Biden will team up with Europe to be tougher on China than Trump

President-elect Joe Biden. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Biden promised a tough approach to China during his successful election campaign.
  • He called Xi Jinping a “thug” and accused Trump of fumbling the US response to China’s growing power.
  • Unlike Trump, the President-elect will use close cooperation with Europe to exert pressure on China, rather than a go-it-alone approach, according to foreign policy experts.
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Such is the bipartisan consensus in Washington that China is both a competitor and a threat that Joe Biden and President Trump, at times during their election campaigns, appeared to be trying to one-up each other in their bids to talk tough on Beijing.

Biden, who as Barack Obama’s vice-president advocated engagement with China, has since abandoned any such calls, instead calling Chinese premier Xi Jinping a “thug” and repeatedly criticising Trump’s trade and tariff war with China for being ineffective and failing to protect the US economy.

“There is very strong bipartisan perspective on China,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Domestically, anything that President-elect Biden does politically on China will be met by a Republican party that will say, you are being too soft.”

If the new administration retains a similarly tough towards China as President Trump’s, Biden’s commitment to multilateralism and traditional alliances may also prove a more effective tool for implementing that policy than Trump’s go-it-alone approach, which often involved attacking the US’ closest allies.

For one thing, Biden’s commitment to multilateralism would be more closely similar to the European approach to trade disputes with China, which emphasises negotiating commercial tensions through organisations like the WTO and G20. That, in turn, would mean the collective negotiating might of the EU and US could pose a more effective counterweight to China’s growing economic influence than the US acting alone.

“My impression is that the attitude of the new administration basically towards China will not change,” said Ferdinando Nelli Ferrucci, a former European Commissioner and president of Istituto Affari Internazionali, an Italian international relations think-tank.

“What will more likely change is the modalities of this competition.

“I have the impression that Biden and the new administration would have an interest more than Trump has done in involving European allies in dealing with China and trying to define a shared strategy without surprise, without diktats, without ultimatums, without blackmails.”

That was a sentiment echoed last week by Jim O’Neill, chair of the UK think-tank Chatham House.

He told CNBC last week that he believed China felt more threatened by a Biden administration than a Trump administration, despite Trump’s intense and sustained hostility towards Beijing.

“It is my impression that the Chinese are more concerned by a Biden administration than a Trump administration,” O’Neill said.

“And, they [the Biden administration] are going to use existing multinational fora to try and hold China to account more by the standards of such international fora whether it be WHO, G20, World Bank … rather than this sort of … negotiation style so loved of Trump,” O’Neill said.

There are early signs that Biden’s commitment to multilateral co-operation may already be paying dividends.

According to a leaked draft seen by the Financial Times, the European Commission last week prepared a paper proposing a new EU-US alliance to counter the growing threat posed by the “strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness.”