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Opinion

What a Biden victory means for China

Beijing must seize the opportunity to stabilize relations with Washington

| China
Joe Biden pulls off his face mask to speak about the results of the U.S. presidential election in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 4: we can expect that U.S.-China competition will henceforth be in steadier hands.   © Reuters

Professor Huang Jing is dean at the Institute of International and Regional Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University.

While Joe Biden has won the U.S. election, it would be wishful thinking that there would be any dramatic improvement in relations between Washington and Beijing, which have deteriorated steadily since Donald Trump came to power.

After all, a presidential election -- despite all its significance for U.S. politics -- can hardly alter the now established bipartisan consensus that China is a strategic competitor, or even an adversary, of the U.S. Moreover, the pressure on China from a Biden Administration can be expected to be more persistent -- and comprehensive -- because the new president will have to blend cohesion with consistency when it comes to policymaking and at the same time coordinate the administration's approach to China with the country's allies.

But that does not mean the relationship between the two great powers will continue its free fall, not by any means. On the contrary, Biden provides Beijing with a valuable opportunity to stabilize the bilateral relationship from a global perspective.

First and foremost, there will be an overall de-Trumpism when it comes to foreign policy under a Biden presidency. Specifically, we can expect some fundamental changes in the major policy areas such as climate change, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, COVID-19 pandemic control, international trade, and financial stability.

Nor would it be a surprise to see a Biden administration reconsider, or even reenter, the Paris Agreement on climate, the Iranian nuclear deal framework, and reorient its relationship with the World Health Organization, recalibrate its approach toward World Trade Organization, which has been virtually boycotted by Trump. A Biden administration might proactively reengage the world's other major economies in Europe and Japan to negotiate a new trade and investment framework. In all these areas, China can, and should, find substantial common ground with the U.S.

Second, there is little doubt that Biden will forgo U.S. unilateralism. Not only because it has done substantial damage to U.S. global standing, but also because a multilateral approach is essential if the U.S. is to restore and maintain a solid alliance system under its leadership.

During Trump's tenure, China's leadership has repeatedly emphasized its adherence to multilateralism in foreign affairs. Now it is time to see whether the "multilateralism" Beijing has advocated is merely rhetoric or a substantial policy upon which China can initiate a new approach toward a new administration in Washington that also champions multilateralism in global affairs. After all, both the U.S. and China are irrevocably interconnected with the same world, despite the unfolding "strategic competition" between them. It is more likely that a multilateral approach toward global affairs will lead to more constructive communications between the two powers in international affairs.

It is time to see whether the "multilateralism" Beijing has advocated is merely rhetoric or a substantial policy.   © AP

Third, the global economy is facing a substantial risk of a major financial meltdown -- or a least a global recession -- caused largely by the unprecedented quantitative easing triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has pumped trillions of dollars into the market to prevent an economic collapse. Here, Beijing and Washington can find solid common ground in maintaining global financial stability. And not just because China has the world's largest foreign reserves and is the second-largest holder of U.S. Treasury bills. A financial meltdown would be catastrophic for both China -- the largest trading power in the world -- and the U.S., for which financial stability is critical to economic prosperity.

Fourth, it is in the interests of both China and the U.S. to build up a proper mechanism for crisis management, which barely exists nowadays, to deal with sensitive issues such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to prevent lingering tensions from escalating into dangerous conflicts.

Last but not the least, it's important not to expect too much from a Biden administration, especially building up a clearly defined policy framework regarding China before the 2022 midterm elections. Biden's immediate priorities will include promoting a national reconciliation in the aftermath of a deeply divided and highly emotional election, getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control, stimulating an economy still reeling from the pandemic, and consolidating the Democrats' dominance by aiming for a substantial victory in the 2022 midterms.

Meanwhile, the new administration must focus on restoring U.S. leadership among its allies, which has been substantially damaged by Trump's arbitrary unilateralism. Biden and his team understand that U.S. strength is rooted not just in American might, but in the US-led alliance system that has prevailed since the end of World War II.

There will be a time window for China's leadership to signal some policy changes and initiatives toward the U.S., if Beijing really does believe that stabilizing the U.S.-China relationship is in China's national interests. It is not unreasonable to assume that these changes and initiatives will be well received if they demonstrate Beijing's determination to adhere to the policy of reform and openness at home, and its commitment to the established norms, principles and rules in international affairs.

As such, we can expect that US-China competition will henceforth be in steadier hands. After all, what really endangers world peace and stability, as well as the future of U.S.-China relations, is not a "strategic competition" between the two great powers, but the uncertainty resulting from a competition in which neither power follows the time-honored rules of game, but behaves arbitrarily only in terms of its own narrowly defined self-interest.

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