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Could A President Biden Reverse U.S.-China Policy? Advisor, Scholars Weigh In

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The relationship between the U.S. and China is probably at its worst in decades. The Trump administration has been busy lately lashing out at China for a variety of misdeeds, and China has been responding in kind. But could relations change if President Trump doesn't win a second term? NPR China Correspondent John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Late last month, China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, published an editorial in Politico. The embassy posted a video montage online to go with it.

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RUWITCH: The message was simple and direct. American policymakers should remember the good old days, focus on common interests with China, not differences, choose to be on the right side of history. With under three months to go before the U.S. election, though, and no signs of softening in Trump's China policy, it was almost as if Cui was speaking directly to the presumptive Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.

Sam Zhao is a China-U.S. relations expert at Denver University.

SAM ZHAO: We cannot go back. So those good old days are gone.

RUWITCH: He points out that confronting China now has bipartisan support, and not just among politicians. A recent Pew Research survey showed that American attitudes towards China have soured across the board. And the Trump administration for its part has sanctioned Chinese officials for human rights abuses, blacklisted Chinese companies, arrested alleged Chinese spies, ended special privileges for Hong Kong, challenged China's claims in the South China Sea and ordered China's consulate in Houston to close. And that's just in July.

Robert Ross is a professor of political science at Boston College.

ROBERT ROSS: One gets a strong sense from Secretary of State Pompeo that he's trying to lock in this Cold War relationship so that whoever is president in 2021, it will be too late to turn back the clock.

RUWITCH: But Tony Blinken, Biden's top foreign policy adviser, rejects the premise. He says Trump's policy of merely trashing China achieves little.

TONY BLINKEN: I think the first thing that President Biden would recognize is that in dealing with the challenge that China poses, it's as much about us as it is about them.

RUWITCH: Biden's priority, he says, will be putting the U.S. house back in order.

BLINKEN: So I think you'll see initially a big focus by President Biden on our competitiveness, on revitalizing our democracy, on strengthening our alliances and partnerships, on reasserting our values. That's how you engage China from a position of strength.

RUWITCH: And American strength, at least in Chinese eyes, has been crumbling. Experts say the 2008 financial crisis was a big turning point. When the banking system nearly collapsed, many in China saw it as a sign that U.S.-style liberal democracy was doomed. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has doubled down on the notion since taking power in 2012, and some in China see Trump's presidency as a further sign of American decline and the administration's handling of the pandemic as proof.

Julian Gewirtz is a China scholar at Harvard and a supporter of Biden for president.

JULIAN GEWIRTZ: Many elements of Chinese strategy respond to their perceptions of the United States, our overall national strength and particularly their perception that the United States is not becoming stronger but is in some sort of a process of declining as a great power.

RUWITCH: Biden's strategy in part aims to reverse that perception.

Regardless of who's in office, Jennifer Lind, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, thinks competition will be an unavoidable feature of the relationship, and increasingly so.

JENNIFER LIND: We're looking at this enormously important change in relative power between the U.S. and China. There are much bigger forces going on here than just Trump came in and botched everything up.

RUWITCH: A rising and increasingly assertive China means both countries will have to find new ways to coexist. Biden's foreign policy experience is deep, and he met Xi Jinping several times when both were vice president. The Trump campaign has tried to paint that as a liability. Zhiqun Zhu of Bucknell University says it could be an asset.

ZHIQUN ZHU: If he can re-establish this working relationship with Xi and build a strong, you know, personal chemistry, I think he will have some influence on Xi and on China's policy.

RUWITCH: If not, Zhu says, all bets may be off.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.