Post-Pandemic World: Navigating a New Global Landscape

Crossroads in US-China Relations (Part 2): Alternative Scenarios


Two experts continue their analysis of and prognosis for US-China relations, focusing on the upcoming US presidential election and the choices facing Japan.

Sahashi Ryo

Associate Professor of International Politics, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo. Specialist in international politics and East Asian security. Graduated from International Christian University and earned his doctorate in law from the University of Tokyo. Taught at Australian National University and Kanagawa University before accepting a position at the University of Tokyo in 2019. Author of Kyōzon no mosaku: Amerika to “futatsu no Chūgoku” no reisenshi (The Search for Coexistence: The United States and the “Two Chinas” During the Cold War) and other works.

Kawashima Shin

Member of the Editorial Planning Committee and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), 21 seiki no Chūka: Shū Kinpei Chūgoku to Higashi Ajia (The Sinic World in the Twenty-First Century: Xi Jinping’s China and East Asia), and other works.

KAWASHIMA SHIN  How would you assess Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s China policy?

SAHASHI RYO  As I understand it, Biden’s top theoretical advisor for East Asia policy—and, for that matter, foreign policy as a whole—is Jake Sullivan, who was director of policy planning at the US Department of State and national security advisor to the vice president under President Barack Obama. I think we can get some idea of Biden’s thinking from Sullivan’s writings, together with a recent piece published in Foreign Affairs under Biden’s name.

There’s no doubt that Biden will emphasize democracy and human rights. In his Foreign Affairs piece, he pledges to host a global Summit for Democracy, with China clearly in mind as a contrast. Right now, the domestic climate of opinion being what it is, Biden and Trump are trying to outdo each other in terms of “getting tough with China.” Biden’s argument is that his experience better equips him to pursue a consistently tough China policy, in contrast with Trump, who has in fact done a deal with Xi Jinping.

Looking a bit closer, I think we can gather that—for better or for worse—Biden still believes in the power of diplomacy. He thinks diplomatic interaction with China is important, and he also stresses the importance of applying diplomatic pressure through coordination among US allies. When it comes to global issues like climate change and the rules of international trade, he would probably pursue direct diplomacy with Beijing. On sensitive issues like human rights and democracy, he would coordinate with other countries to apply international pressure.

Trump-style trade wars are likely to peter out if Biden is elected. I expect we’ll also see much less gratuitous baiting of the Communist Party. On the other hand, I would expect Biden to maintain the export controls and restrictions on investment imposed under Trump. There are some who think things will actually be tougher for Beijing under a Biden presidency. Recall that it was Hillary Clinton, with her focus on human rights, who had Beijing worried during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

The other thing is that, Biden, unlike Trump, can probably be counted on to fill most high-level positions with people who have prior experience in government and can hit the ground running.

Forming a United Front

KAWASHIMA  The Democratic Party is very keen on addressing climate change and other global environmental problems, but progress on those issues is going to require some direct negotiation and give-and-take with China. For that reason, there are those who think that if Biden is elected he’ll be obliged to change course and take a more conciliatory approach to China.

SAHASHI  When it comes to such global issues as climate change and African development, I would expect Biden to pursue the Obama administration’s approach and work with China where possible. Similarly, on public health, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a Biden administration is likely to pursue cooperation in areas where cooperation is called for. But he’ll have to navigate carefully on politically fraught issues, like the World Health Organization and the origins of the novel coronavirus, lest he leave himself open to charges of being “soft on China.” In some areas we’re likely to see a more conciliatory approach, while in other areas the emphasis will be on concerted pressure from the United States and its allies.

KAWASHIMA  That sounds a bit like a return to Obama-era policies. The Obama administration tried in vain to “engage” with and “shape” China, even as Beijing defied Washington in regard to cyber spying, the South China Sea, and so forth. And the issue of competition in the high-tech sector has only become a bone of contention during the Trump administration. There’s also the related problem of reliance on Chinese supply chains. When it comes to high-tech issues, some situations may call for concerted pressure in the interests of security, while others may call for cooperation in the interests of progress on global issues, but it’s not always that easy to categorize a given technology one way or the other. It’s a complex matter requiring a nuanced policy-making process, not a sweeping, simplistic, black-or-white judgment. How do you think the Democratic Party will cope with these issues?

SAHASHI  I think the Democrats are unlikely to forget the lessons of the Obama administration. High-level officials from that era have spoken and written quite honestly about what they should have done differently. Over the last five or six years, a deep-rooted distrust of Beijing has taken hold in the United States. So, while a Biden foreign policy is likely to resemble that of Obama on the whole, I think Biden will adopt a smarter, more competitive approach to China rather than return to the old “engagement” paradigm. The idea is that, while we may not be able to change China fundamentally, we can target specific behaviors for change.

China’s “Core Interests”

KAWASHIMA  What we can’t be sure of is what effect that approach will have on China. After all, it’s doubtful that the traditional “engage and shape” approach ever had the effect Washington intended.

 I think Beijing’s biggest concern at this point is interference in China’s “core interests.” Taiwan, the Uighurs, Tibet . . . these are all huge challenges for China, and now there’s Hong Kong to deal with as well. As soon as Washington starts meddling in those issues, the two sides hit an impasse, and there’s no room for rapprochement. That’s when Beijing stops talking about a “new model of great power relations” and begins setting a new course on US policy. I wonder how Biden intends to handle those issues—especially Taiwan.

SAHASHI  China’s policies toward the Uighurs and Hong Kong are a question of human rights, and with the situation as serious as it is, I don’t see how Washington could back off from its current stance, regardless of who wins the election. Taiwan has been regarded more as a battlefront in the effort to contain China’s growing political and economic influence. Over the past four years, Washington has become much more sensitive to Taiwanese affairs and appreciative of the country as a democratic role model. Still, I rather doubt that the current honeymoon will continue at the same level of ardor under a Democratic Biden administration.

