When Joe Biden visited Beijing in August 2011 in his role as American vice-president he was greeted at the Great Hall of the People by a certain Xi Jinping, China’s leader-in-waiting.
The backdrop to the meeting was an unprecedented decision a few weeks earlier by S&P to downgrade America’s credit rating from triple A. As the largest holder of US government debt, the Chinese were anxious that the resulting market turmoil was undermining their key foreign exchange asset. But according to Evan Osnos – author of Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now – Xi was in a cheerful mood. “Good to see you again,” he said to Biden. “I know you are very busy with national affairs at home.”
“You are our national affairs. Happy to be here,” Biden replied.
When introduced to the Chinese delegation, Biden was jocular too, telling Xi: “Remember what I told you last time: if I had hair like yours I’d be President.”
Nine years later, Xi’s dark mane now shows a few silver streaks and the 78 year-old Biden is set to become American president, despite the continued refusal of the Trump campaign to concede electoral defeat.
All eyes are now on how Biden might reset the most important bilateral relationship in the world – and whether his former rapport with Xi will help in reaffirming a more positive style of relations.
Does Biden know China well?
Arguably the president-elect is the most experienced politician in Washington when it comes to dealing with China’s political leaders.
After China re-established diplomatic ties with the US in January 1979, Biden was a member of the first US congressional delegation to travel to Beijing. Describing himself “as a kid in the Senate”, he met Deng Xiaoping in April that year.
Unlike Donald Trump, who has described China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation as the worst deal in Washington’s history, Biden has long supported China’s integration into global trade. According to the New York Times Biden has argued that the US benefits from China’s growing prosperity – and like many American politicians of the last 40 years believed it gave Washington more of a chance to influence China’s economic and political systems and encourage its development as “a productive, responsible member of the world community”.
That’s why when Biden visited Beijing again in another high-profile trip in the summer of 2001, he was warmly received. On his first overseas trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was even welcomed to Beidaihe, where he met Chinese leaders holidaying at the secretive retreat (see WiC420). Setting the Sino-US relationship on the right course, Biden told the then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, it was the most important issue for generations to come in both China and the US, Xinhua reported at the time.
Is Biden an ‘old friend’ of Xi too?
Donald Trump has hyped up his friendship with Xi, often calling the Chinese leader “a great friend”. That hasn’t stopped him from lambasting the policies of the Chinese leader, of course. Notably, Xi, has never spoken in similarly warm terms about his personal relationship with Trump.
Biden has known Xi for a much longer time and it was Xi who invited him to make the aforementioned trip to Beijing in 2011. Onlookers were aware that Biden’s main mission was to size up China’s future leader and he was reported to be building a rapport and “getting Xi to open up”, the New York Times noted, citing Daniel Russel, a Biden aide.
Biden’s assessment of Xi at the time was that he was “tough and unsentimental, someone who questioned American power and believed in the superiority of the Communist Party,” the newspaper added.
Since then Biden has had harsh words for his former host, most notably during last month’s presidential debate, describing him as a “thug”, although some would say that political rhetoric was more about denigrating Trump’s penchant for strongman leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.
Conversely Biden has boasted that he has spent more time in meetings with Xi than with any other world leader, with the duo meeting at least eight times in 2011 and 2012 (Xi became the Party’s general secretary in late 2012) in what amounted to “25 hours of private dinners”.
Xi might not have foreseen at the time that Biden would go on to become the US president. Yet Beijing’s leaders have often welcomed trusted American politicians as a means of conveying their own priorities back to Washington (other examples of go-betweens include Henry Kissinger and Henry Paulson, both Republicans).
A good example: in December 2013, when tensions had flared over the East China Sea (following China’s creation of a new air defence zone, see WiC218), Biden was invited to Beijing again.
Before the official meeting between the two delegations, the two men spoke informally, with Biden later describing how he had “trespassed on” his friendship with Xi to “keep him as long as I did in the other room”. According to a transcript published by Xinhua, Xi also lauded Biden as “my old friend”, asking the US vice-president for his help in building a new era of relations between China and the US.
So Beijing is happy with Biden’s election win?
Unlike the leaders of America’s traditional allies, Xi has held back from sending a congratulation message to Biden. In part that’s because China makes such a public play of avoiding interference in the internal politics of other countries. As such, Beijing has been keen to appear neutral during one of the most divisive presidential elections in US history and it’s unlikely that Xi will call Biden before an official concession from Trump.
China’s foreign ministry has refrained from acknowledging the Biden win too. “We understand the presidential election result will be determined following US laws and procedures,” a spokesman said during a press conference on Monday, adding the standard rhetoric that China and the US should manage their differences on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation.
State media outlets have largely stuck to the same line, focusing more on the deep divisions in the US electorate in the run-up to the vote. A few broke ranks to highlight the chaos of the delayed count, with the People’s Daily retweeting one of Trump’s Twitter post that “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”, adding its own comment “HaHa” plus a laughing emoticon. The tweet was swiftly taken down when negative comments started to flood the state news agency’s Twitter account, however. “At least we have elections,” one contributor from the US fired back, for instance.
Another of Washington’s more outspoken critics in China couldn’t resist the temptation to tweet, with a comment from Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, about how shops were being boarded up in US cities on election day. Civil unrest was more typically a “complication of elections in poor countries, but people are worried it may appear in the US,” Hu explained.
