• Hamsini Hariharan

With Trump gone, what will Joe Biden's China policy look like?

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on November 09, 2020 and can be accessed here.


As Joseph Biden was declared president-elect of the USA, the country burst into celebrations and protests alike. The rest of the world watched on because US domestic affairs have an impact on people everywhere. Now is an excellent time to ask the question, what would a Biden foreign policy towards China be?

US relations with China have assumed a forefront in this election. Over the last term, Donald Trump initiated a trade war with China, which did not address the relationship's structural imbalances. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, alleged that Chinese manufacturing was ‘stealing’ American jobs, and backed the protest movement in Hong Kong. On the other hand, Joe Biden has familiarised himself with global affairs over his political career and has extensive experience dealing with China. He first went to Beijing when he was 37 years old and met Deng Xiaoping, then vice-premier. During the current election, he argued for a tougher stance on China, but one that will consider the US’ partners.

Chinese citizens also closely followed the US election, with 11 billion views making the topic trend on Sina Weibo and Wechat Moments. Hong Kong protest leaders often threw their weight behind Trump because they believed he would take a more aggressive line towards Beijing than Biden. In the mainland, memes and discussions were aplenty about the messiness of electoral systems, the uncertainty of Trump accepting the result, and what it would mean for relations between the two countries.

Joe Biden will mark a return to a steadier American foreign policy. Over the last five years, a critical problem was that the US State Department did not have the standard competence to carry out its functions. But we do not know that Biden will take a markedly different approach to China. Even if Trump is ousted from the White House, it is clear that a massive faction of the American population retains a Trumpian outlook, which will continue to influence policy.

Also, US policy towards China has bipartisan support though bizarre policy tweets at 4 am maybe a thing of the past. This is also something that the Chinese government is aware of, with a recent Global Times article noting that “In the short run, China's relations with the US will be less tense. But in the long-term, the bilateral ties will face bigger challenges as Biden underlines US leadership, and he will spare no effort to align with its allies and partners to check and balance China, which seems to be more threatening to China in comparison to the Trump administration.”

It is impossible to crystal gaze but safe to say that Biden will need to answer critical questions about the relationship with the Middle Kingdom: How will the US address China's rise on the world stage? What direction will the trade war take, considering the structural imbalances in the relationship? What will be the US position towards allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific?

The last question is something that Indians are particularly interested in. While Prime Minister Modi tried to stay on sound footing with Trump, India did not remain high on the US's priority list over the last five years. With Biden at the helm, India will have to figure out how to deepen its relationship with the US, while looking beyond China as a uniting factor.

India is an essential counterweight to China, but it is also a player on the world stage in its own right. While Kamala Harris has Indian ancestry, it is not enough to assume that this personal connection will translate to a foreign policy conducive to Indian national interests. Considering the state of its fractured economy and divisive politics, this is the one relationship that the Indian government must work on.

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