Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Biden will be more formidable with Beijing than Trump

  • To know what the US president-elect wants to do with mainland China and Hong Kong, just read what he has written, and it doesn’t sound friendly
Experts have been looking into the crystal ball to predict what Joe Biden will do with China and Hong Kong. Lacking their wisdom and insight, I prefer to just read what the US president-elect has said he will do. It’s not like he has kept his intentions hidden. There is no reason to doubt he will do what he says. It’s all laid out in his election platform at and in his extended position paper in the April issue of Foreign Affairs.

In sum, he will, as much as he likes to repudiate anything associated with Donald Trump, continue the latter’s tough stance against China, though he will rally a global alliance, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the economic to the military, to do it. That will make him even more formidable than Trump, whose hawkish position looks more like a bad attitude than sound policy.

On Hong Kong, he probably won’t add to the punishing measures already put in place, but is unlikely to reverse any of them. His position on the city is not so different from Trump or his hardline Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In his position paper, he compares Hong Kong to some failed states.

“From Hong Kong to Sudan, Chile to Lebanon,” he wrote, “citizens are once more reminding us of the common yearning for honest governance and the universal abhorrence of corruption.”

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That mirrors the US government’s recent statement to include Hong Kong residents in a programme for priority resettlement in the US “for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras; and for refugees from Hong Kong, Cuba and Venezuela”.

It may be hard for Washington to pursue a rational and proportionate policy over Hong Kong, whoever sits in the White House, when the city is compared to Sudan, Chile, Lebanon, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and Venezuela.

Recalling the “league of democracies” once proposed by the late US senator John McCain, Biden wrote: “During my first year in office, the United States will organise and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world …

“The United States will prioritise results by galvanising significant new country commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.”

His global campaign will also include NGOs and the private sector. Singling out China, he wrote: “[Technology] companies must act to ensure that their tools and platforms are not empowering the surveillance state, gutting privacy, facilitating repression in China and elsewhere, spreading hate and misinformation, spurring people to violence, or remaining susceptible to other misuse.”

He will re-engage global bodies to reverse China’s recent gains in influence, especially when it comes to rules on trade, labour protection, the environment, transparency and wages.

Midway through his paper, he drops the bomb.

“The United States, not China, should be leading that effort,” he wrote.

“China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.”

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All of these have to be contained and countered – by a global alliance. He wants “a united front”:

“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.

“On its own, the United States represents about a quarter of global GDP. When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy. That gives us substantial leverage …”

But he does envision some cooperation with China over denuclearisation with North Korea and Iran; and decarbonisation by rejoining the Paris Agreement to halt climate change.

Meanwhile, the US must retake the technological lead, he said, though he doesn’t sound like he would continue Trump’s witch-hunt against Chinese-American scientists and engineers, and discriminating and kicking out mainland Chinese students from the US.

“[The US must] avoid a race to the bottom, where the rules of the digital age are written by China and Russia. It is time for the United States to lead in forging a technological future that enables democratic societies to thrive and prosperity to be shared broadly.”

All things considered, Beijing might now wish for four more years of Trump.