Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-US vice-president Joe Biden raise their glasses in a toast during a luncheon at the State Department in Washington on September 25, 2015. Image: Agencies / Pool

We are still waiting for confirmation of the winner of the US presidential election as this article goes online, though a victory for Democratic challenger Joe Biden looks likely. However it ultimately turns out, the result of the election will impact the entire global community, and perhaps no relationship will be affected more than that between the US and China.

Chinese officials reportedly have placed all policy decisions relating to the Sino-American relationship on hold for the past several months pending the results of the US election. But the big question all along has been whether a Biden administration would be any easier for China to deal with than Donald Trump’s administration has been.

Agent of change or custodian of continuity?

One of the key themes of the Trump administration has been to make China pay for the damage created by the Covid-19 pandemic. In this continuing refrain, one can almost hear the faint echoes of Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the southern border wall, which suggests that China may have little to fear in this regard.  

But if Biden emerges as the winner of the election, will that change the policy or the rhetoric? Biden’s camp is also on record saying that rather than act unilaterally as Trump is wont to do, Biden would “rally our friends and allies to hold China accountable” for a range of claimed abuses.  

Other than taking a more multilateral approach, it is anticipated that a Biden administration would not make a sharp break from Trump’s policy, other than in terms of tone.  

One former senior US official who has had long experience dealing with China, and who knows the policy advisers close to Biden, privately describes the Biden China team as “more pragmatic and less ideological” than the Trump administration’s China advisers.  

It would hardly be possible for the Biden China team to be more ideological than Peter Navarro, who serves as one of Trump’s principal advisers on China policy. 

Navarro is the author of the book Death by China, a self-described survival guide to outmaneuvering China, which he labels as “the planet’s most efficient assassin” by reason of its manufacture of what he alleges are defective and dangerous consumer products. He further asserts that China employs “weapons of jobs destruction.”  

Seeing China as the enemy

At the vice-presidential candidate debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, last month, moderator Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, asked the candidates to describe the fundamental relationship between the US and China, proffering three choices: competitors, adversaries, or enemies.  

Neither incumbent Vice-President Mike Pence nor his Democratic challenger, Senator Kamara Harris, directly answered the question, but when the same question was posed the next day to Navarro, he immediately responded “enemy.” 

So when Chinese officials claim that the Trump administration has adopted a policy of containment against China, they are not being paranoid, and in fact, Navarro and certain other administration officials likely would proudly acknowledge the same.  

According to a former senior trade official under both presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, who spoke off the record, a Biden administration likely would “try to find ways to cooperate where possible and deal with areas where we have irreconcilable difference in principled was that lessen the risk of outright conflict.” 

In other words, tone matters.

Anti-China sentiments in developed nations

But beyond a change in tone, there are several reasons to expect a high level of continuity in terms of the US China policy. First, negative sentiment toward China among Americans is at an all-time high.  

According to a recent Pew Research report, 73% of Americans surveyed have a strongly negative view of China. This represents a 20-percentage-point increase since President Trump took office, rising 13 points since last year, corresponding to the period impacted by the pandemic.

It may seem that there is a correlation between Trump’s barrage of verbal attacks on China and the rise in negative public sentiment, but similar increases in unfavorable views of China were reported in the same Pew survey in Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, Spain and Canada. So this is not strictly a product of Trump rhetoric.

Moreover, this is not even a partisan issue in the US. The 2020 Democratic Party Platform states, “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.”  

One senior US diplomat commented privately that he has never seen such a high level of unanimity across the aisle in terms of the posture vis-a-vis China. Writing in Politico last year, Zachary Karabell concurred with this observation, noting that the animosity toward China “runs deep in American society and cuts across partisan lines and geography, with politicians across the spectrum regularly asserting Beijing’s status as an adversary.”   

All of this means that Biden likely would have limited leeway to make a dramatic departure from the Trump administration’s China policy because public sentiment and political realities have hardened to such an extent that no major substantive policy changes may be possible.  

The controversy about his family dealings in China, even though not yet proven to be improper from a legal perspective, might also induce Biden to hold to a harder line with China, similar to the Trump position in many respects, in order to establish that his policy independence has not been compromised.  

