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October 1, 2020

US/CHINA: How would Biden’s policy on China differ from Trump’s?

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 6 mins)
  • The Biden campaign has largely avoided specific policy commitments related to China, reflecting a desire to frame the election as a referendum on Trump.
  • A Biden administration would face constraints on its ability to reverse various Trump administration measures, given concerns about being criticized as “soft” on China.
  • But Biden could pursue a de facto rollback of tariffs and export controls while avoiding explicit reversals of Trump administration policies.

US President Donald Trump has transformed the US relationship with China, dialing up tensions and enacting coercive policies on trade, technology, security, and human rights. This transformation largely reflects a bipartisan consensus in Washington that a more confrontational approach was required. Nevertheless, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has criticized Trump’s policy as relying on a posture of toughness while failing to produce concrete results.

Any forecasts about Biden’s policy on China will necessarily be speculative. Biden’s team of foreign policy advisors falls across the hawk-dove spectrum, and his campaign rhetoric has mainly focused on criticism of Trump, with few specific commitments about his own policy intentions. This lack of specificity reflects his broader campaign strategy of framing the election as a referendum on Trump, rather than as a choice between contrasting policy agendas. But Biden’s vagueness probably also reflects Biden and his advisors’ wish to keep their options open.

In broad terms, a Biden administration is likely to pursue a policy guided by a more coherent ranking of US priorities. This approach would contrast with Trump, who has at times appeared to pursue a scattershot policy of undifferentiated opposition. Biden has also signaled that he will focus on domestic economic policies that would strengthen US competitiveness relative to China. These policies include increased spending on research and development and incentives to encourage the re-shoring of manufacturing supply chains.

Constraints on rollback

The series of coercive policies that the Trump administration has applied in recent months appears to reflect Trump’s belief that a “tough on China” posture will boost his electoral prospects. But as previously discussed, these policies may also reflect the desire of administration hardliners to enact policies that would be difficult for a Biden administration to reverse. Such policies include trade war-related tariffs; export controls against Huawei and other Chinese technology companies; the pending bans on TikTok and WeChat; the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston; and restrictions on Chinese journalists in the US. Though reversal would be technically possible for most of these policies, Biden may be reluctant to open himself to criticism that he is “soft on China.”

Yet the extent to which Biden feels constrained will depend substantially on the state of the US economy and political environment in early 2021. The more China news dominates political discussion and media coverage, the more constrained Biden will feel. By contrast, if issues like Covid-19, economic hardship, racial justice, and civil unrest have largely pushed China off the front pages by early 2021, a Biden administration will enjoy greater latitude to dial back tensions with Beijing.

On security issues, Biden’s approach may differ little from Trump’s. Increased US support for Taiwan is likely to continue, as is Washington’s more assertive stance in countering Chinese territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea. However, Biden is likely to take a harder line on China’s human rights abuses.

Good cop, bad cop

In terms of Biden’s leverage over Beijing, the Trump administration’s coercive “bad cop” approach could create opportunities for Biden to play “good cop.” Biden could signal to Beijing that he wants to roll back certain Trump policies but that given the risks of doing so, Beijing must offer clear concessions to provide domestic political cover. The problem with this approach is that it is not clear what Beijing could plausibly offer that would satisfy critics poised to accuse Biden of weakness on China. On Huawei, TikTok, and WeChat, for example, the US government has not specified what these companies or the Chinese government could do alleviate national security concerns about their operations in the US.

It is possible that China could offer limited concessions on economic issues that were intended to be part of the phase two trade agreement. These include so-called “structural” issues like subsidies for Chinese companies and import-substitution targets industries associated with Made in China 2025. But Beijing would likely be unwilling to offer more than symbolic commitments on these issues, which stem from China’s fundamental characteristics of China’s economic and political systems that Chinese leaders are unwilling to change. One example of a modest concession would be a commitment to greater transparency on the size and scope of government subsidies.

Beijing could also offer concessions on issues that trade negotiators discussed last year but that were ultimately left out of phase one. These include renewing and strengthening a 2015 agreement with the Obama administration to refrain from government-sponsored commercial espionage, including hacking of US companies; to relax provisions of China’s cybersecurity law that burden foreign companies; and to expand market access for foreign companies in cloud computing.

Rollback by stealth

On tariffs, an outright rollback of trade war tariffs would be politically risky for Biden, especially given that Chinese purchases of US exports have fallen far short of the amounts mandated in the phase one deal. But Biden could pursue de facto rollback by reducing rates for specific products or increasing the number of tariff exclusions while leaving nominal tariff rates unchanged. The Trump administration has already granted significant tariff exclusions for specific products, so Biden would be able to argue that he is merely continuing Trump’s policy.

On export controls, Biden could use similar tactics to partially ease restrictions on Huawei and other Chinese technology companies. The US Commerce Department could issue more licenses authorizing the sale of specific products to companies on the entity list without removing these companies from the list. The Trump administration has already issued new licenses to Intel and AMD in recent weeks. A Biden administration could decide that Huawei’s consumer smartphone businesses does not pose a significant national security threat and enable sales of certain semiconductors. It could also allow Google to resume technical support of the Android operating system on Huawei phones and the provision of apps like Gmail and Google Maps for pre-installation.