US President Joe Biden would be wise to reject former president Donald Trump’s thinking on China. Photo: Getty Images / AFP / Samuel Corum

Worsening US-China relations to gain votes was irresponsible, dangerous, and definitely not a vote generator for former US president Donald Trump as he had hoped. Trump’s trade, technology and geopolitical wars against China did resonate with his supporters, but in the end, it was largely the tariffs and mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic that cost him a second term.

The tariffs held back US economic recovery because they raised production costs and consumer prices. The former reduced US competitiveness while the latter impeded consumption – both of which accounted for more than 85% of gross domestic product, after all.

Blaming China for the Covid-19 pandemic did deflect attention away from Trump’s inept handling of the virus, but it helped create a health crisis in which more than 40 million Americans were infected by and 400,000 had died from the disease by the time he left the White House. The pandemic forced business shutdowns, sinking the economy into a recession in 2020.

By escalating Trump’s anti-China policies, his successor President Joe Biden would inflict even more damage on the US economy, polity and society. For example, not doing enough to curb the pandemic has already resulted in more than a million people being infected, bringing the accumulative total to more than 60 million at the time of writing this article. That number, along with that of associated deaths, would increase, posing a problem for the economy.

Instead of caving in, however, China became stronger. One reason was that Beijing was stepping up measures to counter US containment policies. China doubled down on expanding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a way to diversify away from the US (and its allies), for example.

BRI trade and investment accumulated to more than US$9 trillion and $140 billion respectively from 2013 to 2021. The number of countries participating in the BRI climbed to 140 from around 60 in 2013.

By all accounts, these numbers will increase, because the BRI does bring economic opportunities to the participating countries. Infrastructure investment, for example, hastened economic development, creating jobs for the host countries.

With China’s huge domestic market of more than 1.4 billion people and billions more in the countries benefiting from the BRI, it would be able to withstand any US economic sanctions or boycotts.

The Chinese government’s effective control of the pandemic and resilience in combating economic headwinds were the main reasons for the World Bank and other organizations predicting that the Chinese economy would grow by 6% in 2021 and more than 5% annually between 2023 and 2025.

The same cannot be said about the US economy. Unable to curb the surge of the Omicron variant of Covid, the US Federal Reserve expected the economy to grow at 4% in 2021 and averaging around 2% annually between 2022 and 2025.

If history is a guide, poor economic performance alone could sink Biden’s chance for a second term in 2024. George H W Bush lost the election to the relatively unknown Bill Clinton in 1992 because of a faltering economy.

Anti-China policies have ironic effect

Anti-China policies not only backfired on the US but, in part, were responsible for China accelerating its economic and technological prowess. Barring China from participating in the International Space Station, for example, ended up with it building its own. Denying Chinese technology companies advanced chips and chip-making equipment prompted the government to increase spending on research and development, speeding up self-sufficiency in producing those technologies.

The same could be said for advancements in military technology. If the US had not “pivoted” to Asia or conducted “freedom of navigation operations,” and recruited allies to join the fight, China might not be developing and producing so many weapons. Indeed, Beijing would probably rather spend the money on economic development.

It is fair to suggest that China’s military buildup was defensive, making it costly and difficult for the US to intimidate or bully it. Unlike smaller and weaker countries in the Middle East or elsewhere, China can hit back at the US if pushed into a corner.

A million reasons to reset US-China relations

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Biden should reset the US-China relationship. Cooperating with the Asian power would bring benefits rather than despair. For example, the US can learn from China’s “draconian” measures in curbing the pandemic, because they worked.

Harsh lockdown measures were costly, to be sure, but it was a case of short-term pain for long-term gains. Bottling up the virus allowed China to open the economy sooner rather than later. For instance, the Purchasing Managers’ Index rose to 50.9 in December from November’s 49.9. A PMI over 50 indicates an expansion in manufacturing.

Other Chinese economic indicators such as international trade and domestic consumption are pointing to a healthy recovery and increasing China’s global clout in the 14th Five-Year Plan from 2021 to 2025. With a huge market, domestic consumption should sustain stable economic growth. Increasing numbers of nations are joining its Belt and Road Initiative because it brings trade, investment and employment opportunities.

So Biden has everything to gain by resetting the US-China relationship. China could help him fulfill his campaign promises: rejuvenate the economy, keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay, meet climate-policy goals, etc.

Biden’s legacy and place in history would be positive. He would be portrayed as a great statesman who worked for America and reached out to friends and foes to make the world a safe and prosperous place.

Challenges ahead

However, resetting the US-China relationship would be an uphill battle, given America’s strong anti-China sentiments and political culture.

Largely because of subjective information fanned by anti-China or self-serving politicians, media and pundits, the most Americans view China negatively. They might actually believe China is as bad or evil as the anti-China crowd portrays it.

Relying solely on the words of politicians, most Americans believe the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was created in a Chinese lab to be spread across the globe. Similarly, the majority of Americans believe that China “hollowed out” American factories and stole their jobs.

If Biden is able to overcome these huge political obstacles, he will indeed be able to gain a second term and a place in history.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.