February 11, 2021

Since assuming office on January 20, 2021, US President Joe Biden has yet to depart dramatically from the Trump administration’s tough posture toward Beijing. In a January 25 panel discussion hosted by the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, China experts Andrew Nathan, Bonnie Glaser, and Thomas Christensen discussed what is in store for the US-China relationship.

Starting off the discussion with a focus on human rights, Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, suggested that “human rights has emerged as central to the strategic competition between the United States and China” as strategic competition is being construed as a clash of values and systems.

The US-China relationship, Nathan suggested, has evolved beyond strategic competition into an “existential battle of underlying norms.” Economic competition is no longer simply a competition of economic gain, but of what type of economic system is “fair,” he noted, adding that Beijing has long believed that Western countries are antagonistic to and seek to subvert China’s form of government itself.

In recent years, China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has engaged in “larger in scale and more blatant” human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere. These problems have been given significant attention in Biden policy advice and the human rights agenda is likely to be a high priority for the Biden administration, Nathan said.

Joining the panel from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), China Power Project Director Bonnie Glaser commented on the security relationship between the United States and China, which she predicts will remain fraught.

Glaser noted that both leaders are keen to present a tough front in response to domestic pressures. As Biden seeks to prove to Congress that he will be more assertive toward Beijing than under President Obama’s administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping is certain to continue prioritizing Chinese sovereignty and interests as he seeks to win an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the CCP.

In particular, two security flashpoints stand out to Glaser: Taiwan and the South China Sea. She noted that while US-Taiwan ties were strengthened under the Trump administration, that relationship was often used as a weapon against Beijing. Continued public support for Taiwan and tense cross-strait relations raise the risks of a crisis, but ultimately in Glaser’s estimation, it remains unlikely that the PRC will use military force against Taiwan. In the South China Sea, the United States is likely to maintain a high pace of freedom of navigation operations as well as surveillance and reconnaissance programs. A Trump administration policy of advocating for smaller claimants within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) which has frustrated China has been received well by various countries in the region. Whether Biden plans to continue this policy remains to be seen.

“Biden believes steady US engagement in the region has stabilized it,” Glaser said. “China will not welcome a more engaged United States,” she said, but added that, while friction will continue, lowering the risk of conflict can be aided through “the right policies and dialogue mechanisms.”

Rounding out the panel, Thomas Christensen, Director of the China and the World Program and Professor of Public and International Affairs at Columbia, highlighted the expertise of the known individuals joining Biden’s new Asia policy team and outlined various expected policy shifts.

In contrast to the Trump administration’s emphasis on bilateral negotiations, the Biden administration is expected to return to multilateralism. He has committed to rejoining various international organizations and compacts, including the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement. Biden is also expected to focus on rebuilding relationships with historical US allies that were strained through the Trump administration’s emphasis on burden-sharing and protectionism. In addition to restoring security relations, the Biden administration intends to “build the capacity of local actors to resist Chinese pressure,” Christensen said. 

In his remarks, Christensen expressed concern at the current lack of an economic component as part of the Biden plan to strengthen relations with Asian countries. After the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement was scrapped under the Trump administration, the 11 other countries of the agreement regrouped to pass the reworked Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which entered into force without the United States. While it remains possible that Washington may seek to negotiate to join the agreement, Christensen noted that the Biden administration has thus far expressed wariness towards such agreements that would open US markets to foreign products.

Given the interdependence of the global economy and various international challenges, the Biden administration’s willingness to engage in international diplomacy is likely to prove an asset for the US-China relationship. International forums allow for diplomatic negotiations that would in a bilateral setting be politically damaging for the two leaders. Finally, Christensen noted that the Biden administration’s concern regarding the human rights situation in China could result in a US decision to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Such a symbolic move by the United States would further strain the relationship and speculation about the merits of a boycott is likely to increase as the games approach.

Written by Ariana King Communications Officer for the Weatherhead East Asian Institute

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About the Co-Sponsors of the event:

Founded in 2004, the Columbia-Harvard China and the World program (C&WP) is committed to integrating the advanced study of China’s foreign relations into the field of international relations, by bringing exceptional young scholars whose work bridges China studies and international relations together with recognized scholars in these fields.

 

The Weatherhead East Asian Institute is a hub for the study of modern and contemporary East, Inner, and Southeast Asia at Columbia University. An integrated center for research and teaching, the Institute brings together faculty, research scholars, and students from across the university, and advances knowledge and understanding of the region through academics, research programs, renowned publications series, and a robust calendar of public events.