As United States President-elect Joe Biden faces an ugly, potentially contested transition, foreign policy may be the last thing on his mind.
But in capitals around the world, foreign leaders are already clamoring for his attention, hoping to reset relationships and restore norms that shifted under President Donald Trump.
Nowhere will there be greater opportunity for a shift than in the US-China relationship, which has deteriorated to historic lows during Trump’s term in office. Over the past four years, both sides have slapped the other with trade tariffs, restricted access for tech companies, journalists and diplomats, shuttered consulates, and squared off militarily in the South China Sea.
Analysts in both countries are still debating whether Biden will embrace Trump’s more punitive policies towards China or move to reset relations between Washington and Beijing.
Even in Chinese state-run media, there are signs the ruling Communist Party is holding its breath, unsure of which direction the new administration will take.
“China should not harbor any illusions that Biden’s election will ease or bring a reversal to China-US relations, nor should it weaken its belief in improving bilateral ties. US competition with China and its guard against China will only intensify,” state-run tabloid Global Times said in an editorial Sunday.
As yet, no official policy statements on China have been released by the Biden transition team. Biden, though, is no foreign policy novice. During his almost five decades in national politics, Biden has repeatedly brushed up against China. As a senator, he played a role in China becoming a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Analysts are now looking back over past statements and more recent comments made on the campaign trail for insight into how Biden will approach what might be his most pressing foreign policy challenge.
Relations with Beijing
During the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president from 2009 to 2017, relations with Beijing were assigned a high degree of importance, stemming in part from China’s new status as the world’s second-largest economy.
Though China was gaining strength both economically and militarily, diplomacy during this period was guided for the most part by attempts at cooperation, rather than confrontation. Major disputes were mostly contained, and centered on security issues, such as China’s military buildup in the South China Sea and cyber espionage.
According to Obama, the relationship between two countries would shape the 21st century, and therefore stable relations were critical not only for the US, but for the world at large.
Biden traveled to Beijing on numerous occasions during efforts to gain Chinese support for a number of key Obama policies, including attempts to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
During one such trip in 2013, Biden met with President Xi Jinping, who referred to the then-vice president as an “old friend of China.” A scheduled 45-minute private talk between the two leaders ran for two hours.
In public remarks, Biden described relations in optimistic terms. “If we get this relationship right with a genuine new model, the possibilities are limitless.”
But despite accusations from the Trump campaign that Biden was too close to China, there is evidence that his views have shifted in recent years in line with the changing mood in Washington, where Beijing is increasingly viewed not as America’s potential partner, but as its primary rival.
During the Democratic primaries in February, Biden referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug,” and said that Beijing had to “play by the rules.” A Biden campaign ad in June accused Trump of getting “played” by China.
The renewed focus on China is evident in the Democratic Party platform document, which was released in August 2020. During the last presidential campaign in 2016 the document made only seven references to China. This year’s version had more than 22.
“Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government,” the 2020 platform said.
One of the main planks of President Trump’s foreign policy platform has been his trade war with China.
Since mid-2018, the Trump administration has placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, in an attempt to drive down the US trade deficit with China and force Beijing to further open its economy.
Beijing and Washington struck a “phase one” trade deal in January 2020, but many areas of disagreement still remain unaddressed, including China’s subsidies for state-owned companies that are competing on the global market.
Recent remarks from Biden suggest he would continue to take action against Beijing over its economic policies. But in an interview with NPR in August, he made it clear he believed that tariffs were as bad for the US as they were for China.
“Manufacturing’s gone in recession. Agriculture lost billions of dollars that taxpayers had to pay. We’re going after China in the wrong way,” he said.
Instead Biden appears to favor building a global coalition to force China into liberalizing its economy.
“What I’d make China do is play by the international rules, not like he has done,” Biden said during his second debate with Trump in October. “We need to be having the rest of our friends with us saying to China, ‘These are the rules. You play by them, or you’re going to pay the price for not playing by them economically’.”
There are also signs that Biden may embrace aspects of Trump’s tech war against China. Under Trump, the US has tried to push diplomatic partners to reject 5G technology made in China, cut off Beijing from vital US components and targeted popular apps run by Chinese companies.
Biden said in September that he was concerned about the widely-used Chinese-owned app TikTok, which has been a prominent target of the Trump administration. “I think that it’s a matter of genuine concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people particularly in the United States of America,” he said.
In the 2020 Democratic Platform, there is another hint that a Biden administration will continue Trump’s push to stop allies from using 5G technology produced by Chinese tech giant Huawei. “We will work with our allies and partners to develop secure 5G networks and address threats in cyberspace,” the platform said.
