If relations between Washington and Beijing have soured during the last years of Donald Trump’s term, all indications are that they will not be sweetened after the transition in the White House.
From the days of Trump’s presidential campaign to his eventual rise to power in 2017, to the campaign that just ended, his view of China was, without a doubt, characteristic of his personal and extravagant style. Yet two noteworthy elements colored the background of that relationship: the lone conviction on Trump’s part that Chinese business disadvantaged American workers, and the belief that China’s criminal inclination toward technology theft must be fiercely exposed and countered.
The introduction of a new international team will determine what other dishes will be added to the bilateral menu, with equal relevance. The new approach will include an effort to join with other countries in reaching the goals of the world’s leading power.
Trade is the most transparent and most easily measured battlefield in bilateral relations. Thus, we will have to wait until January 2021 when the change of leadership in the United States takes place to determine whether or not President Xi Jinping is genuinely committed to improving the relationship between the two titans. It will be necessary to carefully assess interactions to determine whether or not commitments signed last January — phase one of the trade agreement — have been respected by China.
There is nothing to suggest that when that moment arrives, it will be possible to think of a phase two. The 2020 goal for the purchase volume of American products by China included in that agreement has barely reached 60%. At the end of September, China had narrowly managed to honor some $59 trillion of the targeted $110 trillion.
So what can we expect? Conversations between the two global leaders — which should take place in January because of the obligation to review the trade agreement — will be expanded to include a sizable number of topics representing areas of disagreement or agreement between them. Issues related to the environment, epidemiological challenges, intellectual property rights and technology will surely be considered. Many analysts believe that particular importance will be given to respect for human rights by Joe Biden’s team, suggesting that it will be a highlight in the meetings that take place with the administrative change in Washington.
In any case, while it is possible to think that verbal abuse from the U.S. will be a thing of the past, the course of relations between Beijing and Washington will be marked by the determination of the Asians — and the steps they are taking — to rise to first place as an influential power within the global economy. China will be better off than others in advancing toward that goal once the pandemic subsides, because other factors already show signs of early recovery.
Another factor that works in China’s favor is that it will not have the exhausting internal polarization that Biden’s team will have to face.
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