With the US presidency still hanging in the balance, a senior Chinese diplomat made overtures to Washington on Thursday, calling for joint efforts to rebuild ties regardless of the election result.
The remarks by Le Yucheng, vice-minister of foreign affairs, were the first positive signs coming out of Beijing since Tuesday’s election, which observers see as the most consequential for China amid its power struggle with the US.
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As the vote count continued, Le said Beijing hoped to see the American election “proceed smoothly”, without any hitches.
“In spite of the differences between China and the US, there are broad common interests and room for cooperation,” he said during a press briefing in Beijing.
“Sustaining and advancing China-US relations in a healthy and steady manner is in the interest of our two peoples and reflects the shared expectations of the international community,” he said.
“China hopes that the new US administration will work together with us to focus on cooperation and properly manage our differences, so as to bring China-US relations back to the right track of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
Le’s message was largely in line with the Chinese government’s “no comment” approach to the US election. But it was “a bit more positive and sincere” than the routine remarks from the foreign ministry in recent weeks, said Pang Zhongying, an international relations professor with Ocean University of China.
He said with Biden edging closer to the White House, Beijing appeared cautiously optimistic about the positive changes the former vice-president could potentially bring to bilateral relations, which are at their lowest point in decades.
According to Pang, Beijing has real expectations that Biden could overhaul Trump’s confrontational China policy, reopen official dialogue mechanisms and even partially revive America’s decades-old engagement policy with China, which Trump has effectively done away with in recent months.
“That said, China knows full well that it’s impossible to go back to the good old days because both countries have changed,” he said. “And it remains to be seen how far Biden could go to undo the damage caused to bilateral ties by the Trump administration and return to pre-Trump times.”
Seth Jaffe, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at John Cabot University in Rome, also said a Biden presidency could offer scope for a reset of US-China relations, but it would not last long.
“I suspect Beijing prefers Biden to Trump because he is predictable, which will allow for sounder strategic planning,” Jaffe said. “Biden’s China policy is not yet fully articulated, but it will surely be more traditional, alliance-based and smartly telegraphed, but also, probably, more rigid.”
Rising tensions between Beijing and Washington are expected to stay as Biden would try to repair the US alliance system and establish an anti-China coalition across key foreign policy areas. “If Biden is prudent, however, he will devote time and attention to China in the early days of his presidency, which will be hard given the urgent domestic challenges he will immediately face,” Jaffe said.
Wang Jiangyu, an international law expert at Hong Kong’s City University, said Biden could learn from the Obama administration about how to deal with China more effectively and enlist former officials from that era.
“Barack Obama failed to change China despite spending a lot of time and energy on it. But after Donald Trump came to power, after a few harsh beatings, China did give in on trade,” he said. “Some [of Biden’s team] might also think that using a big stick is the right way to handle China.”
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong and William Zheng
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