KAWASHIMA  China is gearing up to disrupt this honeymoon by applying all kinds of pressure to Taiwanese businesses, and it’s shaking things up by sending military aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace. This is a big concern for the security environment of the entire East Asian region. The administration of Tsai Ing-wen has another four years to go, and the results of the US election could force it to adjust its own policies. Moreover, if the trend toward high-tech decoupling between China and the United States continues, the Taiwanese semiconductor industry could get caught in the middle.

SAHASHI  Exactly. For example, the new export restrictions imposed by the United States are making it impossible for TSMC [Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] to continue making Huawei-designed chips to sell back to the Chinese tech giant. Washington has been putting pressure on high-tech industries to reduce their dependence on China, and I wouldn’t expect that policy to change in the foreseeable future. The resulting disruptions in the supply chain are going to have an increasing impact on Japan and South Korea as well.

Global and Local Considerations

KAWASHIMA  I’d like to change direction here a bit and talk about the impact of US-China relations on the global agenda, which I think is a very serious problem. Trump has gotten a lot of flak, most recently for his decision to withdraw from the WHO. This comes as China, along with other rapidly developing countries, has been playing a bigger and bigger leadership role in such international organizations. I think a Democratic administration would reverse Trump’s policy and get the United States involved in global governance again. That would be one way to promote cooperation between the United States and China. But what does Washington need to do in order to seize the initiative again? China has asserted its influence over these programs through funding and personnel, while also engaging very actively with individual countries in Africa and elsewhere.

SAHASHI  I think Biden will begin by making an all-out effort to step up cooperation with US allies and the international community, as an area where he and Trump clearly differ. Where the international community is concerned, the focus will be a renewed commitment to international organizations and international law. When it comes to the WHO, he might even want to expand the scope of participation to some of the private foundations that have donated so much to global health efforts. Under a Democratic administration, we’ll see a return to a laws- and rules-based approach.

Four More Years?

KAWASHIMA  We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what will happen if Biden is elected. But the fact is that Trump has maintained a surprising level of support among voters even amid all the controversy over COVID-19 and the racial justice movement. Under a second Trump term, would you expect the “ideological warfare” between the United States and China to escalate?

SAHASHI  You’re right that we can’t yet predict how the election is going to turn out. There are a number of critical factors that could change dramatically between now and November, including the state of the economy. And, of course, the Democratic Party could always self-destruct. Biden has his weaknesses, including his propensity for gaffes. I think for that reason, the selection of a running mate is going to be key. It’s true that Trump’s base has been nearly unshakable, but I understand there are signs of weakening support among Christian evangelicals, and that could signal danger for Trump.

If Trump is reelected, US-China relations are likely to continue along the current trajectory—a bleak scenario. There’s also a good chance the trade war will resume. If that happens, more and more countries are likely to balk at following Washington’s lead.

KAWASHIMA  We were talking about the importance of 2021 as a milestone for the Communist Party of China, but 2022 is another important year, since that’s when Xi Jinping’s second term ends. So, the months spanning 2021 and 2022 will be a moment of truth for China, determining, among other things, whether Xi Jinping will continue to lead the government. How relations between China and the United States unfold, something that will hinge on the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election, could alter the outcome decisively.

Japan’s Delicate Position

KAWASHIMA  Let’s talk about Japan’s position amid this feud.The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously strained ties between Australia and China. The EU-China relationship has been up and down, but it’s worsened overall. Japan has been a bit more receptive to Beijing than the other developed democracies. What’s the attitude of Washington and its allies toward Tokyo’s stance?

SAHASHI  I think we should begin by asking what sort of position Japan should be taking. First of all, Tokyo needs to act in keeping with the notion of liberal democracy as the ideological core of the international order, and this means it must be wary of Chinese leadership. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the need for stability to support a healthy economy. In other words, Japan’s strategy and foreign policy should aim for the sweet spot where liberalism and stability intersect. In concrete terms, that means responding to each situation as appropriate, avoiding criticism for the sake of criticism, while coordinating with our fellow industrial democracies in our dealings with China and the establishment of international rules. From this vantage point, it could be very helpful to expand the Group of Seven to include some developing and newly industrialized democracies.

In this context, I wouldn’t put too negative a spin on the fact that Tokyo didn’t sign onto the May 28 statement by Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States condemning Beijing [for its Hong Kong security legislation]. It’s more important that the G7 put up a united front, as difficult as that may be. I think we should expand the G7 to include other democratic countries and work together to draw up international rules and step up diplomatic pressure on China. That would reduce the risk of Japan being singled out for retaliation. We need a framework that encompasses South Korea, India, and Australia along with the G7.

KAWASHIMA  China is determined to undermine such a partnership, though. Right now, there’s little indication of unity among the developed democracies: China’s relationship with Australia has hit a new low; Beijing and Tokyo are getting along okay; Germany is finally warming toward China. From now until the end of 2020, I would expect a good deal of maneuvering between the two sides as China tries to isolate the United States from its traditional allies and friends.

SAHASHI  Japan’s foreign policy should be oriented to strengthening solidarity among the developed democracies. We still have the power to make a difference in that respect. That doesn’t mean we blindly go along with any strategy adopted by the United States or by Britain. This is the time for an inclusive approach that makes the most of the wide-ranging ties Japan has cultivated with countries around the world.

(Originally published in Japanese, based on a video interview conducted on June 10, 2020. Banner Photo: A sports arena in Beijing functions as a mass testing center as Chinese authorities respond to a new outbreak of COVID-19 in June 2020. © Reuters/Aflo.)

China United States diplomacy US-Japan relations