As the United States of America comes to the conclusion of the most fiercely contested and polarized election in its history, the world looks on to see how this transfer of power would impact the brewing cold war of the 21st century. In a polarized electorate, Trump and Biden could not be further apart in most policy positions, however, the one common theme in both their policy papers, promises and debates was the growing threat from the east, People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both of the candidates spent a substantial amount of time in their debates trying to one up each other and trying to prove who could take a stronger stance against China, they also spent a lot of energy on accusing each other of being in cahoots with the enemy.
At the beginning of his tenure, Trump tried to cultivate a personal relationship with Xi Jinping, under the impression that strong personal ties would encourage Xi Jinping to be more amicable with regards China’s foreign policy towards the US. What Trump later learned was that nothing was more important to Xi Jinping than national interest. Former National Security Advisor, John Bolton even accused Trump of requesting Xi Jinping to help him with the then upcoming presidential elections.
Overtime Trump became increasingly confrontational with China and imposed sanctions on officials involved in the persecution of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and even revoked Hong Kong’s special status for diplomacy and trade in response to China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. However, Trump’s inconsistent foreign policy was routinely exposed as he delayed imposing sanctions on China, failed to clearly lay down a response to the situation in Taiwan and Tibet and his isolationist approach ignored the rabid debt-diplomacy policy of China.
As Biden takes the reigns of a divided government with diverse senators, it is clear that the threat of China is one which has bipartisan acceptance, to the point that their legislature passed a resolution unilaterally opposing the genocide of Uyghurs. There is growing consensus within the country that China is in fact one of the greatest threats ever faced by the US, especially when seen in the context of China’s aggressive and expansionist approach within its neighbouring areas, south china sea and rapidly growing influence of the Belt and Road Initiative. China has also become the strongest economic rival to US by becoming the largest exporter and manufacturer in the world, an even more pressing issue for the US is that China, at $25.27 trillion, has also trumped US to become the largest economy by GDP in Purchasing Power Parity terms.
To a significant extent it can also be assumed that the US has abandoned the ‘one-China’ policy and thus Biden has very few options in front of him on how to approach China, more so considering that the relationship between US and China is at an all-time low. Biden’s own writings and policy positions point towards continuing the same strategy of opposing China while employing a different set of tactics than Trump. While Trump’s erratic approach saw him directly confront China at best and confuse personal relationship with national interest at worst, Biden will look to form a coalition of democratic nations to put economic pressure on China, presumably he will look to use this coalition to provide economic support to countries which have been caught in China’s debt trap policy. Although it is yet to be seen exactly how Biden plans on supporting these nations as he has been unclear on whether he will look to provide alternate debt support or free trade agreements.
While Biden is unlikely to be as confrontational as Trump, he is likely to have a far more stable policy position. Biden brings with him significant foreign policy experience and has claimed that he will reinvigorate old alliances and international promises. However, considering Biden’s commitment to returning to the Paris Climate treaty, it is possible that he could be forced to seek cooperation with China on issues such as nuclear arms control, climate change and a broader consensus against North Korea. However, Biden has not stepped back from promising to detach US from the clutches of Chinese technology by ensuring “clean network” by banning Huawei and other Chinese services, he has also promised to invest in the fields of quantum computing, clean energy, artificial intelligence, 5G technology to combat the progress China has made. He has clearly laid down how his foreign policy will continue strengthening the QUAD alliance to counter the growing influence and expansionist policies of China in the region. Biden has also promised to meet Dalai Lama to overtly sanction China over atrocities in Tibet, something Trump not only failed to do but also became the first President to not meet Dalai Lama since 1991.
The significance of this meeting cannot be overstated as several US presidents in the past met Dalai Lama multiple times, Biden has not only committed to restarting this age-old practice but is also willing to appoint a new Special coordinator for Tibetan issues, a position which has been empty since 2017. While the Trump administration was not ‘soft’ on China, Biden has presented a policy position which seems to be far more stable and concise. The cold war between US and China has reached new heights and Biden’s handling of the Belt and Road Initiative could be a pivotal strategic point in this battle. This race to maintain US’s supremacy is only going to escalate at a rapid pace, however, China is likely to face a new set of tactics in Biden’s cooperation and consensus-based approach.
(Abhishek Ranjan is Founder of Delhi-based Think Tank Red Lantern Analytica)