Many thought newly minted US President Joe Biden's first test in Asia would revolve around China. Interestingly, his first Asian challenge is instead a military coup in Myanmar. Nonetheless, the world should not expect a kiss and make-up between China and the USA after the turbulent Trump era.
China was very slow to react to Biden's electoral victory. Yet at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi in his online speech, without a trace of irony, warned: "The strong should not bully the weak. Decisions should not be made by simply showing off strong muscles or waving a big fist". He told the world, "We should stay committed to international law and international rules, instead of seeking one's own supremacy," and, "To build small cliques or start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others...will only push the world into division."
Most nations see through the hypocrisy of Xi's words, with China bullying those who stands up to it, grabbing territory along the Indian border, or threatening any who seek to uphold international law in the South China Sea.
It is therefore up to China to prove its words are not deceitful by not "showing off strong muscles or waving a big fist". The same is true for its relationship with the USA. The incoming government will want to see tangible signs of Beijing's good faith.
Xi in his Davos speech was already taking a dig at Biden. He said, "Multilateralism should not be used as pretense for unilateralism ... selective multilateralism should not be our option." China is very afraid Biden will rally a strong coalition and concerted front to stand up to Chinese antics.
There are signals that Beijing is quietly advocating for talks with the White House, and State Councilor Yang Jiechi may be the first to try and clear the air in White House talks. The benign appeasement of Barack Obama's governance seems well and truly dead, if all early signals emanating from Washington DC are anything to go by.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "Strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century. China is engaged in conduct that hurts American workers, blunts our technological edge and threatens our alliances and our influence in international organizations."
The White House early on was adamant it would support Taiwan, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price vowing, "Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid."
So far, then, Biden's stance on China is the same as that of Trump's, even if the tone is less acerbic. One notable difference, however, is the USA's repeated reference to allies and partners, showing Biden will try to create a much stronger multilateral front. Nor will Biden push for regime change as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was at the end of his tenure.
On 21 January 2021, the Department of Government and International Studies at the Baptist University of Hong Kong conducted a round-table webinar entitled "Sino-US Relations in the Biden Era: Conflict, Competition or Cooperation?"
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Chair Professor of Political Science at the university, began by saying that any wishful thinking in China that there will be a reset of the Sino-US relation under Biden is "not going to happen". He referred to "growing bipartisan awareness in the US that China is not only a repressive regime, and that it perhaps poses a military threat to the United States".
Although Biden sometimes sends mixed signals, Cabestan thinks overall about the new US government that "it's very much a tough line that's been adopted ... It will be more predictable, steadier, but at the same time the danger for China may be stronger than Trump..."
Furthermore, key personnel such as Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan state the era of engagement with China is over and lamented that past diplomatic efforts have not brought about any changes in China's system. The belief that US relations with China will return to business as usual is, therefore "flat out wrong," said Doctor Seanon Wong, Assistant Professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, during the same webinar.
On financial issues, Cabestan thinks "economic decoupling will stop or at least be more selective, and the trade war may be less acute. I think the Biden administration will be more organized to impose a more level playing field on China." There will be major competition in technology, though, as China desperately tries to catch up with the USA.
Numerous American companies are present in China, and they do want to stay there and not remove their production lines. "Of course, China will continue to lobby the US business community and also pressure the bigger companies against additional sanctions against China. Whether this lobbying will succeed, we need to see, as the Biden administration will be under pressure from people and Congress to continue to abide by the moves made by the Trump administration."
On human rights, Cabestan suspected that Biden will exhibit more activism. "The problem with the Trump administration is that he woke up to the human rights situation pretty late, and I can see the Democrats will be more ready to put pressure on China on issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong and activists and dissidents in China."
Little is likely to change in security tensions either. "On security issues, on Taiwan first, Biden will affirm the One China Policy; I don't think he'll threaten it ... On the South China Sea, I don't see any major change, but what I see is that there may be a possibility eventually of American Congress ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. There's still a lot of opposition to that in the US, but it'll be very helpful to the US and its argument regarding the 2016 arbitration award about the South China Sea and the Philippines to ratify that."
