Unlike Russia, China cares how it is perceived by the outside world – though, admittedly, it does not apply this consistently and only in regard to certain countries. The United States is one of them. Thus, it has been careful not to appear to have a preference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden as the next US president. The absence of public avowals, however, does not mean policymakers don’t have a private preference. And that would be for Biden. No surprise there. But it remains useful to understand what this means in policy formulation.
Until this year, Beijing’s private preference was for Trump to win a second term. The damage that Trump had inflicted on American global leadership was seen as beneficial to China. Also, China did not believe that Trump bought into the Great Power competition narrative, and that in fact he acted as a check on the real anti-China hawks in his administration. Indeed, prior to this year, Trump had been reluctant to criticize Beijing on its actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and with Taiwan. Trump, instead, was viewed as a transactional president, interested in trade and business. China could live with that.
Covid-19 changed everything. While Beijing accepts it bears responsibility for its initial mismanagement of the outbreak, it also feels that the systemic failure of the US to deal with the disease hardly is China’s fault. Almost every country has made missteps and errors. China’s belief is that it shouldn’t be excoriated to the degree that it has by Trump just because it was the first.
Indeed, policymakers in Beijing are alarmed at the China bashing, which exists at a level not seen in over a generation. Beijing’s surprise at the toxicity has hampered prudent, measured response – such as, and especially, in Hong Kong, where it overreached. The more level-headed officials are concerned that for the first time in four decades, there is a real threat of a military clash with the US, potentially over Taiwan or the South China Sea. The more hot-headed ones welcome the opportunity for what would be a deadly contest.
It is because of this that more-sober planners in Beijing hope that a possible Biden administration will stabilize relations. In fact, since the time of Deng Xiaoping as paramount leader, China has prioritized stability in key bilateral relations – despite the occasional major ruptures, such as after Tiananmen. While some argue that Xi Jinping has upended that priority, the fact that China refuses to accept the notion of a “new Cold War” and insists on more cooperation between Washington and Beijing, suggests that his preference for the “Peaceful Rise” of China does not involve conflict with the United States.
Based on the expected composition of his foreign-policy team, the Chinese believe Biden will be an “restorationist” American leader. A return to what they understand as the “liberal hegemon” tradition of American foreign policy, supported by US foreign policy elites – as opposed to Trump’s non-conventional, ersatz advisors – would strengthen multilateral trade mechanisms such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the World Trade Organization. While the Trump administration pursued a strategy of exiting from a dizzying array of international organizations and protocols – almost an orgasmic celebration of insularity and isolationism – China expects Biden to recommit to multilateral forums.
This means Biden will have a long list of issues where China’s cooperation is not optional for the US – such as climate change, North Korea, Iran and global governance. Once these issues remerge as priorities, they will offer China more leverage to counter or balance US policies in other arenas through “issue linkage” – in other words, through good old-fashioned horse trading of interests.
That said, the Chinese view of Biden isn’t necessarily all positive. They expect Biden will bring back challenges to China that Trump has more or less ignored. Biden, expected to eschew go-alone policies, will rely on a coalition-based, collective approach to counter what is perceived as China threats – suspicions over the Belt and Road initiative and Chinese debt traps in Africa, being the more obvious ones.
Thus, while Trump’s “America First” doctrine in the first three years of his presidency allowed China to expand and deepen its influence, particularly in East Asia, this might soon end. By repairing America’s ties with allies and by reasserting the importance of American-led alliances, Washington could force China into isolation in various parts of the world. As a result, China could face an expanding anti-China coalition not only in the military arena, but also in terms of politics, economics, regional framework and rules and norms.
China has invested much into the Middle East even though this isn’t its core area of focus – it is what Beijing calls the “Grand Periphery” – in order to secure its energy needs and to intensify trade. It might begin to find that arena more constricted.
In addition, a President Biden also is expected to resume the Democratic party’s longstanding criticism of China’s domestic politics and human-rights record, areas that Trump mostly avoided in his first three years. Under a Biden administration, those criticisms will likely become more cogent.
And then, there are two large dangers. What if Biden turns out not to be any different? What if the bipartisan consensus against China in Washington is so deeply entrenched that he is not able to change anything? Thus, hawks in China argue that Beijing should continue to prepare for war. The second danger is that of a self-fulfilling prophecy – if neither side expects the other to be any different, any policy interaction between a Biden administration and China will start in an atmosphere of distrust, hostility and tit-for-tat retaliations.
Nevertheless, policy recommendations have been developed all summer through the early autumn in Beijing in anticipation of a Biden win. At a minimum, belief is that Sino-US relation won’t worsen. More thoughtful Chinese planners are not hoping for a rollback to the pre-Trump era, but for a reset that provides time and space for policy interlocutors to find a new equilibrium between the two.
Yun Sun is director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.