COVID-19, climate change might be chances for China, US to find cooperation in Biden administration: Paal

By Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi Source: Global Times Published: 2020/11/29 18:27:07

Editor's Note:

China-US relations hit its lowest point in 40 years during Trump administration. Some are speculating how and to what extent the incoming administration will adjust US policy toward China. While Trump is nearing the end of his presidency, his provocations against China have not yet ceased. Some observers said this is his tactic to leave no room for president-elect Joe Biden to adjust China policy after inauguration day. Some have expressed concerns that Trump may make even more manic moves to increase tensions with China, perhaps on Taiwan issues. What will Trump possibly do against China in his administration's last days, especially in the Taiwan Straits? What policy will Biden choose upon after assuming office? Will China be a priority for Biden during his first 100 days in the White House? To find out answers to these questions, Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Douglas Paal (Paal), Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace of the US.

Douglas Paal. Photo: Xinhua

GT: From your point of view, what steps might the Trump administration take on China in the coming weeks? Could there be any dangerous moves? 

Paal: There have been some stories that came out of the White House with some talking about measures including bans on more companies. Perhaps they could impose sanctions on more individuals in China, including Hong Kong. Or there may be some other activities in which the US military sends ships or airplanes near China to increase the US presence. There are lots of possibilities, but none of them are clear to outsiders.

I have to say there has also been a lot of turbulence in personnel in important positions. They seem to have different objectives from their predecessors. For example, former defense secretary Mark Esper presided over a very patient and careful policy to keep up military dialogue with China. I don't know what his acting successor is going to do. He doesn't seem to have a track record in this area. 

GT: How do you evaluate the possibility of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting Taiwan? 

Paal: I've heard the rumors that he might do that. After having watched his behavior in various discussions over the last few months, I think he will not do that. But they do seem to want to leave a record of pushing the limits of US-China relations right to the edge in order to force Biden to accommodate what has already been done by the outgoing administration. So maybe they have in mind doing something like that. But at this point I consider it just a rumor.

GT: We have noticed recently that the tensions in China-US ties as well as cross-Straits relations have further increased. How will the results of the US presidential election influence this?

Paal: I would make two points. One is we're going to have a lot of new people in office, and they have to decide what their priorities are. If you listen to what president-elect Joe Biden has said, the priorities are the domestic fight against COVID-19, restoring the economy, dealing with racial justice and climate change. As for COVID-19 and climate change, there is plenty of room for the US and China to find areas of cooperation and no real reason to be in conflict. In other areas, they're not really relevant to US-China relations. So I think that China should be patient and expect some changes. 

The second important thing is process. I think that the Biden administration gives every sign of installing a regular routine process for policy-making so that it is not done by a Tweet from the president in the middle of the night, but through a process of sifting ideas through high-ranking committees and the interagency process to reach more reasonable formulations. China is not going to like all of these outcomes, but it will be a more predictable, orderly process than we have experienced for the last four years. 

Finally, I would say there is an opportunity here. Time is needed for the new administration to find its footing. During that time, I think China should give serious thought to what it can do to reach out to the incoming administration. For example, China can come up with some ideas on those areas where China has always said it is prepared to have discussions or negotiations and take some initial steps to improve the atmosphere and reduce tensions. That would be my advice. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Photo: AFP

GT: Do you expect any creative steps from the Biden administration to reduce tensions?

Paal: As I said, the Biden administration's first priorities are going to be domestic. There may be an opportunity to work with China on climate change. The first thing that Biden says he's going to do is get back into the Paris agreement on climate change. There are things that can be done to reach out to each other. But I think it's not going to be a major initiative coming from the White House. 

GT: From your point of view, what policies will the incoming administration take on Taiwan? 

Paal: Taiwan has not been an issue in the [Biden] campaign. Support for Taiwan in the US Congress is bipartisan and there has been a lot of legislation. The Biden administration will have to follow that legislation with some discretion. And so I don't think you're going to see a big change. 

But I don't think the Biden administration will put Taiwan at the center of its policy. Taiwan will be properly dealt with, and warmly embraced, but with a view to the broader picture of what US-Chinese interests are as well.

I would not expect a cooling of relations; quite the opposite. But I think the administration will look to maintain relations with Taiwan as well. 

GT: Will Taiwan play a critical role in the US-China rivalry under the new government?

Paal: There were indications this summer that they may move to make Taiwan more of confrontational issue. But apparently, President Trump made his own decision not to do that. He has given room for more interaction with Taiwan, but not for crossing red lines. That could change, but as far as I can tell, he still wants to see the phase one trade agreement with the Chinese mainland continue. And he said he did not want to sacrifice that by going too far with Taiwan.

I've seen reports that the Biden administration is hoping the phase one agreement will continue to play out. Why not have those benefits flow to both economies and see how well it's fulfilled? 

GT: Some US experts began to talk about the end of strategic ambiguity with Taiwan. Do you think the incoming administration will change this stance of the US?

Paal: I don't have inside knowledge about what the Biden people think about strategic ambiguity, but it's a term that policymakers inside the government have not used in the past. It's often used by people who are outside discussions. They talk about it casually without understanding the meaning.

US president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris hold a press conference on November 19 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: AFP

GT: What kinds of issues relating to Taiwan would get the greatest attention from US policymakers in the next year and beyond? 

Paal: If you look at polls about the [election] campaign, Taiwan is very far down the list. 

Accidents can happen. Hopefully cool heads will prevail on both sides so that accidents don't become sources of major conflict. I don't think there's anybody coming into the Biden administration who will look to an agenda of troublemaking on these issues. It'll be new people with new approaches to deal with traditional challenges. 

GT: What would happen if a conflict breaks out across the Taiwan Straits? Are there any channels for the US and China to communicate to manage such a crisis? 

Paal: As I said earlier, at ministers' level, the former defense secretary was quite faithful to maintain his dialogue with his counterparts at the top and then farther down. We just in the last three weeks had another round of military-to-military discussions led by competent authorities on both sides. So communication has been much improved. In 2001, the ability of the two sides to talk to each was, frankly speaking, terrible. A lot has been done in the intervening years. To improve that, I'm sure both sides really will want to rely on those mechanisms to avoid small incidents becoming larger ones. 

GT: What substantial China-related moves will the Biden administration take during its first 100 days in office? 

Paal: As I said, re-establishing a normal and routine process of decision making and filling the offices of the policymaking positions with competent, experienced people will occupy the first hundred days. I would not look for breakthroughs or announcements beyond what has already been signaled. Over the ordinary course of events, there will be meetings and an ambassador to China will be named. 

It will not be a list of announcements or changes in policy. I think that will be, in fact, helpful because it would help lower the temperature in the US-China relationship and help us get back to the business of working on the practical problems and finding ways to reduce the potential for conflict.


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