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Foreign policy experts discuss U.S.-China relations under Biden presidency

Danielle Towers | Staff Photographer
Lampton said global issues like climate change can offer opportunities for improved diplomatic relations as Chinese leadership has “changed” its previous point of view, now recognizing climate change as a significant threat.

Foreign policy experts discussed the future of U.S.-China relations under President Joe Biden’s administration last week. 

The Institute for International Economic Policy hosted the event, which highlighted how relations between the two countries could continue to deteriorate during the next administration. Barbara Stallings, a distinguished visiting scholar at IIEP, moderated the event, which was co-sponsored by the Sigur Center for Asian Studies as part of the center’s 13th annual Conference on China’s Economic Development and U.S.-China relations.

David Lampton, a professor emeritus of China studies and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said U.S.-China relations are not likely to transform as drastically as domestic issues during Biden’s presidency. Repairing the U.S. economy and addressing the COVID-19 pandemic will be the Biden administration’s top priorities, he said.

“China is not our biggest problem,” Lampton said. “I don’t think China is even our biggest security problem. Among the priorities with a national security component, the pandemic is killing more people every day than what we lost at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11.”

The relationship between the United States and China began to deteriorate before the start of former President Donald Trump’s administration, notably taking a downturn during the latter part of the administration of former President Barack Obama, he said. 

“Because of this, we can expect some continuity with the Trump administration’s policies and actions at least for a period until a revaluation can occur,” Lampton said. 

Lampton said the success of the Chinese domestic economy could ensure a status quo in relations, as economic prosperity might not incentivize the Chinese government to negotiate sensitive issues like U.S.-imposed trade tariffs. 

“China is not feeling as economically imperiled as the U.S. feels at the current moment, giving them leverage with U.S. allies around the world, many of whom agree with us perhaps on human rights issues, on security and military issues but have economic interests of their own with China,” he said.

The United States should still continue to seek avenues for rapprochement with China, as successful diplomatic relations between the two countries have yielded huge “peace dividends,” Lampton said.  

“The basic fact of engagement is after the U.S. left Vietnam in 1975 and normalized relations with the Chinese government, the U.S. has had no subsequent conflict involving China, and China has not waged an international conflict of significance since,” he said. 

Lampton added that global issues like climate change can also offer opportunities for improved diplomatic relations as Chinese leadership has “changed” its previous point of view, now recognizing climate change as a significant threat.

Deborah Lehr – the executive director of the Paulson Institute, an independent think tank focusing on the U.S.-China relationship – said the Biden administration will be more transparent in its policymaking process, but the substance of the Trump administration’s China policies will continue. 

“The Biden administration will have a different approach in dealing with China by being more likely to reach out to our allies and more likely to strengthen global governance institutions like the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization,” she said. “But there is also very strong bipartisan support for a tough policy toward China, and we can expect to continue to see that in the Biden administration.”

Lehr said that the future of U.S.-China relations can affect the international community and urged the United States to invest in improving the current state of global cooperation.

“Many of the challenges that we are facing are not going to bilateral challenges but multilateral challenges like climate change, nuclear proliferation and future pandemics,” she said. “So we need to find a framework to work with China because if the two largest economies in the world can find solutions, we are more likely to secure widespread cooperation for a multitude of issues.”

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