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Will Biden ‘reset’ relations with China?

President-elect of the US, Joe Biden

The presumptive President-elect of the US, Joe Biden, has promised to set up a coalition to “confront” China, but what will a Biden-led approach look like?

The presumptive President-elect of the US, Joe Biden, has promised to set up a coalition to “confront” China, but what will a Biden-led approach look like?

Over the past four years, President Donald Trump has redesigned the framework for US-China relations, reshaping domestic and international perceptions of the communist republic.

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By disrupting trade norms through the imposition of hefty tariffs on Chinese imports, President Trump rekindled support for protectionist policies among blue-collar Americans, who undoubtedly benefited from a shift in the competitive landscape that incentivised local production.

President Trump has also been a vocal critic of Beijing’s heavy-handedness towards its domestic population (particularly minorities) and its regional neighbours, exposing abuses that have severely damaged China’s international reputation.

This shift in attitudes accelerated following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with US-led condemnation of Beijing’s suspicious handling of the Wuhan outbreak fuelling disdain for the communist regime.

In Australia, a Lowy Institute poll found that 77 per cent of Australians have little or no confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping ‘to do the right thing regarding world affairs’.

These developments have prompted observers to re-examine the benefits of a rising China, creating a dilemma for an incoming Biden administration.

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Reset or double down?

Presumptive President-elect Biden has promised to “build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations”.

It is unclear what this will mean in practice, but Biden’s picks for his national security and foreign policy team suggest that a return to the Obama-era approach is on the cards.

The former vice president’s nominees include Antony Blinken for secretary of state, Alejandro Mayorkas for secretary of homeland security, Avril Haines for director of national intelligence, Jake Sullivan for national security adviser, Linda Thomas-Greenfield for US ambassador to the United Nations, and former secretary of state John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate.

Blinken served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration from January 2015 to January 2017, and as deputy national security advisor in the two years prior — replaced by Haines, Biden’s nominee for director of national intelligence.

Blinken also worked closely with the presumptive President-elect, serving as national security advisor to the vice president from January 2009 to January 2013.

Biden’s nominee for national security advisor Jake Sullivan replaced Blinken in 2013 after serving as director of policy planning from 2011.

Mayorkas, nominee for secretary of homeland security, is also an alumnus of the Obama administration, serving as deputy secretary of homeland security from 2013 to 2016.

Thomas-Greenfield, nominated to serve as US ambassador to the UN, previously served as Obama’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and director-general of the US foreign service.

Biden’s nominee for special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, served as secretary of state in during the second term of the Obama administration.

So, what does this mean?

According to Zack Cooper, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a return to an Obama-era approach would involve devoting America’s “time, energy and resources” to Asia.

Obama’s strategy focused on building multi-lateral relations with Asian states, underpinned by stronger economic co-operation, in contrast to President Trump’s ‘America first’ approach.

But Obama’s ‘pivot’ also involved a reduction in defence spending, which fell by a cumulative 16.5 per cent from 2011 to 2014, while China’s defence spending surged 46.8 per cent over the same period.

In contrast, defence spending during President Trump’s first term increased by a cumulative 16.8 per cent, closing the gap with China, which increased spending by 25.7 per cent from 2017 to 2020.  

Biden has hinted at a return to Obama-era defence spending, claiming, “We can maintain a strong defence and protect our safety and security for less.”

But Cooper observes: “Biden’s team will have to show how the United States can reverse the deteriorating regional military balance with flat (or declining) defence budgets.

“The incoming team has outlined some innovative ideas about how to make better use of defence dollars, but many in Asia will remain sceptical until they see US resources match US rhetoric.

“After all, if China continues to do ‘more with more’, it will be hard for America to do ‘more with less’.”

Cooper contends that former vice president Biden would need to “update” the Obama approach to both “adapt to Asia’s new realities and learn lessons from the previous approach”.

However, Cooper questions whether Biden would be capable of managing this new reality, largely shaped by the Trump-led shift in US-China relations.

“The United States has real challenges at home that will require the Biden administration’s urgent attention,” he writes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact are rightfully Biden’s top priority, just as jumpstarting the US economy was Obama’s top task after the 2007­–08 global financial crisis.

“Indeed, American influence abroad depends in large part on success at home. Yet, many in Asia worry that these domestic priorities will displace international ones.”

Cooper went on to cite polling results from the Chicago Council, which revealed that China was not among the top seven threats listed by Democrats, ranking lower than the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, foreign interference, and international terrorism.

Domestic distractions and apathy among Democrats may encourage Biden to ease US pressure on China, in a bid to repair diplomatic relations with Beijing.

But while China may not be viewed as a major threat among Democrats, over 74 million Americans endorsed the Trump administration’s own pivot, in belief that the pre-2016 approach offered too many concessions to Beijing, to the detriment of both the US public and the international community at large.

A return to US ambivalence towards the Chinese threat would certainly undermine Biden’s goal of serving as “a President for all Americans”, many of which have benefited from the Trump administration’s aggressive trade policies.  

US allies in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Australia, will also be waiting with bated breath, hoping that an incoming Biden administration exerts military strength in the region to deter an emboldened China.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

[Related: Trump disruption to prompt greater allied autonomy, despite Biden] 

Will Biden ‘reset’ relations with China?
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