Dec 29, 2020 07:16 PM

China to Face Tougher Challenges with Biden Administration, Foreign Policy Expert Says

Yan Xuetong
Yan Xuetong

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will take a more sophisticated approach to relations with China than outgoing President Donald Trump — with selective policy decoupling and greater coordination of alliances to challenge Beijing’s rising power, a top Chinese foreign relations expert said.

In an interview this month with Caixin, Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that “Biden’s diplomatic strategy will be largely different from Trump’s, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the China-U.S. relationship will be improved.”

The influential political scientist said it has been much easier for China to deal with Trump’s unilateralism than with Biden’s expected multilateralism. The incoming U.S. president will also restore relationships with traditional allies and partners, mobilizing a broader coalition against the world’s second-largest economy, he said.

In contrast to Trump’s broadly punitive approach, Biden will take a more targeted strategy to dealing with China, Yan said. Instead of slapping sanctions on Chinese technology companies as Trump did, for example, Biden would rely on advisers to make pragmatic and professional decisions tied to longer-term American interests.

“Therefore, after Biden takes office, there might be a ‘selective decoupling’ between the two countries,” Yan said, adding that Biden will choose carefully those arenas where he wants to decouple policies with China.

Yan’s comments come as the Sino-U.S. relationship is at its lowest point in decades, with spiraling disputes over issues ranging from trade to technology and human rights.

Recognizing the China-U.S. rivalry

Yan said that the primary goal for both countries should be to “reach a consensus on the nature of their relationship.”

“If you don’t recognize that competition is a major part of the China-U.S. relationship before talking about cooperation, it’ll be meaningless and eventually no cooperation will be achieved,” he said.

Although there will be some collaboration between the two countries, the rival nature of the relationship is likely to remain unchanged, he said. The Biden administration may work with China on issues like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic while competing in the areas of technology and human rights.

Biden also may choose to take advantage of the stand-offs ushered in under the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against China, Yan said.

“Even if Biden wants to improve the China-U.S. relationship, he will use the damage caused by Trump and (U.S. Secretary of State) Pompeo as leverage to bargain with us,” he said. Biden could leverage the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the 14 vice-chairpersons of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislature, Yan said.

Biden is also expected to increase political pressure on China over human rights issues, which could help him — for domestic political consumption — to rally a highly divided U.S. nation, Yan said.

Taiwan an irritant

Yan said cross-strait issues in the Biden administration promise to bring more troubles to Sino-U.S. relations, but it is unlikely to become a primary topic.

Both of the two nuclear powers are fully aware they must avoid war over the Taiwan issue, he said. Yet that may not stop Biden from selling more arms to Taiwan and expanding military ties with the island.

Restoring relationships with traditional allies

The U.S. faced a deteriorating relationship with traditional allies under the Trump administration.

“The Trump era was the best time for China to improve strategic relations with America’s allies. If we can’t improve under such conditions, it will become more difficult after Biden taking office,” Yan said.

Nonetheless, third parties, such as the EU, are likely to continue to adopt a hedging strategy between the two superpowers, taking advantages of on-going competition between the United States and China. This will continuously increase the uncertainty in the international political system, he said.

Contact editor Joshua Dummer (

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