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A ‘very critical moment’: The future of U.S.-China ties under Biden

The question is top of mind for anyone who has followed the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations over the last four years: What happens once Joseph Biden Jr. becomes president?

The question is top of mind for anyone who has followed the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations over the last four years: What happens once Joseph Biden Jr. becomes president?

On Nov. 12, three leading U.S.-China scholars offered their answers as part of a virtual panel discussion hosted by Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and the Stanford King Center on Global Development. Their wide-ranging discussion touched on everything from the trade war and military aggression in the South China Sea to the coronavirus pandemic and international cooperation.

“There is no more important bilateral relationship in the world than U.S.-China relations, and we are at a very critical moment,” said Michael McFaul, the director at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) who moderated the discussion.

screenshot of event
Michael McFaul (top left), Elizabeth Economy (top right), Thomas Fingar (bottom right), and Qingguo Jia (bottom left)

The panelists — Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution; Thomas Fingar, the Shorenstein APARC Fellow at FSI; and, Qingguo Jia, a professor of international studies at Peking University — agreed that the heated exchanges of words and tit-for-tat diplomacy will likely ease. And while they expect renewed attention on human rights and intellectual property protections, they do not anticipate a rush to rescind Donald Trump’s policies.

McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, summed up the panel’s consensus on U.S.-China relations under Biden in one word: recalibration.

According to Economy, the Trump administration correctly recognized that China’s rising authoritarianism and global ambitions required a change in U.S. policy. But the response, she said, was too aggressive and its focus on trade short-sighted. “We have [now] come perilously close to entering a new cold war,” she said.

Economy predicted several Biden policy shifts that will affect U.S.-China relations, including renewed support for international cooperation, outreach to China on issues of common interest like COVID-19 and climate change, and repositioning the U.S. as a global leader by first addressing problems at home.

Fingar, a longtime State Department official in both Democrat and Republican administrations, agreed that China will be central to U.S. domestic issues — but as a means to an end. China, he said, will drive domestic policymaking just like the Soviet Union’s early lead in the space race during the Cold War ushered in a new era of U.S. reconstruction.

“China is going to be named frequently, I anticipate, in the first months or even year of the Biden Administration [to] justify a whole range of [domestic] policies,” said Fingar. This includes, he said, increased investment in the military, education, research and development, and infrastructure.

Overall, Jia said he expects “more certainty, more predictability” in Biden’s foreign policies — even as Trump’s policies toward China stay intact in the short term. Eventually, he said, Biden will lift the tariffs imposed beginning in 2018 and also loosen restrictions on U.S. technology exports to China. “The current trade policy of the Trump administration is irrational,” he said. “It hurts China. It hurts the U.S.”

The panel discussion took place as part of the Stanford China Economic Forum, an annual Stanford conference that moved to an online format this year due to the pandemic. The first session, held in October, focused on the future of business education. The third and final gathering, set for December 10, will focus on post-pandemic health care in the United States and China.

A recording of the discussion in full is available to watch on SIEPR's YouTube channel.