President Xi Jinping as a “thug” in one primary debate.

A recent campaign ad also attacked Trump for failing to hold China to account over the pandemic.

Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, said Biden would try to repair relations with America’s friends and allies but it was hard to say how quickly this would happen.

She told an online seminar hosted by Hong Kong University on Friday: “For Biden, you’ll see a reset of relations with our friends and allies, and the question is: will they forgive us for the Trump years and go back to a more cooperative relationship?”

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But she said it was difficult to see how relations with Beijing could be improved.

“With China, I don’t know. I think we have really damaged some of the goodwill among the public toward the United States, and undercut the voices of liberals in China by the actions of the Trump administration, not just in foreign policy but especially domestically,” she said.

The American public’s view of China has reached its lowest level since 2005, according to a survey carried out by the Pew Research Centre in March.

Roughly two-thirds now say they have an unfavourable view of China – a rise of nearly 20 percentage points since the start of the Trump administration.

Last week, the White House released its latest strategy on China, describing it as “one of great power competition”, something China has never officially discussed.

But for now, Chinese analysts said it was too early to predict the result.

“Many polls have shown that Biden is more popular than Trump, but the US electoral college system is less favourable to the Democrats, so we need to watch the swing states in more detail,” Liu Weidong, a US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“No matter who will become the next US president, one thing is sure – the US will adopt a more hawkish stance towards China than in the past,” he said.

Liang Yunxiang, an international relations expert from Peking University, said: “To be frank, I can’t forecast who will win. The presidential election will depend on each candidate’s campaign, as well as the coronavirus and economic situation in the US. Trump will be hit if the pandemic and worsening economy take a toll.”

But Liang said the best Beijing could do was manage relations to avoid a total decoupling.

“Regardless of the final winner, it will be hard for China and the US to return to the bilateral cooperation of the past,” he said.

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