“The US is in degradation,” he concluded.
How about the wider reaction from netizens?
The US vote has been one of the top trending topics on Chinese social media for nearly a week. On Sina Weibo mentions of the election attracted nearly seven billion views over the weekend. Some of the more recent developments, such as Trump’s plan to file lawsuits in several swing states, garnered more than 100 million views in a few hours.
Generally, netizens have enjoyed Trump’s demise, with one widely- forwarded meme retitling a picture of the Forbidden City – a key landmark in China’s capital – as the “For-Biden City”. Others mocked Trump, whom they have dubbed Chuan Jianguo, or ‘Trump Building our Nation’ (see WiC508), because his high-pressure push for trade and tech restrictions has stirred patriotic feeling among many Chinese for their country to work harder and strive to rectify its shortcomings such as its reliance on imports of parts and machinery for semiconductor production.
“Although he wasn’t re-elected, the laughs he brought netizens for four years is undeniable. Let’s reflect on the highlights of the Trump era!” another contributor scoffed on weibo in a post accompanied with a video reel showing scenes ranging from Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd in Puerto Rico to testing positive for the coronavirus last month.
Others took the opportunity to trash the American political system too. “Is this really the only way American elections can operate?” one netizen queried. “Americans have discovered that it’s much easier for them to change the presidents of other countries than in their own country,” another deadpanned.
How might Biden reset the Sino-US relationship?
Biden’s arrival in the White House next year offers a clear chance to look afresh at relations with Beijing.
One of his first priorities will be the reopening of channels of communication, following a freezing up of contacts between the two governments in recent months.
Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, is said to be largely ignored by even the most junior of Trump administration officials, for instance. Another indicator of the direction the new regime in Washington will take will be how quickly it reappoints an American ambassador to China. The post in Beijing has been vacant for weeks since Terry Branstad stepped down from the role to help Trump’s re-election campaign in early October.
The choice of ambassador will also be telling as too whether Biden calls for an early summit with Xi. Tone will be key from the start and we can expect the Biden team to revert to more conventional diplomatic norms, rather than governing by tweet. “It’ll be more nuanced, but I think it’ll be better for China because it won’t be so erratic and ad hoc like Trump was,” Karin von Hippel, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, told CNN.
Biden will also look for areas where his administration can work together with its counterparts in China to achieve positive results. One of the most obvious avenues is a new round of cooperation on climate change policy, with the incoming president already pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate agreement.
Perhaps there could be opportunities to collaborate in areas like how to better guard against future pandemics – although Beijing will want a rejection of the Trumpian narrative of Covid-19 as a “China virus” first.
In other areas much of the existing American policy towards China is likely to be maintained, however. Events of the last four years have seen more of the policy establishment turn hawkish on China, while the impact of the coronavirus crisis has darkened sentiment among much of the American public too.
And the older optimism that treating the Chinese as partners and customers would lead China to tack towards Washington-led norms in international trade and diplomacy had actually been waning for some time – long before the Trump administration drove a final stake through the heart of the policy of engagement (see WiC497).
The newer designation of China as a ‘strategic competitor’ is now so widely accepted that most commentators don’t expect to see substantive differences in Biden’s main policies towards Beijing, even as he takes a little of the heat out of Trump’s confrontational approach.
Ezra Vogel, a former national security advisor to Bill Clinton and the author of a respected book on Deng Xiaoping, told Taiwan’s Open magazine this week to expect the same tough line in many of Biden’s policies towards China and that the main difference to his predecessor will be that his approach is applied in a more coordinated fashion.
In a similar line of thinking, the Hong Kong Economic Times claims that Xi might even have preferred Trump to win another term at the Oval Office because Biden will be more effective at rallying support from allies against Chinese ambitions in matters of technology and trade, as well as across a number of territorial and maritime disputes.
That said, the more immediate worry for Xi and his leadership team is what fireworks might be ahead in the coming weeks given that an increasingly unpredictable Trump retains power until Inauguration Day in January.
That’s a meaningful span of time should the president choose to ratchet up the anti-China rhetoric in the remaining days of his administration. Trump has blamed much of his election loss on the “China plague” – and by extension that means he blames Beijing for his misfortune too. So there is a chance that there could be some kind of parting shot at China’s government and its leader.
The South China Morning Post reported on Thursday about growing Chinese military fears: “The firing of US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has triggered worries in Beijing about the increasing risk of accidental conflict as well as the possibility of more hardline action by the Pentagon against Beijing, according to analysts.” The SCMP quoted Chinese military expert Zhou Chenming as saying Beijing viewed Esper as “stable” and someone who could be engaged with. In comparison, Zhou thought Christopher Miller – Trump’s new ‘acting’ defence secretary – concerned Beijing because he has a background in the special forces and “specialises in surprise attacks and adventure operations”.
Keeping track, Nov 13, 2020: On November 13, nearly a week after Biden was declared the winner, China acknowledge his electoral victory over Donald Trump. “We respect the choice of the American people. We extend congratulations to Mr Biden and Ms Harris,” said Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, at a regular press briefing. “We understand the results of the US election will be determined according to US laws and procedures,” he added. The response stands in contrast to when President Xi Jinping personally congratulated Trump on his 2016 win the day after the election.
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