Why Biden will be tougher on China than Trump

Alexi Heazle | Indo Pacific Fellow

One of the incoming Biden administration’s toughest foreign policy challenges will be devising an effective China policy, especially amidst fears among US partners that a Biden administration will be too weak in its dealings with the great power.


In his first speech as President-Elect, Biden stated that a revived America will “lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”. Biden’s intentions of rebuilding trust in global US leadership and restoring its traditional position as a world leader will pose a far greater challenge to Beijing than Trump’s narrow ‘America First’ foreign policy approach over the last four years.


Trump’s spurning of multilateral institutions and disdain for international norms and values has damaged the multilateral system; arguably to China’s advantage. A highly transactional, zero-sum approach to US foreign policy has alienated the US from its key allies and stalled progress on pressing global issues, including his decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, as well as halting funding to the World Health Organisation in the midst of a global pandemic.


In contrast to Trump, Biden’s foreign policy as well as his approach to US-China relations will be defined by a commitment to the liberal international rules-based order and the institutions that underpin it. In trade, Trump imposed unilateral tariffs on Beijing, as opposed to the European approach that negotiated commercial disputes with China using traditional institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the G20. Biden will likely also push for these agreements at the multilateral trading table, which will likely result in more concrete action in dealing with China.


On human rights, Biden’s campaign has labelled China’s actions against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang as “genocide”. This goes a step further than current policy, with significant implications if that designation is formalised. It also reflects Biden’s wider focus in US-China relations on issues of human rights and democracy, in contrast to the current administration’s strong focus on trade.


The greatest difference in the Biden administration on US-China relations is the increased prioritisation of working with partners and allies in presenting a “united front” to China, as opposed to the “go it alone” approach employed by President Trump. An approach to China that is underpinned by strong US leadership in the multilateral system will be a far greater challenge to China than the Trump approach – one that is focused on short-term wins rather than a longer-term strategic vision, and a “zero-sum” worldview where all gains are relative and reciprocity is absent. Biden’s focus on multilateral efforts grants him the ability to leverage allies and partners when it comes to countering and challenging China on key issues like the South China Sea as well as human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.


An important aspect of Biden’s foreign policy strategy which will help him to achieve these objectives is his strong focus on personal relationships with foreign leaders, which he has consistently emphasised on the campaign trail and elsewhere. His extensive history of interaction with Chinese President Xi Jinping will undoubtedly shape the US-China relationship throughout his presidency - a greater focus on alliances and institutions in US-China relations will certainly be a step towards repairing the damage in bilateral ties caused by his predecessor.


Despite Biden’s commitments to renewed global US leadership, a wide range of domestic challenges will make prioritising foreign policy issues difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts, as well as resolving the bitter political divisions within the country will rightfully be the Biden administration’s first priorities. However, many in Asia worry these domestic priorities will displace international ones.


For Biden to alleviate the anxieties of US allies and partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, he will need to maintain a tough stance on China and continue to promote and strengthen strategic networking with pro-US countries in the region through security projects like the Quad. This is particularly pertinent given fears of a potential repeat of Obama-era “Pivot to Asia” policies, where perceptions that the Obama administration was too domestically pre-occupied and overly risk-averse in challenging China ran high.


Indeed, US partners such as Australia and Japan will be looking for a renewed US commitment to maintaining and further building regional security architecture following Trump’s mixed messaging in the region. The Biden administration will, like Trump, continue to press US allies and partners to carry more of the security burden and press for further cross bracing initiatives, like Australia and Japan’s Reciprocal Access Agreement. However, his administration’s approach will be far less confrontational and transactional than that of the Trump administration.

Biden’s commitments to re-building US relationships with America’s allies and other like-minded states are being warmly welcomed in Europe and Asia, and realising these commitments will be key to his goal of restoring confidence in US leadership. To do so however, Biden also will need to develop an effective way of managing China’s expanding great power ambitions without endangering regional trade and economic interests, especially when so many states are struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The US enjoys many important competitive advantages over China, and Biden will need to use each of them far more effectively than his predecessor if he is to restore America’s leadership credentials in his first term.


Alexi Heazle is the Indo Pacific fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.