But if Biden does assume the presidency, we can expect that the tone should be different, and some adjustments can be made around the edges of the policy in a more pragmatic less ideological way. 

Is there an off-ramp?

It is interesting to note that in her framing of the question on China in the vice-presidential debate, moderator Susan Page listed only three options to describe the relationship with China: competitors, adversaries and enemies. No positive or constructive adjective was proffered, suggesting that her working presumption was that the bilateral relationship is defined only in terms of distance, distrust and tension.  

In other words, Page’s conceptual framework (which we may assume is representative of the views of the US mainstream media generally) was in alignment with the consensus view, which is not far removed from current Trump administration policy, something reporters would generally be loath to acknowledge.  

The consensus framing of the bilateral relationship in such pejorative terms presents a major obstacle to constructive engagement and dialogue. We are pushing each other away, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In his October 2019 Politico piece cited above, which obviously predated the Covid-19 outbreak, Karabell made a similar observation: “The hardening of attitudes toward China across a wide swath of American society seems to be resulting in bad policy: confrontational and punitive strategies that are just hardcore enough to undermine relations, but not nearly sufficient to pressure China into making systemic changes or to help the United States find viable alternatives to the needs China currently fulfills.”

Karabell continued, “Unless Americans begin to revise their impression of China, recognizing its limitations and its vast potential and treating it as a partner rather than a foe, China is unlikely to alter course; in fact, it is entirely possible that more and more draconian measures could plunge the United States and China into a deep economic tailspin.”

In the current environment, while the US, Europe and many other parts of the world continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic, Karabell’s position may seem to some to be disconnected from reality, even naive. 

But he is in good company. Former British prime minister Tony Blair has proposed a three-prong approach to dealing with China: cooperate, compete and confront. 

“The USA, Europe and our Asian allies should stand together so that any partnership with China comes from a position of strength,” Blair said in June. “We will have to live with the reality that we will in some areas have to be prepared to confront China where its actions conflict with the reasonable interests and values of the wider international community.”

For its part, China could frame the relationship in similar terms: cooperate in respect of matters of shared interest to the global community, such as public health and poverty reduction; compete in terms of technological advancement, the development of business and regulatory models for the new century to replace outdated models from the past century, and even in respect of the scope and spheres of influence through the legitimate exercise of soft power; and confront abuses of the legacy global system designed by and for the benefit of the US and the other Western industrialized nations, where such abuses are intended to constrain a “risen China” (Blair’s term) for inappropriate competitive advantage rather than the protection and promotion of core interests and values. 

Avoiding a zero sum approach

The issues that attach to the US-China relationship are complex, sensitive and multifaceted, and there are no simple solutions. But solutions must be sought. The risks associated with a broader decoupling of the top two economies in the world are too high. No one wins if the US and China define their relationship only or primarily in zero-sum terms.

The key is mutual trust, but that is currently in extremely short supply. Mutual trust on both sides had already reached a low ebb during the Sino-US trade war, and then the Covid-19 pandemic abruptly re-scrambled the pieces on the bilateral relationship chessboard.  

These realities cannot be ignored, and rebuilding trust will take time and require a de-escalation of harsh rhetoric and a willingness to engage in frank and transparent dialogue, with both sides seeking to promote legitimate self-interests through the recognition of shared mutual interests, without abandoning core values.  

The pending outcome of the US presidential election presents an opportunity to reset the conversation no matter the result.  

If Trump wins re-election and soon thereafter a Covid-19 vaccine is made available, and the US economy continues to recover (as China’s has), then the conversation becomes easier, but he will need to back off of the aggressive, punitive measures he has taken and adopt a more pragmatic and balanced approach to the relationship.  

If Biden wins, resetting the dialogue becomes easier simply because he is not Trump.   

In either case, a productive relationship with China, one that avoids complete decoupling while recognizing and addressing the full range of issues, is in the best interests of the US and the entire world.

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Robert Lewis

Robert Lewis is a lawyer licensed in California. He has worked in leading US, UK and Chinese law firms in China for nearly 30 years. He is a co-founder of the China Going Global think-tank, and is the author of the book The Rules of the Game of Global M&A: Why So Many Chinese Outbound Deals Fail. He is fluent in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese.