Joe Biden took office as the 46th president of the United States with barely a mention of foreign policy. Given the enormity of the domestic challenges his administration faces, the ever-worsening Covid-19 epidemic and the economic turmoil it has wrought being priorities, that is understandable. But while there was reference only to repairing alliances and engaging with the world again, it is the nation he did not name, China, which he will have to factor in to much of what he does. The relationship is equally important for Beijing, so both countries need tolerance, flexibility and a willingness to cooperate as they navigate a new era of ties. Beijing has set the right tone, anticipating that the damage to relations caused by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, can be put “back on the right track”. State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has spoken of the opening of “a new window of hope”. The new president and the team he has chosen to engage with the world have vast experience and are bound to be pragmatic and diplomatic. Gone will be the uncertainty and rash policymaking that damaged America’s foreign ties and led to its withdrawal from international accords and organisations. Within hours of taking office, Biden set about reversing Trump’s controversial policies, signing executive orders that will return the US to the Paris climate change pact and introduce Covid-19 protections. In coming days, moves will begin to rejoin the World Health Organization. All are in keeping with a promise to repair the US’ damaged relationships. On China, though, there will be no immediate effort to change policies on trade, technology, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and human rights. Power and influence The reason is that for all the political disunity and rancour in the US, taking a tough line towards China is one of the few issues on which there is bipartisan agreement. Biden and others in his incoming team have made that clear: while campaigning for his nation’s highest office, Biden referred to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as a “thug”. His nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told lawmakers during his Senate confirmation hearing this week that Trump had been right to take a tougher line towards Beijing, although he disagreed with “the way he went about it in a number of areas”. Janet Yellen, the choice to lead the Treasury Department, which oversees the US’ economic sanctions regime, criticised China’s “horrendous human rights abuses”, and the pick for intelligence chief, Avril Haines, said a priority if she got the job would be to counter an “assertive and aggressive” Chinese threat. But Biden will initially be so preoccupied with his country’s domestic problems that he will have little time to directly focus on foreign policy. China will nonetheless loom large, being the proverbial “elephant in the room” on a host of issues that need urgent attention because of its power and influence. While the US now has less dependence on Chinese medical products, Beijing will still play a role in warding off Covid-19 globally through its production and supplying of vaccines to developing countries. China’s is the only major economy to return to growth, and the US will need to rethink its strategy on Chinese trade and technology for its economic revival. Cooperation unavoidable Climate change is an important issue for Biden’s supporters and China similarly plays a crucial role in cutting global emissions of greenhouse gases; cooperation is unavoidable. The alliances the president spoke of rebuilding, in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, also have a China factor; many nations have strong trading and investment links and after Trump turned his back on them with his “America first” policy, they will be loathe to choose sides. The unilateralism of the previous administration and its withdrawal from international agreements and organisations will similarly not make rejoining straightforward. Although the US was instrumental in the forging of many pacts and creation of bodies, it cannot simply return in the same dominant position – and in some cases, Beijing has stepped in where Washington once was. Biden’s only direct mention of China in his first day in office was a reference to a conversation he had with Xi during a visit to China in 2011 when both were vice-presidents. While administering the oath of office to almost 1,000 appointees, he told of being asked what his definition of America was and he replied, “Possibilities”. The US is still the world’s biggest economy and most powerful nation and it has great flexibility in navigating the difficult times it faces. Although relations with China are perhaps at their worst since ties were established in 1979, the two countries have every reason to change course and set a new direction and the world, in turn, can benefit. Will Joe Biden meet Xi Jinping? China awaits clues to future of US relations Biden and Xi have met numerous times and know one another well. The leaders of the world’s two dominant nations will have to hold talks sooner rather than later, perhaps in a matter of months. Their meeting will involve goals and there will be pressure for achievements, but there are also possibilities. It is in the interests of both sides to normalise the relationship. Biden’s taking office offers the chance for a reset.