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Biden's Asia policy

China urges Biden to reopen Trump-blocked lines of communication

Chinese analysts say working on mutual areas of interest may lead to warmer ties

 "I believe if both countries put in the effort, the kind angels can triumph over evil forces," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.    © Kyodo

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG -- Hours after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, China sought to draw a line under four years of bitter tensions with Washington by urging the new administration to turn its back on the policies of Donald Trump.

"In the past years, the Trump administration, especially Pompeo, has laid too many mines that need to be removed, burned too many bridges that need to be rebuilt, damaged too many roads that need to be repaired," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.

"I believe if both countries put in the effort, the kind angels can triumph over evil forces."

Beyond the opening rhetoric, the first 100 days of the Biden administration will offer crucial clues to how the frayed relationship between the two superpowers will evolve over the next four years. Beijing will be seeking assurances from Biden on issues such as security, tariffs, the detention of the Huawei CFO in Canada, and pledges to reverse executive orders signed by Trump.

But analysts don't see either side bending too much to the other's will. Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, believes the bilateral relationship with the U.S. will get even tougher.

"We are thinking about this relationship more and more in the context of strategic competition. If the U.S. treats China as strategic competitor, China will do the same," Wu said.

From a Chinese perspective, the reopening of communication channels closed by Trump would be a good start.

Xue Lei, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a Chinese government-affiliated think tank, said a major problem for the bilateral relationship has been the Trump administration closing all channels of communication between the two governments.

"Even the person-to-person channel has been closed," Xue said. "[The U.S.] looks at China as a "strategic competitor" but we need the bilateral channel of communication so that we can continue [with the relationship.]"

With Biden appearing to be returning to multilateralism and recruiting allies in Asia to stand up to China, it is unlikely that Beijing-Washington ties will return to how they were before Trump. Some analysts say that working on areas of mutual interest such as climate change could be a stepping stone to a warming of ties.

Ye Yu, assistant director at SIIS, said that while China is preparing for a worst-case scenario, it is ready to cooperate on any issue with Biden.

"In 2008, we had the global financial crisis. At that time, both countries had horrible balance and that pushed the two countries to work together," Ye said. " What will be the new balance on which the two countries can rely on each other? I don't think health is a good area because there is competition. But climate may be one."

Citing trade, Ye said China is not prepared to be isolated from U.S. allies. "China is confident to work with a rule-based system. China signed recently signed deals with Asian countries and European countries," she added. "It doesn't matter if the U.S. has its allies. We work in a global system."

A poll by the Chinese state-backed Global Times in December asked "in what fields can China boost cooperation with the US after Biden takes office?" The top response was the COVID-19 pandemic fight, chosen by 48.7% of respondents, followed by 44.4% who picked economy and trade, and 39.9% who chose combating climate change. Only 12.1% said "the two countries will not strengthen cooperation."

Another view is that China's new policy of "dual circulation" -- refocusing on domestic reliance while taking advantage of trade and foreign investment -- is not aimed at boosting the economy but a strategic response to Washington's aggressive stance against Beijing, according to Arthur Kroeber, head of research at Gavekal Dragonomics.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013.   © Reuters

But no matter how the relationship develops under Biden, Taiwan remains the major potential flashpoint between the two powers.

"Not just in the short term, but even in the midterm, Taiwan could be the most explosive issue in China-US relation," said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. Trump "rediscovered the strategic value of Taiwan in strategically containing China."

Since switching recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, Washington had treated the Taiwan question cautiously. That was until Trump came along. Biden's invitation to Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's de facto ambassador to Washington, to the inauguration on Wednesday can be read as a message on continuation from the Trump administration.

"On the China side, people are getting more impatient about the development in Taiwan," Wu said. "Now we feel that the island is drifting away further from the mainland. Pressure is building up in China for a more effective way to deal with the Taiwan issue."

Harry Harding, political science professor at University of Virginia shares the view that Taiwan will be the key issue going forward for the bilateral relationship, but for a different reason.

"China's policy toward Taiwan has not been effective," he said. "It has not been able to appeal to Taiwanese people, who increasingly value their democracy, see that they have their own identity, and above all, reject the idea that they should be reunified with China under the same one country, two systems formula as applied to Hong Kong."

Another thorny issue is sanctions. Jessica Bartlett, newly appointed chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said at her inauguration ceremony on Friday that she is "not anticipating in the near term a relaxation."

Being a corporate lawyer at Barclays who specializes in compliance and financial crimes including economic sanctions, Bartlett pointed out such penalties usually "last for a long time, it's not like an on and off switch." As the new administration is expected to spend time reviewing the impact of the policy, she anticipates that possible adjustments could arrive only after three to six months.

Bartlett said she is "cautiously optimistic" going forward, as dialogue with professionals in various think tanks that the chamber has been engaging with over recent years are now taking positions in the new Biden administration.

"A lot of these people that we have developed relationships with are getting posts, political appointments in the new administration" she said. Though no specific names were given, she said this is an opportunity for the American business community from the ground in Hong Kong to have "our voice in action in Washington."

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