President-elect Joe Biden is heading for the White House. A litany of domestic crises will crowd his in-tray, but when he is able to mull foreign policy it’s relations with China that will require immediate attention.
The world’s number two economy, and America’s top trade partner, was cast as a boogeyman by the Trump administration, which blamed the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the coronavirus pandemic, the trade deficit, IP theft, opioid addiction, spying, military aggression and much more besides.
Many issues will remain hotly contested, and some Biden might target more severely—such as a human-rights abuses in western Xinjiang province and the erosion of freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong. But trillions of dollars, and global stability, hinge on the estranged superpowers finding common ground wherever possible.
“China and the United States are competitors, of course, but competition in itself should not be viewed as a destructive force,” says Victor Gao, a Chinese expert on international relations who served as translator to reformist leader Deng Xiaoping. “Competition can actually bring also good things for both countries and for mankind as a whole.”
1. The U.S. and China need to start talking
Biden lambasted Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug” on the stump but he has previously boasted of having spent “more time in private meetings” with Xi “than any world leader,” amounting of “25 hours of private dinners.” Xi, in turn, lauded Biden as “my old friend” in 2013—gushing praise in CCP-speak.
Cordiality is sorely needed. Communication channels between U.S. and Chinese officials are currently “zippo,” according to one top U.S. diplomat, while China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, has been completely frozen out of discussions with even junior Trump administration officials.
This is dangerous on many levels—not least because it creates a lack of a de-escalation mechanisms, should there be an accident, or miscalculation, between each nation’s navies in the contested South China Sea, where Beijing and Washington have been ramping up military drills and freedom-of-navigation sorties respectively.
An early first summit between Biden and Xi will help set the tone for relations. Biden’s easiest win may simply be the fact that he is not his predecessor. “Trump is fundamentally a person without decency, and you cannot have a friend without decency,” says Gao. “Biden is a person with decency—that’s very, very important.”
5. Strengthening U.S. alliances in Asia-Pacific
Ganging up on China might not seem like a great way to mend ties, given that Beijing has traditionally preferred dealing with individual states instead of multinational groupings like the European Union. But Biden was key to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a sprawling trade pact including the U.S. and 11 other countries from Asia and the Americas.
It was designed to coax better trade practices out of China, but Trump nixed the pact on his first full day in office. The remaining 11 members eventually moved forward with a modified agreement while freezing 22 provisions insisted upon by Washington, including protections for U.S. workers. Whether Biden would be willing to rejoin TPP is an open question—his “Buy American” policy might preclude membership, while existing members may be reluctant to renegotiate terms with Washington. But it’s the kind of consensus-based approach that gives Beijing a migraine.
There is, of course, safety in numbers, especially when China has unleashed unilateral economic retaliation for various grievances. After Australia called for an independent probe into the origins of COVID-19, for example, Beijing hiked tariffs on Australian barley by 80% and cut back meat and wine imports. Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, South Korea are among many nations to have felt similar measures.
State Department sources say they are considering a possible economic equivalent of NATO’s keystone Articlle 5, which states that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. Such a pact is farfetched—economic interests are more divergent than security—but a renewed multilateral approach could be a smart card to play.
“As China gets bigger and stronger, even non-allies and former enemies like Vietnam want the U.S. to play a more active role in the region,” says Delury. “Even Kim Jong Un worries about being beholden to Xi Jinping.”
This Is How Joe Biden Might Start Fixing America’s Relationship With China Wire Services/ TIME.