As Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021, he resumed a cataclysmic course of events – from the devastating wave of Covid-19 to pressing issues like climate change, inequality and the racism.
He inherited four years of escalating trade tensions with China, leading to a bitter trade war and the sanctioning of Chinese tech companies. Now all eyes are on Biden. Will he continue the painfully hawkish policies of the Trump era, or will he adopt a conciliatory policy of engagement with China?
Many are hopeful that the president tidies up the mess and establishes the rules of engagement, but it seems that while Biden may appear less belligerent, he is tough on politics, taking coercive action and building strategic alliances to counter China.
Biden, like his predecessor, is primarily concerned with cybersecurity, the protection of US user data, national security, the revitalization of the US economy, and human rights issues in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. In its first six months, his administration continued Trump’s coercive policy of banning business with Huawei and a long list of tech companies, blacklisting them for national security reasons. He also urged other governments to remove Chinese technology from their next-generation 5G telecommunications system. He sanctioned Chinese and Hong Kong officials for Beijing’s repressive policies in Hong Kong and left Trump-era tariffs in place, testing optimism that US-China relations would improve under his tenure.
Much to the dismay of many, the Biden administration officially affirmed the Trump administration’s label of “genocide” applied to the persecution of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and consequently banned imports of solar panels from Xinjiang in due to allegations of forced labor reducing relations with Chinese companies further. In a calculated move, the United States garnered support from allies like the UK, the EU and Canada to exert maximum influence and sanction China on so-called human rights issues. Biden’s crackdown on China has tarnished the hopes of Chinese companies and disappointed investors who hoped the deteriorating relationship would improve under Biden.
China retaliates with a counter-retaliatory approach. He denied any cooperation in the investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 epidemic, stepped up military incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and continued his actions in Hong Kong.
The Biden administration has based its doctrine on the belief that China is “less interested in coexistence and more interested in domination” and the task of US policy is to blunt Chinese ambitions. Beijing urged Washington to stop “demonizing” China and change its “misguided and dangerous” policy, which is a thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, during her first major meeting of the world’s major economies in China, raised questions about media freedoms, cybersecurity, human rights in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang and China’s military action in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea claims. Beijing has demanded the lifting of sanctions against Chinese officials and visa restrictions on Chinese students, as well as an end to the “suppression” of Chinese companies. Both seek constructive ways of engagement and responsible management of US-China relations after the turmoil of the Trump years.
Despite these frictions and resentments, it is difficult to disentangle the two largest economies in the world. Imports and exports are at a high rate and China asserts its authority to dominate critical technologies – some analysts say “globally”. The Chinese economy is set to become the largest in the world within 10 to 15 years, with investment in research and development increasing dramatically. The number of countries trading with China is greater than that of the United States; they are now looking to China for their prosperity. Businesses and financial institutions are opposing a firm position and pushing for a relaxation of import and export controls.
America can’t contain China like it did with the Soviet Union, experts say, so Biden wants to counter China’s influence by increasing America’s influence. Biden’s emerging strategy is to restore America to greatness and invest in itself so that it can deal with China from a position of strength. Therefore, the US Innovation and Competition Law 2021 was passed in June to increase funding for the US tech industry to compete with Chinese tech supremacy. To counter Chinese influence diplomatically, economically and militarily, the Strategic Competition Act 2021 was enacted to support the United States’ global leadership role by considering further assistance to Indo-Pacific countries. to counter the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Likewise, Build Back Better World or B3W, a response to China’s BIS, was recently announced at the G7 summit by Biden.
The challenge is to keep the relationship in the realm of competition, not conflict. While there can be cooperation on climate, trade is not impossible. Instead of trumpeting the Chinese threat bandwagon, Biden must forge partnerships, resuscitate the multilateral system, invest domestically, end protectionism, and be the leader of an open global economy that constructively engages with an emerging economy of the world.
The author holds an LLM in International Economic Law from the University of Warwick.
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