Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Chi Wang
by Chi Wang

US-China relations: Trump fury is gone but Joe Biden more than capable of talking tough

  • Despite his declared friendship with Xi Jinping, a look at the US president-elect’s career in Congress shows he has a deep background as a China hawk
  • Biden is likely to conduct the US-China relationship with more composure than his predecessor, but the bombast of the Trump era will not go away completely
President Xi Jinping finally contacted US President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory. While the Chinese government issued a statement acknowledging the outcome earlier this month, Xi himself held back until after the Trump administration officially initiated the transition process earlier this week. The focus is now on how Biden might approach China.

Biden’s rhetoric has given support to two competing interpretations of his likely policies towards China and its leader. On one hand, he has highlighted his personal background with Xi, with whom he cultivated a relationship when both served as vice-president.

Biden has touted this experience, including in a 2018 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations where he said, “I’ve spent more time in private meetings with Xi Jinping than any world leader.”

This experience is significant as Biden and Xi could be spared from engaging in a symbolic but ultimately meaningless introductory meeting like Barack Obama and Xi’s Sunnylands Summit in 2013 and Trump and Xi’s “ chocolate cake summit” at Mar-a-Lago in 2017.


People on the streets of Beijing react to Biden's US presidential election victory over Trump

People on the streets of Beijing react to Biden's US presidential election victory over Trump

Both of these ended with Obama and Trump praising the establishment of a solid relationship with their Chinese counterpart, only to later become frustrated as this relationship failed to bear fruit when it came to actually solving issues.

Having already gone through the formalities of introduction through meetings in China and the United States, Biden and Xi could skip this phase and dive right into serious discussion.

On the other hand, Biden has also demonstrated an impulse for brashness, indicated by his criticising Xi as a “thug” during a debate in February.

Trump was prone to criticising China with harsh and inflammatory rhetoric. He infamously said China was “raping” the US economy during the 2016 presidential campaign, and in office he frequently posted angry tweets about China’s trade practices.

He notably drew a line, however, in refusing to criticise Xi directly. Even when he began laying blame on China for the coronavirus pandemic and promising to “ make China pay”, he still maintained a degree of respect for Xi. He said he was unhappy with the Chinese leader but never went as far as Biden in calling him a “thug”.


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It will be interesting to see whether Biden reiterates this “thug” label prior to his first meeting with Xi as president or whether he instead leans on their past friendship.

I expect it will be the latter, though the new American president will have to walk a delicate line in appearing appropriately aggressive towards China to appease the hawks in Congress while also deferential enough to keep Xi at the negotiating table.

If we look back at Biden’s career prior to his tenure as vice-president, we find he has a much deeper background as a China hawk. Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972 at the dawn of new era of rapprochement between the US and China facilitated by president Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China.

In the decades that followed, Biden’s approach to China largely followed along the same lines as his Congressional peers. While visiting China with a delegation from the Senate Foreign Relations committee in April 1979, Biden asked the Chinese leadership about the potential for greater security cooperation to offset the Soviet threat.

By the late 1980s, Biden – like many others in the US and around the world – believed China was on a path away from communism.


US-China relations: Joe Biden would approach China with more ‘regularity and normality’

US-China relations: Joe Biden would approach China with more ‘regularity and normality’
He said in a November 1987 speech that China, like the rest of the communist world, was “undergoing a serious dose of reality” and “recognising that the system under which they have moved for the last two generations does not function very well”. The events of June 1989 soon proved him wrong.

The moment that most sticks out in my mind of Biden and China during his time in Congress came in February 1990. News of a recent visit to China by president George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and deputy secretary of state Larry Eagleburger caused considerable scandal, as high-level meetings between the US and China were ostensibly called off following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989.

In the aftermath of the visit, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on US-China policy where Biden sharply criticised Eagleburger for the rationale behind the visit. Biden’s line of questioning forced Eagleburger to admit the Bush administration was applying different rationale behind its approach to China than to Eastern Europe.

Biden was subsequently one of the biggest China critics in Congress. He gave a speech in April 1991 titled “China: Rogue Elephant on Weapons Proliferation”, during which he accused China of “flouting international norms of behaviour” and posited the Bush administration was suffering from a “‘China syndrome’ … marked by a refusal to acknowledge or accept that Chinese diplomats are perfectly willing to tell us one thing while Chinese arms merchants go ahead and do another.”

While it was easy for Biden as a Democrat to bemoan the Republican president’s “China syndrome”, as vice-president to Obama he became vulnerable to the same affliction.

Biden’s warning about the dangers of valuing China’s words over its actions were just as applicable when Obama accepted Xi’s promises about the South China Sea and cyberespionage in 2015. Biden was only vice-president during these exchanges, so it remains to be seen whether he is willing to accept similar pledges from China as president.

Looking deeper at Biden’s career, it seems incorrect to assume his friendship with Xi will be a decisive factor shaping his China policy as president as this is just one small chapter in his longer story with China. Granted, Biden is likely to conduct the US-China relationship more rationally and with more composure than his predecessor.

Gone are the days where China will be forced to attempt to interpret policy from a series of tweets laden with capitalisation and exclamation points. Even so, we should not expect all the bombast and fury to go away with Trump. The president-elect himself has demonstrated he is more than capable of talking tough to China.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation