Asia-Pacific will be the top foreign and security policy priority for President Biden, with US/China relations the principal focus. Unlike Trump, Biden is a multilateralist and will hope to forge a common approach to China in partnership with the EU, the UK, and the big Asian democracies.
The Biden formula will be tough engagement. He will resist Beijing’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea and reduce American influence in the Pacific. He will signal continued support for Taiwan; and for those in Hong Kong demanding that China respects the 1997 Joint Declaration. He will call out Beijing for its abuses of human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang; and will seek to counter China’s efforts to extend its political and economic tentacles through the Belt and Road Initiative.
But as well as competition and containment, Biden will prioritise engagement on global issues. He will hope to find ways of cooperating with Beijing on climate change, pandemics, and possibly North Korea and Arms Control. He will remain tough on trade issues but will want to establish a less volatile and confrontational commercial relationship with China than the one that has characterised the Trump term.
Here is an opportunity for the UK, whose international position has been weakened by Brexit (both in the US and Europe). A twin track Biden approach will suit us well. We want the Chinese to engage on the global economic, climate, and health challenges: these cannot be resolved without them. But we also want the US to speak out strongly in defence of political and human rights in Hong Kong (and elsewhere), and to resist Chinese domination of the Pacific region. The UK should energetically support efforts by a Biden Administration to forge a common approach to China, drawing on the full range of our hard and soft power assets, including our diplomatic network, our overseas aid programme, and our intelligence, cyber and military capabilities.
The UK should energetically support efforts by a Biden Administration to forge a common approach to China, drawing on the full range of our hard and soft power assets, including our diplomatic network, our overseas aid programme, and our intelligence, cyber and military capabilities.
This will promote and protect British interests. It will also help us re-establish ourselves as valuable partners of the US and the EU at a time when we risk increasing irrelevance, and when the strength of our ties to both is in doubt. The Biden approach to China will offer the Johnson government the chance to put substance into its currently ill-defined mantra of ‘Global Britain’.
The election of Joe Biden as president of the United States will bring many changes in US foreign and defence policy, but China policy will be an area of relative continuity. There is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that great power competition with China is the foremost threat to the national security and economic wellbeing of the United States and its allies and that a tougher approach will be necessary to push back against the serious economic, technological, governance, and military threats that China poses.
We can expect that a Biden administration will continue efforts in the Trump administration to strengthen the United States and its allies to better position themselves for this competition. A prime example of this effort includes the formation of “The Quad,” a proto-military alliance consisting of the four major democracies in Asia: the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. A Biden administration will also impose costs on the Chinese Communist Party when it transgresses widely shared international standards. Despite some expectations to the contrary, for example, Biden will likely maintain President Trump’s tariffs to punish China for its unfair trade practices.
A Biden administration will … impose costs on the Chinese Communist Party when it transgresses widely shared international standards. Despite some expectations to the contrary, for example, Biden will likely maintain President Trump’s tariffs to punish China for its unfair trade practices.
There will, however, be two major differences between a Trump and a Biden administration on China. First, a Biden administration will likely place greater emphasis on negotiating a coordinated approach to China among US treaty allies, including in Europe. This makes sense. Washington is in a much stronger position if the entire free world is united on one side of the table with the CCP isolated on the other. The Trump administration recognized the advantages of working with allies, but the implementation of a coordinated approach was not always as successful as it could have been, especially in Western Europe.
Second, a Biden administration would likely include an engagement track as a major element of its China strategy. Biden will continue the competitive elements started by Trump, but also look to cooperate with Beijing on shared challenges, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and food security. Moreover, there is value to maintaining dialogue with China in the hope, that over the long term, a new generation of Chinese leaders may be persuaded to pursuing a more moderate and cooperative orientation toward the rules-based international system.
The UK, as a middle power deeply integrated into global markets, is heavily dependent on a stable international environment. A Biden presidency therefore offers much upside, including for the UK’s approach to China.
President-elect Biden’s willingness to work with China on global issues, in particular climate change, is a good example of this. The UK is hosting COP26 in 2021. With a multilateralist president who has prioritised tackling climate change as part of his agenda and who is willing to work with China on this issue, the delay of COP26 to 2021 can almost be seen as a blessing.
The UK is hosting COP26 in 2021. With a multilateralist president [at the helm] who has prioritised tackling climate change as part of his agenda and who is willing to work with China on this issue, the delay of COP26 to 2021 can almost be seen as a blessing.
Trying to produce any productive outcome with a climate-sceptic US president and the two superpowers at each other’s throats would have been a tall order. Whether sufficient preparation will be invested to make COP26 a success remains to be seen, but the change in presidency and the US’ approach to China will be constructive and welcome.
Similarly, the UK will hold the G7 presidency in 2021. Earlier this year, the country was able to coordinate a joint statement by all G7 nations condemning China’s then-planned security law for Hong Kong. With a US president in power who is not actively engaged in denigrating traditional allies at G7 summits, 2021 may yet prove productive. The UK will be better positioned to coordinate joint positions on China and may yet succeed in its efforts in forming and consolidating the D-10, a group of leading democracies.
Caveats abound, of course. The UK’s international standing has further declined in the past year due to its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, tumultuous domestic politics, and steps taken to break international law. Simultaneously, President Biden’s initial focus will be on domestic US revitalisation and healing–a precondition for effective long-term foreign policy. He may therefore have less time to spare for a post-Brexit UK trying to redefine its place in the world. Lastly, China’s view of the United States as being fundamentally committed to preventing its rise will be unchanged by a Biden presidency. This will have implications for the UK’s positioning also.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic about this development. Should the UK get its house in order and play its card correctly on the international stage, it could yet play a significant role and benefit from being an active party to the US’ changing relationship with China under a new President.
Firstly, even if Trump has lost the race for the White House and comes to recognize that he has lost, we need to remind ourselves that he not only managed to attract over 70 million votes, but the GOP itself did well in the race for Congress and across the country more generally. Biden may have won the presidency; however, the GOP remains a force to be reckoned with and will no doubt do all in its power to make life as difficult as possible for a Biden presidency. This does not augur well for him, either at home – where millions of Americans will continue to deny he actually won – or abroad where any move to reverse course on key parts of the Trump foreign policy (rejection of the Iran nuclear deal being one) will in all likelihood be resisted, and nowhere more vehemently than in a Senate which the republicans will in all likelihood continue to control.
My second point concerns China. From everything we know from the more reliable opinion polls like Pew, it very much looks as if Americans as a whole – and not just Republicans in particular – now view China as a long-term rival which is seeking to use its economic power and diplomatic clout to undercut the western-led liberal order. The incoming Biden team appears to share this perspective. Unlike the Trump administration it will not try and go-it-alone. On the other hand, they will be seeking support from allies (including the UK) to take the China challenge seriously. This may not involve Trump-like trade wars which don’t work. But it will mean a tough, no-nonsense approach towards the PRC which will probably include, amongst other things, keeping a very close eye on Chinese investment in the West and on western investments into China. This may not add up to what is now regularly (and misleadingly) called a ‘new cold war’. That said, the days of thinking of China becoming a ‘responsible stakeholder’ with whom one can do business are long past.
The Biden team do not wish the UK ill. There are many areas where Washington and London will always agree. On the other hand, it seems clear that if … a deal between the UK and the EU is not forthcoming, the UK could very well go to the ‘back’ of that famous or infamous ‘queue’.
Finally, on the UK. There is still much to play for and where the UK is now (in a very difficult place) may not be where it will be in a year or two’s time – but only if it can strike a deal with the European Union. Failure to do so would be a setback of the first order with all sorts of consequences for the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US. The Biden team do not wish the UK ill. There are many areas where Washington and London will always agree. On the other hand, it seems clear that if such a a deal between the UK and the EU is not forthcoming, the UK could very well go to the ‘back’ of that famous or infamous ‘queue’. Faced with a very long list of more pressing problem at home – like getting on top of the COVID pandemic and dealing with a nation more divided against itself than at any time since the Civil War – will the new team in the White House even have the bandwidth to think about a UK it may respect, but whose current Prime Minister looks like a British version of Trump, whose current stance on Northern Ireland looks as if it may threaten the Good Friday agreement, and who led the charge in 2016 to leave a European Union which the then Obama team (including Biden) warned against? All answers on a postcard please!
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.