Brief # 103

Foreign Policy

The American-Chinese Relationship & the Incoming Biden Administration 

By Will Solomon

January 4, 2021

Policy Summary:

Over its nearly four years in office, the Trump administration’s relationship with China has been nothing if not visibly inconsistent. Trump has, on the one hand, appeared to cultivate a dynamic personal relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping—he has publicly praised Xi on multiple occasions and, broadly speaking, clearly appears to revere the “strongman” image. His offhand comments about a desire to be “president-for-life,” akin to Xi, should probably not be dismissed so easily. On the other hand, Trump has taken a number of aggressive and inflammatory steps towards China—including imposing numerous tariffs, working to prohibit access to the US for certain Chinese companies and apps, cultivating a closer relationship with Taiwan—and perhaps most recently, consistently maligning China for being the source of the novel coronavirus, routinely in plainly racist ways.

The often incoherent approach, while characteristic of Trump’s general style, does reflect longstanding trends in US policy. Chief among these, in recent years, might be the Obama Administration’s so-called “pivot-to Asia.” The central component of this strategy involved a redeployment of American military and economic force towards Asia and the Pacific, in order to counter emergent Chinese power. In other words, the bilateral relationship has involved a high degree of recent competition and antagonism that predates Trump—including actions like reaffirming military relationships with countries like South Korea and Japan (and Taiwan, which China does not recognize as independent), calling out China for development in areas like the South China Sea, and bolstering American regional alliances and trade agreements. Broadly, these actions have wide bipartisan support.

However—this is only part of the story. The more complex component is obviously the interconnection of global capitalism, which inextricably enmeshes China with Western multinational corporations. Indeed, China’s entry into the global capitalist system was often supported by elite sectors within the USA and the West, for various reasons. We are seeing a particularly horrific example of the negative consequences of this recently, as a number of multinational companies have come under scrutiny for apparently profiting off slave labor in China’s Xianjiang region, where a mass internment program has been underway for several years.


When one considers the complexity of the American-Chinese relationship, it becomes increasingly clear that a change in administration in the United States may not dramatically alter the dynamics underlying the bilateral relationship. A cooling of rhetoric is certainly good, but represents only one aspect of a complex, competitive, (and at times, ideally cooperative) relationship.

It is noteworthy that one of Biden’s first ads once he clinched the Democratic nomination was a highly aggressive indictment of China. While not as vulgar or racist as Trump’s references to the “China Virus,” the ad was nationalistic and certainly did not signal a significant drawdown of tensions with China.

Indeed, Biden’s approach towards China has tended to ebb and flow over time, conforming to the orthodoxy of the moment. Thus, for much of his career Biden enthusiastically supported integrating China into the global economic order, under the then-widespread notion that such integration would help to spur reform and liberalization within China. That approach has now largely been abandoned as China has hewn to an anti-liberal approach, and the dominant political mood of the moment is, at the very least, mildly hostile to China.

Thus, it seems likely that Biden will continue to pursue a confrontational approach towards China, if a less erratic one than Trump. Recognizing this reality, it remains imperative that a Biden administration work with China on crucial international challenges: climate change, the global response to the pandemic, and denuclearization, among others. Biden may be limited in his ability to maneuver, and on some level, the ideal engagement that many progressives desire is unlikely to be pursued. Yet the seriousness of these issues demands collaboration, and a Biden administration would do best to pursue an approach that takes this seriously.


Engagement Resources: — “The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing. Our country’s current circumstances demand it.” — “Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues. On Democracy Now!, you’ll hear a diversity of voices speaking for themselves, providing a unique and sometimes provocative perspective on global events.” — “China Dialogue is an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting a common understanding of China’s environmental challenges.”

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