China: Braced for “America First, Lite”

Published on November 9, 2020

A senior source from China’s Central National Security Council gave a briefing on background in which he summarized the agency’s analysis of the US election results and offered some broad observations on what a Biden administration might mean for Sino-US relations.

** On key trade and economic issues, once in office, a President Biden is not expected to revert to Obama-era policies, but rather to continue to exert a light version of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on China. Importantly for markets, Beijing does not expect the Biden administration to take the initiative to cancel the tariffs imposed by President Trump, although officials suspect there might be some relaxation around the margins on tariffs that may have a noticeable direct impact on US consumers. Having said that, sources suggest China and the US may want to reassess phase one of the China-US economic and trade agreement in its entirety first.

** In the meantime, President-elect Biden is expected to quickly set up some form of liaison mechanism to resume Washington’s stalled dialogue with Beijing along the lines of the Bush and Obama era US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, although most likely under a new moniker (see also SGH 11/6/2020; “China: A Reset on US Trade, and the Ant IPO”). Not surprisingly, Beijing expects the Biden years to also bring increased cooperation on climate change, vaccines, and the anti-pandemic fight.

** On the geopolitical front, and in particular in regards to Taiwan and the South China Seas, Beijing expects Biden to adopt a “balanced strategy” to handle cross-straits relations, continuing to sell arms to Taiwan while unlikely to provoke China by crossing one of its “red lines.” They see a Biden administration that will continue US military activities in the South China Sea, but that will refrain from threats to bomb islands and reefs in the areas that are claimed by China as its territory, as had President Trump. Indeed, Beijing expects Biden to seek to strengthen crisis management mechanisms in both the South and East China Seas.

Regarding the US elections, Beijing believes the results show a gap between US elites and ordinary people that continues to swell, dividing American society into two camps.

The CNSC sees populist groups in American society growing stronger and stronger, and while President Donald Trump may have lost the race, they expect those populist forces to continue to exert a growing influence on US domestic politics and diplomacy. That influence, along with Trump’s “America First” movement having “taken root in the hearts of the American people,” will have implications for Sino-US relations in the Biden term to come.


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