Under Joe Biden, US and China could work together on Covid-19, climate change, analysts say

Kristin Huang
·5-min read

China and the United States may seek to cooperate on shared challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change to improve their turbulent relationship under a new US administration, according to analysts.

But they said there would be no end to the great power rivalry, and the two countries were expected to continue locking horns over issues where their national interests were at stake.

The assessment came after Democrat Joe Biden on Saturday declared victory in the US election, while President Donald Trump has refused to concede defeat and vowed to contest the outcome.

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Beijing – which has yet to officially congratulate Biden – now faces a new administration which analysts said could take less drastic action against it than Trump’s, while being more willing to work together.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies sank to their lowest point in decades ahead of the election, with Trump blaming Beijing for the coronavirus – calling it the “China plague” – and US officials and politicians demanding an investigation into its origin and filing lawsuits against the Chinese government over its handling of the outbreak. The virus was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

If Biden wants to pursue a different strategy to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, he will also need China’s cooperation

Zhang Baohui, Lingnan University

But Zhang Baohui, a political science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said there could be selective cooperation between the US and China under Biden, mainly in global governance but also on regional issues.

“Biden has said that he would again devote more attention to the global governance issues facing the world and would bring the US back to international organisations and agreements vacated by Trump. Issues that concern Biden include Covid-19, climate change and regional conflicts – on these issues he may need and seek the cooperation of China,” Zhang said.

“Regional issues may also motivate greater bilateral cooperation. Under Biden, conflict with North Korea may once again escalate – he has long been critical of Trump’s approach towards [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un],” he said. “If Biden wants to pursue a different strategy to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue, he will also need China’s cooperation.”

International relations expert Liu Weidong, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also said a Biden administration was likely to work with Beijing to contain the pandemic.

“Bilateral cooperation to counter the pandemic is expected to come soon,” Liu said. “This is a huge problem that cannot be solved without joint efforts from Beijing and Washington. And the world won’t be safe if there is one country that hasn’t succeeded in curbing the spread of the virus.”

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Climate change could also be an area for cooperation with Biden in the White House, according to Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor at Peking University.

Under the Barack Obama administration, climate change was an area where the two countries were seen to be able to work together despite their disputes. But that has gone backwards under Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. Biden has pledged to rejoin the climate accord on the first day of his presidency.

Jia also said the new US administration would need to work with Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul on the North Korea nuclear issue.

A Biden administration may not always suppress China as the Trump administration has done

Li Mingjiang, Nanyang Technological University

Those views were echoed by Li Mingjiang, an associate professor with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He said there was even a chance that China and the US could find common ground on trade.

“I think a Biden administration may not always suppress China as the Trump administration has done, including Trump’s tariffs on imports,” Li said. “[Biden] might lower or even cancel some tariffs, and cooperate with China in certain ways to stabilise the global financial market.”

But analysts cautioned that the confrontation between Beijing and Washington would continue, especially over issues that threatened their national interests.

According to Jia, Biden could continue Trump’s tough stance on China over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other human rights issues.

Li also noted that Biden could be expected to take aim at Beijing over long-standing problems like market access, Chinese state-owned enterprises, and intellectual property protection.

“But despite these issues, US cooperation with Beijing in the meantime is still possible,” he said.

Taiwan sees opportunity for world stage push under Joe Biden-led US

Trump has confronted China on many fronts during his presidency, including starting a trade war that saw the two countries impose tit-for-tat tariffs on each other’s goods. The Trump administration has also sought a tech decoupling from China, including by seeking to stifle Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies and pressuring Chinese tech firm ByteDance to sell its social media app TikTok to Microsoft.

Military tensions have meanwhile been rising over Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing has become increasingly assertive.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu

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