American farmers and ranchers have learned something important about the new administration’s China policy. President-elect Joe Biden told a New York Times columnist that he won’t be in a hurry to lower the tariffs on Chinese goods or abandon the Phase One trade deal.
From the same source we know, too, that Biden wants to focus on some of the knotty issues that Trump said he would tackle in talks over a possible Phase Two deal – what Biden calls China’s “abusive practices,” such as stealing intellectual property, dumping products, subsidizing corporations illegally and forcing American companies to hand over technology.
Finally, we know that Biden plans to coordinate China policy with America’s allies. He thinks it will be easier for a coalition of countries to get results with China than the US acting alone.
But that leaves a great many things we don’t know about how the incoming administration will deal with China.
We’re hungry to know more because China both buys enormous amounts of what American agriculture produces and poses an enormous challenge to America’s position in the world. Rising prices for corn and soybeans in recent months have reminded farmers and ranchers what a difference Chinese purchases can make.
One of the main things we don’t know about future China policy is how the President-elect will reconcile competing priorities.
If negotiations with the Chinese leave him with a choice between making progress toward ending abusive practices and building on the Phase One promise to import more American products, which will he choose?
If America’s allies want to go softer on the Chinese than the US does, how far will Biden be willing to bend?
If the price of a stronger Chinese commitment to fight climate change is easing American sanctions against China’s human rights suppressions, will he be willing to pay that price?
If obtaining Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea requires softening criticism of China’s aggression in the South China Sea, will he bite his tongue?
If budgetary constraints force him to choose between expanding America’s military presence in the Western Pacific and making domestic industrial-policy investments, which will he choose?
On a spectrum between “engagement” and “decoupling,” where will he come down?
What compromises, in other words, will a President Biden be willing to make?
We know, from observing his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, that he’s capable of changing his mind and making compromises. For example, as a senator Biden often voted to sanction China over human-rights violations but at critical junctures also voted for normalized trade relations with China.
According to an analysis by the Institute for China America Studies, “Biden’s past and present legislative and policy record shows that he has been very flexible and contradictory in his votes and rhetoric, lacking solid ground on where he stands exactly on economic, societal, and security issues with China.”
(The ICAS is a Chinese-supported Washington think tank, but this analysis seems fact-based and relatively objective. It contains a detailed listing of Biden’s votes and other actions.)
Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees Biden’s advisors divided between “restorationists” favoring Obama-like policies and “reformists.” If that’s the case Biden’s China policy may lie somewhere between the two camps, perhaps with objectives more like Trump’s based on skepticism of globalism and tactics more like Obama’s, embracing multilateralism.
Despite electioneering efforts to paint the president-elect as “Beijing Biden,” the Chinese have no illusions that the incoming administration will be pro-China. They’re preparing for the possibility of increased conflicts and worried that a multilateral approach could actually increase the pressure on China.
Yet while the Chinese may be right in anticipating a continuing negative attitude toward them, they have no clearer idea than we do how that attitude will translate into specific policies. The world will be watching with interest, America’s farmers and ranchers very much included.
Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published December 10 by that news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.