Buffeted by Trump, China Has Little Hope for Hotter Relations With Biden

Throughout this period, China’s leaders publicly declared indifference to the American presidential election after concluding that no matter who won, the United States would remain unforgivingly against the country’s rise.

The country’s top head of state, Xi Jinping, has instead advanced a strategy that would better protect China from rising international risks, especially President Trump’s antagonism.

China is now facing a new government that has vowed to be just as tough. While many will welcome the expected change in tone from the harsh, sometimes racist remarks made by Mr Trump and other officials, few expect President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to quickly reverse the policies of confrontation instituted by his predecessor.

Without substantial concessions from the Chinese government, which appear unlikely, fundamental tensions between the two countries will increase. They could get even more pronounced – in terms of trade, technology, Taiwan, and other issues.

“Biden’s election will not fundamentally affect the core politics of Beijing’s heads of state and government,” said Carl Minzner, professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University in New York. These policies, he added, “are being driven by the increasingly tough one-man rule of Xi Jinping and his desire to re-establish party power throughout Chinese society.”

Since Mr. Biden was declared the winner, China’s official response has been relatively subdued. Neither Mr. Xi nor other officials have publicly congratulated and waited for the official concession from Mr. Trump, a State Department spokesman suggested on Monday.

While some Chinese officials have urged the United States to ease tension by resuming unspecified negotiations, others are preparing for even bigger challenges, particularly those related to technology and human rights. They fear that Mr. Biden, working with allies in Europe and elsewhere, may prove more effective in countering China’s growing economic and military power.

Mr Biden, whose views on China have sharpened since his tenure as Vice President in the Obama administration, appears determined to keep many of Mr Trump’s toughest measures, including tariffs and restrictions on Chinese technology. During the campaign, he called Mr. Xi “a thug” and vowed that he would more vigorously address human rights violations, including mass detention and forced labor, in the western region of Xinjiang.

Yang Yi, a retired Chinese admiral and former director of the Strategic Study Institute at the National Defense University in China, whose views reflect mainstream military thinking, warned ahead of the election that “Sino-US relations are at a very dangerous point “. He specifically cited the self-satisfied view in Europe before World War I that a continent-wide conflict was unthinkable.

“It is very difficult for both countries to step back from their established strategic goals,” wrote Admiral Yang in The Global Times, the nationalist state-controlled newspaper. “In the post-pandemic era, structural tensions between China and the United States are even greater and will be very difficult for ‘technical measures’ to resolve or resolve.”

As the American campaign unfolded, Mr. Xi’s China tensed its military and political forces across the region, counting on the United States doing little or doing little in response.

There was a conflict with India over the controversial border in the Himalayas, against the promised freedoms in Hong Kong and most recently against Australia with restrictions on the export of wine, lobster and coal. It has also responded to every punishment taken by Mr Trump with its own measures prohibiting government officials and lawmakers from traveling, imposing sanctions on companies, and expelling American journalists.

Much remains uncertain, including what Mr Trump will do towards China in the remaining weeks of his presidency. Mr. Biden has made relatively few concrete suggestions for dealing with China. In his victory speech, Mr Biden said little about foreign policy, making it clear that his first priority would be fighting the coronavirus pandemic at home. It could be months until 2021 before he turns his full attention to America’s most annoying geopolitical relationship.

Mr Biden’s victory has raised hopes in some areas that the two countries could work together again on at least some issues, particularly climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for exactly that in a congratulatory message to Mr Biden on Twitter, citing the pandemic and climate change.

He also said Germany would turn to the new government with policy proposals on how to deal with “actors like China”, signaling the hardening of views in Europe, which have become increasingly worrying for some in Beijing.

Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group in Washington, said the Chinese would welcome the “respite” to ease tension. This also gives them more time to build up their own strength economically and militarily.

“You are more and more concerned about a crisis in America,” he said in a telephone interview. “They still know that they are weaker.”

Chinese officials repeatedly claimed they had no favorite in the race, calling the election an internal matter for Americans to decide. The result, however, could be the best the Communist Party leadership could have wished for.

The election resulted in the defeat of a president who brought US-China relations to their lowest level since the 1970s. It also reflected a political process that few, at a time of countless crises, would consider a model for effective, democratic leadership.

America’s failures in slowing the coronavirus outbreak, as well as protests this year against police brutality and racism, have been a topic of Chinese propaganda since the country got its own infections under control.

“The uncontrolled spread of the virus and ongoing political turmoil in the United States have reinforced Beijing’s view that the United States is in decline,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, professor of government at Cornell University.

“While the Chinese leadership sees abundant national and international risks,” she added, “they are becoming more confident in their efforts to withstand international pressure on issues that are central to their national legitimacy and regime security.”

Mr. Xi has used China’s success in fighting the pandemic to advance a political and economic agenda to make the country less dependent on the rest of the world in key areas, including technology.

On the eve of the election, the main Communist Party journal, Qiushi, or “Seeking Truth,” published a speech Mr. Xi gave in April setting out his strategy. He said China should strengthen its dominance in industrial supply chains as a potential weapon against protectionist threats from abroad.

With the United States now in what is likely to be a tumultuous transition, Mr. Xi is marching forward with a new five-year plan that will guide policy from 2021. A draft that happened to be released on election day in the United States includes the stamps of Mr. Xi, who reiterated his dire forecast of global pressures at a major party conference last month.

During the same meeting, Mr. Xi was hailed as “the chief navigator and helmsman,” a title that reflects the title given to Mao Zedong. He showed no sign of naming a successor who could pave the way for retirement. With an expected third term starting in 2022, he is likely to be in power well after the next presidential election in 2024 – and possibly another one after that.

“Right now, China feels like a different planet,” Rodney Jones, an economist at Wigram Capital Advisors, who closely follows China, said via email. “And that’s exactly how Xi Jinping wants it.”

The Chinese government appeared to be keen to downplay the elections – perhaps so as not to emphasize the democratic process for a people who don’t play a role in choosing their leaders.

Coverage of the extended ballot count was sparse and the election news was banned until the end of the nightly newscast. When Mr. Biden’s victory was announced on Sunday morning, all of China’s state media flashed news reports about Mr. Xi’s instructions given a few days ago for a rail link between Sichuan Province and Tibet.

Propaganda aside, ordinary Chinese were not indifferent to the outcome. Both candidates were among the most searched topics on Chinese social media.

Students who wanted to study in the US also had a special stake in the race: their visas, which the Trump administration has severely restricted.

“Although Biden will also be tougher on China when he comes to power, his policy on international students can be relaxed,” said Nathan Cao, a college junior in Shandong province who is hoping to study abroad.

A popular Beijing noodle shop that Mr. Biden visited as Vice President in 2011 was overcrowded after his victory.

“I’ve seen news articles that said Biden is a good father and really likes his family,” said Sunny Gao, 55, who ordered the same black soybean paste noodles that Mr. Biden tried on Sunday and Monday. “I hope he’ll be a little good on China.”

Chris Buckley contributed to the coverage from Sydney and Keith Bradsher from Beijing. Claire Fu and Albee Zhang contributed research from Beijing and Coral Yang from Shanghai.

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