Commentary

Biden on China: Lane-Changing After Trump? 

By Aung Zaw 22 January 2021

Governments in Asia, including China, welcomed the new US administration this week with questions about what President Joe Biden’s China policy will look like. But Beijing is cautious.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, said: “The recent period had not been easy for us. It has been highly challenging and unusual. Both the Chinese and American people deserve a better future.”

Knowing damage had been done to its allies and international institutions under Donald Trump, Biden and his team will have to repair and restore America’s image. But how will Biden’s China policy differ from Trump’s? Behaving differently from Trump is not going to be enough.

Biden’s election victory led skeptics to question his soft, non-committal statements on China in previous years.

Trump was tough on China.

Even in his final days in office, Trump declared that Beijing was committing genocide against the Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang and a video conference was held between a senior United States envoy and the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, ignoring the fact that the island is claimed by Beijing.

Trump’s approach to China differed from former President Barack Obama, who watched as China under President Xi Jinping became more assertive. Trump was unambiguous in identifying Beijing as a threat to US interests and imposing penalties.

It is likely that Biden’s approach will be more multilateral and collective than Trump’s policy of going it alone. The new administration may also find some areas where Washington and Beijing can work together, such as on climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, Trump’s “America first” policy implied that Washington should stand alone and be dragged into isolation. During the previous four years, we saw China take the strategic opportunity of Trump’s America first policy and become more assertive, expanding its influence. Today, China is the world’s largest and longest-surviving autocracy and its influence continues to rise.

Western-based Chinese analysts have long argued that the notion of China slowly adopting international norms and aligning itself with the international order is wishful thinking. Today, China has regional hegemony, posing a serious challenge to US international influence.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice to be secretary of state, told the US Senate: “I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China.

“I disagree very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas but the basic principle was the right one and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.

“As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge [to US interests],” Blinken said, noting there is room for cooperation.

“There are rising adversarial aspects of the relationship, certainly, competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones, when it is in our mutual interests,”

“There are rising adversarial aspects of the relationship, certainly, competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones, when it is in our mutual interests,” he said.

Beijing’s Global Times mouthpiece in an editorial wrote of Blinken: “Time will answer what these messages mean during the transition period.”

It added that Washington was to blame. “One thing is very important. During the past four years, China-US relations have deteriorated. All conflicts have been provoked by Washington. Beijing has merely been responding and making countermoves.”

Beijing has imposed sanctions on 28 members of the Trump administration, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

China’s foreign ministry said it had decided to sanction those “who have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and who have been mainly responsible for such US moves on China-related issues”.

There is the likelihood that if Biden follows Trump on China, Beijing will harden its attitude.

Myanmar’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Naypyitaw on Jan. 11, 2021. / State Counselor’s Office

Myanmar should be prepared to work with the new US administration but it is also important to maintain a stable relationship with its northern neighbor. Myanmar recently received its first major Chinese visit – by foreign minister Wang Yi – since the Nov. 8 general election.

The US is distant compared to China, especially with Myanmar tied to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In August last year, in his nomination, the subsequently appointed US ambassador to Myanmar, Thomas Vajda, said one of his goals as envoy would be “to advance US interests and values”.

He told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that US engagement with Myanmar is “essential” to advance the country’s reforms and help defend it against “malign influences”.

“To support Burma in this regard, the United States will need to continue helping government officials, economic reformers and civil society actors who are pushing back on unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit to local communities,” he added.

Malign influences? His reference to “unfair investment practices and deals that provide little benefit” showed clearly that he meant China.

That was under Trump. The new ambassador’s remarks came when tension between the US and China was running high, partly fueled by an opinion piece by then US chargé d’ affaires at the US Embassy in Yangon, George Sibley. He alleged China’s actions in the South China Sea and its aggressive crackdown in Hong Kong were part of a larger plan to undermine the region’s sovereignty, including in Myanmar.

Under the new administration, the US is likely to continue a tough stance on China while seeking to build more sustainable and lasting alliances with the region given Biden’s recent selection of the former State Department official Kurt Campbell. The former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, known as one of Washington’s most respected experts on Asia, is due to join the administration as “Indo-Pacific coordinator”. The job will give him broad management over National Security Council directorates that cover parts of Asia and China-related issues.

Whatever the case, Myanmar should not suffer when the US advances its interests and values in the region, especially from repercussions caused by any hiccups in Sino-US relations. It should be a win-win for every player as Myanmar is not an enemy to the US or China. Myanmar poses no serious security threat to either country. But Myanmar also has to look after its national interests and sovereignty, while demonstrating that it can be a player, not just a playground.

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