Relations between the United States of America and China saw severe deterioration during the four years of Donald Trump’s Presidency. Trade wars, aggressive military posturing in South China Sea and a global campaign to blame the COVID-19 pandemic squarely on China launched by the Trump campaign were seen to be severely detrimental to Beijing’s interests. The growing anti-China rhetoric under Trump’s presidency led many to believe that Beijing would prefer Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Presidential Election. Yet counter-intuitively, many in China saw a Trump victory as a blessing for China.
While Trump amplified anti-China rhetoric and took action in the domain of bilateral trade, he seldom interfered in the domestic politics of China, and only commented upon reports of human rights abuses by the Chinese regime to further his own domestic politics. Trump’s withdrawal from international agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic also resulted in a decline in American supremacy, giving China an opportunity to play a more pivotal role as a regional superpower in Asia and Africa. Chinese experts also noted in the run up to the elections that Trump’s policy on immigration could further lead to a decline in American supremacy and strengthen innovation in China due to a return of well educated Chinese students to the country who would have otherwise settled in the US. Things might not remain as comfortable for Beijing as Joe Biden takes charge, especially as the Biden administration takes a tougher stance on issues that China has long regarded as solely domestic matters.
In the run up to the 2020 Presidential Election, the Biden campaign issued a statement that the Chinese government’s oppression of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang is “genocide”, and that Joe Biden “stands against it in the strongest terms”. This statement came in the wake of Trump’s refusal to label China’s actions a “genocide”and his statement that he was holding off on imposing sanctions against Chinese officials involved with the mass detention camps because doing so would interfere with the negotiations of his China Trade Deal.
Perhaps even more worrying for Beijing is Biden’s stance on Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The President-Elect has repeatedly voiced his support for the Tibetan cause and vowed to sanction officials responsible for human rights abuses in Tibet. “My administration will sanction Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Tibet, and step up support for the Tibetan people, including by expanding Tibetan language services at Radio Free Asia and Voice of America to get information from the outside world into Tibet”, Biden said. During the campaign, he also stated that he would meet the Dalai Lama and appoint a new Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, a post that the Trump administration left vacant until October 2020. Biden also said that he would insist that the Chinese government restore access to Tibet for US citizens, including diplomats and journalists. Notably, Trump was the first American president in the last three decades who did not meet or speak to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan people who has been living in exile in India since 1959. If the Biden administration is able to get China to restart dialogue with the Dalai Lama, it would be the first time that the two sides discuss the issue since China seized dialogue in 2011.
It’s increasingly clear that while the Chinese government was troubled by Trump’s rhetoric on China, they had a strategy to respond to pressures on issues like global trade and the increasing militarization of South China Sea. Experts report that Chinese officials also realized that although Trump’s politics led him to take a hostile position towards China, the Trump voter base was not emotionally invested in the domestic human rights or political concerns within China, they were more interested in the question of trade imbalance between the two nations. The Democratic base on the other hand is comprised of people more likely to want meaningful action against China’s human rights violations and suppression of minority rights. It is perhaps for this reason that Chinese President Xi Jinping is one of the few politicians around the globe who is yet to congratulate President-Elect Joe Biden on his victory.
This new dynamic of potential US pressure for the restoration of human rights and liberties in China presents a new challenge for the Chinese Communist Party that Beijing seems largely unequipped to handle. How Beijing responds to demands for human rights and regional autonomy within China might be the key to deciding the future tone of US-China relations in the Biden presidency.