Beijing watches for Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, signs of direction on China

Catherine Wong
·5-min read

Beijing will keep a close watch as US president-elect Joe Biden fills positions in his cabinet, which is expected to be a mix of hawks and those who prefer engagement with China, according to analysts.

That mix would be needed for Biden to get the support of both Democrats and Republicans for Senate approval of the posts, they said.

As Biden forms his governing team in the coming days, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy will be priorities. But his approach to China will be a key foreign policy area, and analysts said Beijing would be looking to get relations onto a better footing with the new administration.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

Democrat Biden sent mixed signals on China during his campaign, including saying in May 2019 that it was “not a competition for us” – dismissing the notion that the US should be concerned about China as a geopolitical rival. That prompted pushback from both parties, which said Biden was underestimating the world’s second-largest economy.

But he has also signalled that he intends to be tough on China, calling President Xi Jinping a “thug” and indicating that he would call out Beijing’s repressive policies against the Uygur ethnic minority in Xinjiang.

While tensions between the two superpowers are expected to continue, Chinese analysts said Biden’s picks for influential government positions would be closely monitored in China for any indication of the direction his administration will take.

Front runner for secretary of state is reportedly Susan Rice, who was former president Barack Obama’s national security adviser. Rice has had a strong working relationship with Biden and was said to be among the top candidates to be his running mate, a role that ultimately went to California senator Kamala Harris.

But Rice’s potential nomination as the top US diplomat could be a challenge if the Republicans keep control of the Senate. Rice took herself out of the running to be Obama’s secretary of state after Republican criticism over her handling of the 2012 terrorist attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Chinese analysts say Susan Rice is more likely to try to engage with Beijing. Photo: TNS
Chinese analysts say Susan Rice is more likely to try to engage with Beijing. Photo: TNS

Although diplomats and foreign policy experts in Asia have said Rice lacks knowledge about the region, Chinese analysts said she was more likely to try to engage with Beijing.

“Rice is a moderate on the pro-engagement side, and she sees the value in cooperating with China,” said Wang Yong, director of the Centre for International Political Economy at Peking University.

“There is an urgent need for the two countries to resume dialogue and to reach some consensus,” he added.

Joe Biden is already forming a government: here’s what his cabinet could look like

However, Biden’s potential nomination for Pentagon chief – Michele Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defence for policy during the Obama administration – could cause concern in Beijing. Flournoy wrote in Foreign Affairs in June that the risk of war with China was higher than it had been for decades. And she proposed that the United States needed to deter China in the region by expanding US military capability to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours”.

Another potential choice is Antony Blinken, who was deputy secretary of state during Obama’s second term and is reportedly being considered for two influential positions in Biden’s governing team: secretary of state and national security adviser.

Antony Blinken is reportedly being considered for the positions of secretary of state and national security adviser. Photo: AFP
Antony Blinken is reportedly being considered for the positions of secretary of state and national security adviser. Photo: AFP

“People like Rice and Blinken would want to maintain America’s leadership in a liberal world order and to build alliances in competing with China, but the potential pick of Flournoy could reflect that there are voices within the Democratic Party calling for the US to deal with China in a more serious way,” Wang said. “We need to watch for the hawkish voices within the Democratic Party and see how they will influence relations between China and the US.”

In an opinion piece earlier this year laying out his priorities, Biden called China a “special challenge” and said he would have better policies than Trump to handle China.

“The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge such as climate change, non-proliferation and global health security,” he wrote.

Donald Trump may be on the way out, but he could break more China before he leaves

As China continues to gain economic strength and sway on the international stage – it is expected to have the world’s largest GDP by 2030 – analysts in both China and the US have said that the two powers need to adjust to new realities and work to find a balance in their relationship.

According to Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations expert, the bipartisan consensus on taking a tougher line on China is likely to continue, no matter who is appointed to the cabinet.

“America today sees a very different China than when Obama took office – the recent legislation on Hong Kong and Xinjiang was passed by the two parties in the Congress,” Shen said. “Biden will need to take a different approach to Obama given this bipartisan consensus.”

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Beijing watches for Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, signs of direction on China first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.