Nov 17, 2020 - World

Biden's Day 1 challenges: China damage control

Illustration of China’s flag with stars and lines
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The day he enters the White House, President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a host of China-related challenges that require immediate action, from restoring diplomatic backchannels with China to figuring out what to do about lingering tariffs.

The big picture: Biden must find a way to put the U.S.-China relationship on a more sustainable path while preserving U.S. national security interests and blocking China's efforts to weaken international norms.

The backstory: During President Trump's last year in office, the administration reshaped the U.S.-China relationship, taking 159 China-related policy actions in 2020 alone, according to a White House list obtained by Axios.

  • Some of those actions have been criticized as counterproductive and damaging to U.S. values, such as restrictions placed on Chinese journalists and the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, in part due to China's influence over the organization.

What's next: The Biden administration will likely move quickly to unwind Trump-era actions seen as dangerous or immediately harmful.

Re-engagement: This could mean rejoining multilateral organizations, including the WHO, and pursue limited cooperation with China on pandemic management and climate change. Those moves may include:

  • Staffing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention office in Beijing. The Trump administration removed most personnel in the months prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council to push back against China's attempts to water down international human rights norms amid its ongoing cultural genocide against Muslim minorities. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the council in 2018 after claiming it demonstrated anti-Israel bias.

Restoring diplomacy. Look for Biden to overhaul the State Department and attempt to improve communication with Chinese counterparts. Under Trump, high-level diplomatic communications and backchannels were hollowed out, increasing the risk of miscommunication and miscalculation should a true crisis occur.

Revamping the Department of Justice's China Initiative to better protect the civil rights of Chinese-Americans.

  • The Justice Department pursued sweeping investigations into economic espionage and intellectual property theft, but critics say the investigations have put Chinese-Americans at risk of racial profiling.
  • "The U.S. government should restart and expand anti-bias trainings to make investigators and prosecutors more conscious of factors in their own decision-making," said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University School of Law.
  • Lewis also recommends an actor-agnostic approach to federal investigations, rather than lumping cases together under the "China" label.

Removing restrictions on Chinese journalists in the U.S., and working with Chinese counterparts to restore U.S. journalist access to China.

  • Earlier this year, the State Department imposed strict limits on visas for some Chinese nationals in the U.S. on journalist visas, putting many journalists in permanent limbo.
  • Some saw this move as an abrogation of the U.S. commitment to free speech. "Instead of adopting the China government’s authoritarian anti-free press tactics, the U.S. government should uphold press freedom, a constitutionally guaranteed right, on its own territory," said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
  • Beijing retaliated by expelling over a dozen U.S. correspondents from China, reducing global visibility into China at a critical time. Beijing said its actions were based on reciprocity; it may relent if Chinese journalists in the U.S. no longer face restrictions.

What to watch: Biden's approach to Taiwan. The China-Taiwan relationship sits at a riskier juncture than it has in years, due to Beijing's harder line on Taiwanese sovereignty and Taiwan's own growing identity as an independent nation.

  • Republicans have recently floated the idea of a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement, but that did not materialize during the Trump administration. Some experts who were close to the Biden campaign have praised this idea as well.

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