Biden appears more positive toward China, but still lacks clarity on policy
Published: Feb 05, 2021 08:32 PM

Biden Photo: CFP

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday US time that he remains prepared for cooperation with China in his first speech on foreign affairs at the Department of State after his inauguration, while also calling China the US’ “most serious competitor.” Chinese experts said this attitude is at least marginally more positive than the previous administration but a lack of clarity exists on how the US would like to cooperate. 

In response to Biden’s latest remarks about being “ready for cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Friday’s routine press conference that China and the US are two major countries that share broad common interests and crucial obligations. 

Regarding rising problems like COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the challenges facing all of humanity require China-US cooperation to increase, not to decrease, he noted.
“We hope the US will conduct more active and constructive dialogue, to work with China by focusing on cooperation and managing divergences, to promote peace and development for the world together with other countries around the globe,” Wang remarked. 

Still unclear

Chinese scholars found the speech a little bland with no new eye-catching expressions. Biden conveyed clearer perspective on certain issues other than on China issues, proving that the new administration is still unready to make a clear China policy. 

Biden mentioned China or Beijing six times in his speech but only one sentence about cooperation, with the rest all about competition and threat. The speech didn’t mention nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea, but elaborated on allies in Europe and the Middle East, and used harsh words on Russia.

Lü Xiang, an expert of US studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, told the Global Times on Friday that the speech might disappoint many people worldwide who are expecting the new president of the US to address a clear and fresh foreign policy.

“Biden looked extremely tired throughout the whole speech, and the remarks provided no concrete measures, didn’t touch upon sensitive and tough issues and didn’t say how he would like to break with the previous administration on foreign policy. Maybe there are still divergences within Biden’s team, so he was frustrated” Lü said.

After harsh criticism of Russia in his speech, the president said “we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China.”    

Diao Daming, an expert on US studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Friday that from the speech we can understand the “most serious competitor” is a basic and common consensus regarding China among US decision-makers, and US concerns over China are much greater and clearer than intentions to cooperate.

Although the top Chinese official on foreign affairs, Yang Jiechi, previously reaffirmed that “China has no intention to challenge or replace the US’ position in the world, or to carve out a sphere of influence,” it seems like the Biden administration is still reluctant to believe China’s sincerity, and this is proof that the US is currently extremely suspicious due to its lack of confidence and declining national power, analysts noted.

Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, said China and the US have attached great importance to each other, but the key difference is that the US deeply believes China is the most serious competitor no matter how many times China explains its real intentions, so it needs to deal with an unconfident and suspicious America in the future.     

Frustrated America 

“We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance,” Biden said during the speech.

Gao Lingyun, an expert with the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the CASS, told the Global Times that while saying “economic abuses,” Biden might refer to issues like state-owned enterprise subsidies and technological transfers, which are old topics. 

However, a most recent survey conducted by Funds Europe and Standard Chartered showed that foreign businesspeople and investors don’t share Biden’s criticism over China’s “economic abuses.” 

It is becoming easier for foreign investors to access the Chinese market, both through onshore and offshore channels, according to the survey released on Thursday.

“Investment in China is a long-term strategy for foreign investors, notwithstanding the current global economic slowdown and geo-political tensions, particularly US-China relations. More than 90 percent of respondents say that the importance of China continues to rise in their investment strategies,” and “61 percent say they will increase their allocations to Chinese assets during the coming 12 months.”

On “global governance” Biden was even more frustrated because his predecessor Donald Trump had withdrawn from many multilateral platforms and treaties, causing huge damage to US credibility and global influence, Chinese analysts said. 

The selfishness and dishonesty of the Trump administration have both created a huge “global governance deficit,” and China as a responsible major power, has to make some contribution to fill the blank space left by the US, Lü said.

China’s increasing contribution to global governance meets the demand of the rest of the world, whether in terms of fighting COVID-19 or climate change, so this is not about China’s ambition to challenge the US position, because countries worldwide, especially those in the third world, will automatically ask a major power that they can trust to play a leading role when the US disappoints them, experts noted.

There was another survey done by Middle East research network Arab Barometer showing China is more popular than the US in the Middle East and North Africa, the Voice of America reported. The network released survey results on January 12 about “Favorability of China vs US” in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Lebanon and Jordan, and China’s scores are higher than the US in all of these countries. 

More than half of the respondents say China is more favorable than the US in Algeria (60 percent), Morocco (52 percent) and Tunisia (50 percent) while the US is at about 21 percent on average and only got 14 percent in Libya which is seen as a victim of US military intervention.

Lü said other countries don’t share the US’ understanding on China, when the US doesn’t welcome China’s greater role in global governance, other countries, even some US allies in Europe, would find China’s participation welcoming and essential.
“Maybe this is why Biden is still not ready for a call with the Chinese top leader. It seems that Biden’s communication with US allies failed to reach a broad consensus on how to deal with China. Biden would realize that the deep disagreement between the US and its allies won’t disappear with the Trump administration,” Lü said.   

How to cooperate?

After stressing the US’ determination to push back against “China’s attacks,” Biden said at the speech “But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”

Diao said that the mixed message with competition and cooperation is at least better than full confrontation. “Biden’s remarks also show that he understands the US is unable to spend more resources to confront China, and he has pragmatically acknowledged that his country can find benefits from cooperation with China.” 

The former US Ambassador to China Gary Locke on Thursday said the US-China relationship "needs to be improved," Xinhua News Agency reported. 

"The world is looking for leadership from both the United States and China working together to solve many of the issues facing the globe," Locke said at a virtual dialogue organized by the Committee of 100, a non-profit organization of prominent and extraordinary Chinese Americans.

After talking about cooperation with China in his speech, Biden suddenly started his part about climate change, so this proves that the climate issue is the topic that the new administration cares most about, which is the most likely path for a reset of China-US cooperation, experts said.

“The climate issue is probably the easiest way for Biden to rebuild the US’ reputation, but we are still unclear on how the US would like to cooperate exactly,” Lü said.

According to Reuters on Friday, US climate envoy John Kerry said on Thursday he expected to speak with Xie Zhenhua, China's special representative on climate change affairs, soon and called Xie a “leader” and a “capable advocate” for China on the issue of global warming.

Kerry, who reports directly to President Joe Biden and will represent the US in future climate talks, said “We (he and Xie) haven’t spoken yet. We will at the appropriate moment. Shortly, I’m sure,” Kerry told Reuters in an interview. “I know him very well because I’ve worked with him for ... 20 years or so.”

This is a positive sign for the restart of China-US communication and cooperation, but China also needs to be cautious as the US said it won’t exchange with China on other issues to realize cooperation on climate change, which means cooperation on climate issues might not improve bilateral ties in general, Diao said, adding that the anti-China conservative forces within the US will also add trouble for cooperation.