Both the Democrats and Republicans share a conviction that China is a competitor to America’s economic, technological and geopolitical leadership that has to be contained. Both the parties regard China’s treatment of the Uighurs and Hong Kong as unpalatable. Both believe China’s trade practices and its subsidies for its state-owned enterprises are unfair and in breach of international agreements.


What Trump’s trade war and its subsequent broadening into an assault on most things China-related did was to remove any complacency US politicians and officials might have had about American superiority and greatly increase an awareness that under Xi Jinping, China is far more openly aggressive and assertive, and far more authoritarian, than it was under its former leadership.

The legacy of the trade war is tariffs on about $US360 billion ($455 billion) of China’s exports, a raft of sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals, restrictions on US exports, bans on Chinese students and academic exchanges, some limited restrictions on capital flows to China and bans on some Chinese technology companies from operating in the US.

It is clear from their comments that Biden and the members of his administration with responsibilities for aspects of the relationship want to create a more structured strategic framework for dealing with China to replace the ad hockery of the Trump policies; creating a more civil relationship while also developing more effective responses to China’s ambitions.

The Trump policies have generally not been effective; indeed they have been counter-productive and, while costly for China, have been even more costly for America in terms of lost economic output and jobs.

His centrepiece tariffs have failed to deliver on his promise to reduce the US trade deficit with China and his much-vaunted “Phase One” trade deal, under which China committed to buying $US200 billion more US goods than it did in 2017, has been a failure. China has so far fallen about 40 per cent short on its commitments.

The tariffs may have made China’s exports less competitive but were paid for by US companies and consumers – they were effectively a $US70 billion or so tax on US companies and consumers – and the administration then had to distribute tens of billions of dollars to its farmers to compensate them for their lost export income.

It would seem Biden recognises that the tariffs do more harm to the US economy than to China but the politics of removing them – particularly as China hasn’t delivered on the Phase One agreement — and the reality that they do represent leverage in the wider relationship makes it unlikely that he will move unless China’s proffers something very material and structural in exchange.

It isn’t at all clear what China has to offer. It isn’t going to change its treatment of the Uighurs, or loosen its still-tightening control of Hong Kong, or remove subsidies for its state-owned enterprises, or suppress its technological and regional ambitions or cease trying to undermine America’s traditional alliances (although Trump was probably more effective than China on that front).

If it is waiting for Biden to make the first move it could be a long wait. He’s more focused on building American economic and military capacity to counter China and on re-establishing America’s traditional alliances and leading role in the multilateral institutions Trump despised than in any early efforts to undo Trump’s tangled legacies on trade and human rights.

The new administration has said it will conduct a comprehensive review of the Trump policies before it settles on its strategies and tactics for dealing with China.

Earlier this week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the US to reopen a dialogue and distance itself from the Trump’s administration’s policies.

Earlier this week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the US to reopen a dialogue and distance itself from the Trump’s administration’s policies.Credit:UNTV

The new US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has at least shown the administration has a slightly more sophisticated understanding of the issues than its predecessor.

“There are adversarial aspects to the relationship, there’s certainly competitive ones and there’s still some co-operative ones, too. But whether we’re dealing with any of those aspects of the relationship we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness, ” he said recently.


For the moment the administration is more focused on filling in the gaps in its cabinet, dealing with the pandemic and other domestic issues, trying to repair the relations with its former allies that Trump scorned and damaged – an outcome China has tried to exploit with some, but mixed, success – and with reviving the World Trade Organisation and other multi-lateral institutions than any material re-setting of the bi-lateral relationship.

At some point it will have to engage with China – further decoupling of the economies and increased tensions would be very costly to both and add to global instability and threats.

Unless and until it can bring a much wider front of alliances to the negotiating table, however, there’s little prospect that China will agree to change its trade practices, make concessions on its treatment of the Uighurs and Hong Kong or defuse tensions in the South China Sea and therefore little prospect that the Biden administration will be any less suspicious of China or less combative than its predecessor.

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