Biden to change style, not substance, of China relations: analysts

His administration will likely bring a mellower tone but no fundamental change in policy

Photocredit: Cybrain/iStock/Getty Images Plus

What the Joe Biden administration brings to the White House and U.S. foreign policy – especially as it pertains to China, which has major implications for Canada – may be a matter of a tonal rather than ideological change.

That’s the view from analysts in B.C. and beyond, who are anticipating a more amicable relationship between Ottawa and Washington under the new president – as Biden may seek help from America’s allies in pushing international rule of law, rather than lean on unilateral sanctions and tariffs as Donald Trump has done for the last four years.

“I think they [the U.S.] realize they can’t do this alone or in a fishbowl,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director of the Indo-Pacific program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “That’s going to be the biggest real change. They are going to have to be careful in the way they telegraph it … because as soon as Biden says something about allies and friends, he’ll get criticized domestically for not standing up for Americans as an American president. But I think you will see – by deed – a lot less independent U.S. acting and much more consultation with allies.”

Increased U.S. international partnership with allies would be especially welcome in dealings with Beijing. Under Trump, a series of incidents, including the U.S. prompting Canada to arrest Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018, have thrown Ottawa’s relations with China into a deep freeze.

The Trump White House also imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum while renegotiating a more U.S.-friendly North American free trade agreement, essentially placing Canada in a difficult position with both of its two largest trade partners.

“With a Biden administration coming in, this will change some of the thinking in Ottawa,” said Stewart Beck, president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “There will be a more normal alignment on how you approach China and perhaps Asia in a broader sense, because it will be much easier to bring together like-minded partners … to bring a more coherent strategy on dealing with China.

“With a Liberal government in Canada and a Democrat administration in Washington, there’s also going to be more alignment on issues like climate change in the big picture.”

Beck noted recent media reports that the U.S. Department of Justice is exploring a plea deal for Meng that would result in her admitting guilt on fraud and money-laundering charges in exchange for free passage back to China show that Washington is aware of “tactical options” in resolving the predicament in which Canada finds itself.

Miller noted there’s a limit to how much Biden can embrace internationalism in the new COVID-driven world, given that much of the economic and geopolitical landscape has shifted since he last worked on the issues as part of the Barack Obama White House in 2016. One such limit, Miller noted, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc – an effort championed by Obama as an economic alternative to China’s growing clout as a dominant market.

Trump pulled the United States out of the TPP, and the effort – now led by Japan as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – may be a bridge too far for a divided Washington with many other priorities on its plate.

“I think Biden himself, if you ask him, would want to do it,” Miller said. “He was part of the TPP’s formulation process. But things have changed.… Even in the 2016 election, it would have been hard for Hillary Clinton to pass the TPP if she hadn’t lost. People in the Democratic Party like Bernie Sanders are very critical of the TPP, so there’s a lot of pressure there.”

Opposition to the United States returning to the CPTPP may come from more than U.S. internal forces, one analysts noted.

“CPTPP members may not all be that keen to have American engagement because some members – Canada among them … have strategic access to certain markets they would not want to give up to the United States, particularly Japan,” said Asia Pacific Foundation vice-president of research Jeff Reeves. “That’s an area that the U.S. would have to make compromises.”

Beck and Reeves said it’s also fair to anticipate that a Biden White House would not be as fire-and-brimstone in its tone towards Beijing and its ruling Communist Party of China on issues such as human rights abuses in Xinjiang, democracy in Hong Kong and 5G hegemony. However, they said, people should not expect a fundamental change in the adversarial positions between the U.S. and China.

“There is still broad, bipartisan perception in the U.S. that Washington has to be tougher on China,” Reeves said.

Reeves did note, however, that a Biden administration would likely foster a more “normal” economic relationship between the two world powers – something that will at least stabilize part of the global picture post-COVID, including for Canada’s business relationship with China.

“Over the course of the pandemic, Canadian investment in China has increased,” Reeves said. “The real challenge will be to convince the general public that China is a trustworthy partner – and much of that will depend on how China acts, and the Biden administration will help address some of those issues.”

Miller, however, noted that while Trump was tremendously unpopular in Canada, his hard stance on China did gain significant support in light of the arrests of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China, as well as a number of bans placed on Canadian meat and canola exports in the last years.

Miller also said that – with Washington now likely more eager to establish regional security ties and economic links in the Asia Pacific – it may be time for Ottawa to reach out in those areas and deepen relationships with countries like Japan, South Korea and others while re-examining its China policy.

“I think one of the narratives that has been tossed around a bit … is that the U.S. and China are in an adversarial relationship, and Canada shouldn’t be involved,” Miller said. “I don’t buy that narrative. I’d push back on that stance; Trump is Trump, but we shouldn’t make that false equivalence between the U.S. and China.

“The structural issues we’ve had with China have been there for a long time – well before the Michaels and 5G. We are just waking up to these issues because we are now on the front lines with what happened with Meng Wanzhou. We need to realize the realities of how China engages internationally – and we are not unique to it – and the Biden administration will show this global challenge will continue.”