South China Sea
Both the Obama and the Trump administrations have pursued policies that pushed back against the Chinese government’s broad, unproven claims in the South China Sea.
It was during the Obama-Biden administration that the Chinese government began to construct and militarize artificial islands in the vast waterway. The US then started freedom of navigation operations in the region, sailing US naval vessels in close proximity to the artificial islands and reefs built by Beijing in a show that Washington would not acknowledge China’s claims.
Under Trump, the US has stepped up these operations and publicly declared that “most” of China’s claims to the sea are illegal.
Biden has made no major public statements on the South China Sea but there is no indication at this stage that he will reverse Trump’s tough policies in the region – he might even strengthen them.
In 2016 the Democratic platform referred simply to protecting “freedom of the seas in the South China Sea.” Four years later, it now explicitly warns of “the Chinese military’s intimidation” in the region.
More than once during his campaign, Biden has told the story of how he bluntly informed President Xi in 2013 that the US would continue to fly planes through the region, despite the Chinese government setting up an unrecognized Air Defense Identification Zone.
“(He said) you can’t fly through them. I said we’re going to fly through them … We’re not going to pay attention,” Biden said during his second debate with Trump in October.
Biden has reinforced his position on staring down China’s expansionist claims in Asia Pacific since becoming President-elect. In a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide on Thursday, Biden committed to defending the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both Japan and China.
Under President Trump, the US has moved to strengthen official ties with Taiwan, especially during the past 12 months. The Trump administration has authorized billions of dollars of arms sales to the self-governed island and, in August, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became most senior US official to visit Taiwan in decades.
Biden has long been in favor of US support for Taiwan and its democratically elected government. In fact, during his time as a senator, the President-elect voted for the original Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which allowed the US to maintain unofficial relations with Taipei while also formally recognizing the Beijing government.
China maintains that Taiwan is part of its territory, even though the two sides have been governed separately since the end of a civil war in 1949. Chinese President Xi has pledged to “reunite” Taiwan with mainland China, by force if necessary.
In an opinion piece written in 2001, the then-senator said that the US had a “vital interest in helping Taiwan sustain its vibrant democracy.” But he made it clear that the US didn’t have an “obligation” to defend the island from attack. “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Biden hasn’t spoken extensively about Taiwan on the campaign trail or since beginning his transition. But there is no indication he is planning to back down on Trump’s policies.
Biden tweeted his congratulations to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen when she was reelected in January 2020 and she reciprocated when he won in November.
In a telling sign, the Democratic Party removed all mention of a “One China” policy from its platform in 2020, the agreement by which the US acknowledged that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it.
The policy, which had featured in 2016, was replaced by new seemingly updated language. Instead, the Democrats are now committed to continuing “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
Xinjiang and Hong Kong
Since the Trump administration took power in 2017, there has been a growing stream of reports of widespread human rights abuses in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
The US State Department estimates up to 2 million citizens from Muslim minorities, including a large number of Uyghur people, have been held in detention centers, where former detainees allege they were indoctrinated, abused and even sterilized.
In the past 12 months, the Trump administration has taken a series of punitive actions against China over its Xinjiang policies, including sanctions targeting Communist Party officials and bans on goods made possibly with Uyghur forced labor.
Ahead of the election on November 3, a number of Uyghur exiles told CNN that they were concerned that Biden wasn’t tough enough to take on Beijing and produce real results for their friends and families in Xinjiang.
But all statements by Biden, his campaign and the Democratic Party point show little tolerance for Beijing’s alleged targeting of the Uyghurs and hints that a Biden administration will take further action.
Speaking about Chinese President Xi at a Democratic Primary debate in February, Biden said, “This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uyghurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.”
The Biden campaign has labeled China’s actions in Xinjiang “genocide,” a label which the Trump administration was still debating earlier this year. If a Biden administration adopted the same language, it would put the US far ahead of most other nations in its condemnation of Beijing.
Exiled Uyghurs aren’t alone in their concerns that Trump leaving the White House would lead to the US backing down on its tough approach to China.
Many pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong, who have been struggling against a Chinese government crackdown on civil liberties in the international financial hub, had also hoped for a second Trump term, citing concerns that Biden won’t be tough enough on Beijing.
But in a statement in May, Biden’s campaign blamed Trump for China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and promised that going forward there would be “clear, strong, and consistent on values when it comes to China.”
CNN’s James Griffiths, Steven Jiang and Jill Disis contributed to this story.