Joe Biden is convinced he is the man with the plan when it comes to dealing with China. But if he is, the US President-elect has yet to reveal his foreign policy goals.
What looks certain is the end of President Donald Trump’s megaphone diplomacy and his scattergun gun approach to the world’s second-largest economy.
Building a coalition of democratic nations to deal with China’s “Wolf Warrior” excesses will be his top priority.
A return to closer ties with the European Union and the Five Eyes intelligence partners of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom will be high on his agenda. So will a move to strengthen trade and economic relations with Asian allies such as Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN nations.
“The biggest foreign policy question facing Biden will be how to approach the People’s Republic of China. Under Trump, the US moved toward a posture, on paper at any rate, of full-spectrum strategic competition,” Nick Bisley, of La Trobe University in the Australian city of Melbourne, said.
“In practice, Trump’s China policy was incoherent and inconsistent. [But] Biden won’t wind back the trade conflict significantly [and] will continue to work to limit China’s ambitions to change Asia’s regional order,” he wrote in a commentary for The Conversation, an academic-based website.
Already that approach is underway.
Earlier this week, Biden was asked what his White House administration would do to combat Beijing’s growing influence in setting the agenda in trade diplomacy.
The question came up after China signed up to the the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership at the weekend along with 14 other Asia-Pacific nations.
Home to more than 2.6 billion people with a combined GDP of US$25.8 trillion, the trade bloc has been described as a “diplomatic coup” for President Xi Jinping.
In response, Biden announced he will reengage with the region after Trump trashed the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, a forerunner of the RCEP. The deal was put together by Barack Obama when Biden was vice-president before Trump pulled the US out in 2017.
“We make up 25% … of the economy in the world. We need to be aligned with the other democracies, another 25% or more so that we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town,” Biden told the American media.
During the past four years, the rhetoric emanating from the present incumbent in the White House has created a New Cold War atmosphere between the world’s two biggest economies.
A technological arms race, cyber spying, intellectual property theft and Beijing “bullying” have left bilateral “relations” in the deep freeze.
“I sincerely hope at the end of the four years of the Biden administration, US-China relations will be in a much, much better state than [they are] today,” Fang Xinghai, the deputy chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, said on Tuesday.
But a complete reset appears highly unlikely. Apart from economic issues, Xi’s ruling Communist Party government is rapidly becoming a military threat in the South and East China Seas, and immune to human rights condemnation at home.
Hong Kong has also become an international flashpoint. Beijing has all but ripped up the “One Country, Two Systems” approach that was the part of the Joint Declaration agreed with the UK when the city was handed back to China in 1997.
A draconian security law imposed on Hong Kong has simply added to the global outcry after the 2019 pro-democracy protests during the summer of discontent.
Last week, a mass walkout of pro-democracy politicians involved in the Special Administrative Region’s Legislative Council added to the sense of political turmoil as Beijing continued to crackdown on freedom of speech.
The judicial system is the next target.
“We need to see the Basic Law as something that is alive so we can interpret the Basic Law whenever necessary,” Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told a legal summit earlier this week.
Hong Kong nightmare
“Right now is time to sort out what is true and what is false. Only those who are patriotic should be in place, otherwise, they should be removed,” he added.
In code, that means dismantling the independent legal “system” and killing off the city’s special status. At that point, Hong Kong would be dragged into China’s one-party state nightmare.
“One can argue over what powers Beijing does or doesn’t have under the Basic Law, but if the field of play switches to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] constitution, there’s no way that Hong Kong political institutions – or anyone else for that matter – can even start a discussion on limits to Beijing’s authority,” Thomas E. Kellogg, of Georgetown University Law Center, told the Hong Kong Free Press before Wang’s announcement.
How Biden will deal with that scenario will go a long way to shaping his China policy in the next four years.