There has been much debate about why China was slow to acknowledge Joe Biden’s election victory. It took nearly a week after Biden’s victory speech for China’s foreign ministry to issue formal congratulations. Xi Jinping is among the few world leaders who still hasn’t spoken to Biden. Despite that, Beijing has been watching the unfolding political drama in the United States (US) with a sense of cautious optimism.
This mood is a product of a few factors. First, Donald Trump will remain President till January 20. There is enough belief in Beijing that tougher steps on China could be part of Trump’s last act. For instance, as the election was unfolding, the State Department removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that China blames for terrorism in Xinjiang, from its list of designated terrorist groups. This was followed by an executive order prohibiting American companies and individuals from investing in select Chinese companies identified as enabling the People’s Liberation Army. Trump’s commerce department is reportedly preparing harsher measures against China. Beijing also expects tougher action on human rights issues.
Second, China’s official narrative throughout the pandemic has been about criticising the “evil intentions” and political motivations of some American politicians and officials, while emphasising China’s systemic strengths. This suggests there has been hope that political change in the US could help reset the relationship. But there also seems to be an acknowledgement that there is a bipartisan consensus in the US over competition with China. This is reflected in repeated polls of public and elite perceptions in the US. Writing in June, senior Chinese diplomat Fu Ying was clear. “The US has never given up its intent to overthrow the socialist system led by the Communist Party,” she argued, underscoring that Washington’s policies and rhetoric had only reaffirmed this belief. Biden inherits not just Trump’s China policies but also this prevailing political sentiment.
This leads to the third factor. Biden will take charge at a time when the political divide in the US is deeper than ever. Even in defeat, Trump garnered over 72 million votes. That’s more than Barack Obama’s historic 2008 tally. To some in Beijing, Trump’s popularity and contestation of the results represent the “degradation” of the US system. For others, the tumult has strengthened the belief that the US is a waning power, which is likely to continue to pursue a confrontational China policy. There’s also a sense that Biden will undo some of Trump’s policies when it comes to multilateral trade, the climate crisis, and international institutions. These could create opportunities for cooperation but also present complex, new challenges.
Moreover, there’s a belief that Biden will repair ties and coordinate China policy with traditional US allies. For instance, he reportedly told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that the security of the Senkaku Islands would fall under the ambit of their security alliance. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, meanwhile, was quick to call for cooperation with Biden’s team to craft a “coherent and robust China stance”. Little wonder then that Mei Xinyu, a researcher at China’s commerce ministry, cautioned his WeChat followers that Biden’s win might not be a win for China. None of this will be straightforward though. US allies and partners have a complex set of interests that bind them to China and have been timid on human rights issues.
So what’s China done while waiting and watching? Primarily, it has doubled down on its chosen trajectory, girding up for future challenges. As votes were being counted in the US, the Communist Party unveiled new development plans. These reaffirmed its ideological positioning, Xi’s leadership, the need for self-reliance in innovation, and urgency of military modernisation. Beijing also deepened control over Hong Kong.
There is little self-reflection that Beijing’s policies have and continue to contribute to external hostility. In essence, China views a reset with Biden as welcome, but is unlikely to change its policies.
Manoj Kewalramani is fellow, China Studies, The Takshashila Institution
The views expressed are personal