US-China relations: Beijing sees chance for thaw in ties under Biden, but keeps expectations in check

Frank Tang
·4-min read

China is seeking to open new channels of communication with the incoming White House administration of President-elect Joe Biden, but some Chinese analysts have warned against unrealistic expectations that tensions can be easily resolved.

However, the two sides might have some room for bilateral cooperation in terms of coronavirus pandemic control and climate change, which will be helpful in preventing the world’s two largest powers from escalating into full-scale rivalry and threatening the global economy.

Discussions over China-US relations have heated up among Beijing’s academics, former officials and in policy circles, as the transition from the Trump administration begins in Washington and the two nations enter a new chapter of diplomatic relations.

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Speaking at the Caijing annual conference on Thursday, Zhang Baijia, former deputy director of the Party History Research Centre of the Communist Party Central Committee, said it was unlikely the Biden administration would take any “big action” to improve bilateral ties over the next two years, but there were areas to cooperate.

Biden’s ideas sound positive, but he would only be different in terms of tactics… We must not have high expectations

Fu Chengyu

Climate change and pandemic control could receive high priority among a variety of complicated bilateral issues.

Still, Beijing is worried about Washington’s efforts to contain China.

“Biden’s ideas sound positive, but he would only be different in terms of tactics… We must not have high expectations,” said Fu Chengyu, former chairman of state-owned Sinopec Group.

Beijing has signaled willingness to improve relations with Washington after they plunged to their lowest levels since diplomatic ties resumed four decades ago during the Trump administration.

The US threat of economic decoupling has not yet been lifted, as many Chinese exports to the US are still subject to high tariffs and China has been cut off from access to American technology.

China’s interest in Pacific trade deal sets stage for new US showdown after Xi Jinping ups the ante

In his congratulatory message to Biden on Wednesday night, President Xi Jinping expressed hope bilateral relations could be put on a healthy and stable path by “upholding the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Fu Ying, former deputy foreign minister, wrote in New York Times on the same day that China does not want to replace US dominance in the world and a cooperative competition was possible.

In the meantime, Beijing has begun making preparations for the worst case scenario. It has formally adopted the dual circulation economic strategy, vowing to make the country more self-reliant by focusing on its domestic market and working towards technological independence.

Li Ruogu, a former central banker who now heads the China International Economic Relations Association, said Biden’s recent appointment of pro-establishment figures - like Janet Yellen - to his cabinet suggested room for improving ties.

Although US policies on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong would not change, there would likely be consultation over tariffs and resuming full economic ties, he said.

“We should consider proactively giving up some of our preferential treatment in exchange for World Trade Organization (WTO) reform,” he said. “We should also pay attention to the impact of China’s development on other countries.”

The Trump administration, which has denounced China’s status as a developing nation at the WTO and opposed recognising it as a market economy, threatened to pull out of the Geneva-based multilateral trade organization early this year, largely paralysing the appeals function at its dispute settlement court.

Qin Xiao, former chairman of China Merchants Bank, the country’s seventh largest lender, said Beijing has showed restraint in its rows with the US and other countries, but it should curb the fast-growing nationalist sentiment to create a good environment for future exchanges.

“Some wolf warriors claim that the two countries will eventually fight,” he said at the Caijing conference. “Considering the danger of such sentiment, is it time to take some cooling measures?”

“It is also worth thinking about how China can reconcile respect for international trade rules with promotion of its economic growth model,” he said.

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