On North Korea, Cabestan sees the possibility of greater cooperation with China, instead of Trump's unilateral approach that "clearly failed".
The Frenchman expects American freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to continue. Things will become even more fraught after the new Maritime Police Law of the People's Republic of China was passed on 22 January. It has huge potential to destabilize what is already a tense situation in the South and East China Seas. This law authorizes the China Coast Guard (CCG) to use firepower against foreign vessels in waters "under China's jurisdiction". This wording is extremely problematic, because China applies the term to maritime territory it has no international jurisdiction over.
The law also allows the CCG to demolish "buildings, structures and various fixed or floating devices" from foreign organisations and individuals located "in the sea areas and islands under our jurisdiction". China is thus setting itself up for more aggressive action against fellow claimants with structures in the South China Sea.
Cabestan added, "On security, I think the Biden administration won't be able to ignore the Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific that was approved in 2018, and which was declassified on purpose by the Biden administration in 2021 ... Beyond that, I think the major reason is that Biden agrees with most of that framework ... So I see a lot of elements in that argument that Biden will stick to, including on Taiwan and the First Island Chain, where the US will defend Taiwan against military aggression."
Who can China rely upon? Apart from Russia, which is a middle power now based on its GDP, China has few reliable friends. In Asia there is really only Cambodia and Pakistan, whereas the USA has a number of Asian allies and friends. "I would say, in spite of what Trump did in the past four years, that the relationship with Asian allies has been much better than with its European allies."
The ball is very much in China's court when it comes to the future trajectory of bilateral ties. Cabestan suggested: "I think any potential change in the US-China policy will very much depend upon China and whether it sticks to its wolf warrior policy, creating intrusions in the South China Sea and across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, around the Senkaku Islands, and whether it will keep putting pressure on weaker countries or middle-sized powers like Canada and Australia."
All in all, the French professor based in Hong Kong believes there is both good news and bad news for China. Positively, the Chinese economy will continue to experience growth in coming years, especially as the economic impact of COVID-19 has been less than on Western countries. By 2028, China is on track to have the world's largest economy. However, there remain structural problems such as the role of state-owned enterprises, internal debt, pickier export markets and growing internal resentment against the rich and powerful.
However, "The bad news for China is that the US has adopted a bipartisan view on the fact that China is the USA's major strategic challenge in the long run. The second challenge for China is that the USA will be more united and will be more supported by outside partners." And the final problem for China is that its image around the world has been "seriously" damaged by COVID-19 and its subsequent imperious behaviour.
Cabestan warned, "The US is number one, and it's not going to cede its place without a fight. Now whether that fight is going to be bloody or peaceful, we don't know. But China is taking more risks, and that's what I'm worried about. I agree Taiwan may be a hotspot or flashpoint, and the last thing the Biden administration would like to manage is a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. That depends upon the People's Liberation Army and Xi Jinping - if they want to have a fight, they'll have a fight."
Cabestan revealed that every year 3,000 Pentagon officials go to Taiwan. This will not stop, and the USA will continue to support Taiwan's construction program of eight diesel-electric submarines and to develop asymmetric deterrent capabilities for Taiwan's military.Wong, the Chinese University professor, said of the USA: "On the military front they argue for the need to enhance bilateral crisis management, to include clear and more detailed rules of engagement to be put in place to prevent misunderstandings in places like the South China Sea and the potential there to spiral out of control, strengthening communication channels and mechanisms to avoid conflicts, and to allow senior military officials from both sides to engage in more frequent and sensitive discussions to build deeper personal ties to better understand each other's operations."Wong noted that the USA would also increase its presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and follow a multilateral approach rather than trying to go it alone. This, Wong suggested, will be the biggest foreign policy difference compared to Trump, and something that China will really fear.