Joe Biden’s election is bad news for China.
First, it represents a triumph for the democratic process and the orderly transition of power in a democracy. Second, it represents a reassertion of core American values of integrity, respect and inclusion and a repudiation of lies and division. Third, it means the United States will no longer go it alone but re-engage with its natural allies in Asia and Europe to find common ground on global issues. Official Chinese media will no longer be able to paint Trump’s America as a country in moral decline, poorly governed, isolated and unsure of itself.
Trump’s America First posturing gave China an opening. Even those disinclined to cozy up to China, including Taiwan and Japan, had to hedge their bets as the United States drifted toward self-imposed isolationism. China’s Belt and Road initiative, a massive investment scheme to buy the support of emerging economies in need of infrastructure investment, gained traction as the United States cut direct foreign aid as well as support for international public-private initiatives during the past four years.
China’s transactional approach, building ports and roads for example, has borne fruit but not so much that it cannot be reversed by a reassertion of traditional American helpfulness. Availability and affordability of a forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine present a particular opportunity for the United States to be a friend to poorer nations in ways that do not demand the kind of indentured servitude that China expects in return for its help.
President Donald Trump’s focus on the trade imbalance with China and the imposition of tariffs was largely unproductive. True, total U.S.-China trade has dipped from its peak by 20 percent and the trade gap has narrowed by $90 billion. These adjustments have resulted in no noticeable restoration of lost American jobs, have disrupted supply chains and pricing structures and have put American multinationals on the back foot in penetrating the vast and growing Chinese market.
Economic decoupling from China is not a recipe for either American and global prosperity and tariffs fly in the face of the well-established law of comparative advantage, which says that global prosperity is maximized when workflows to those who can do it most productively. Deeper, not weaker, trade and investment relations between the United States and China are the best guarantee of peace between the two nations.
This does not mean that a Biden administration should roll over in the face of China’s human rights abuses, its assertion of navigation authority over global shipping lanes, or its provocations against the citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan. China’s economic success deserves our admiration but its political autocracy and bullying of its citizens and neighbors does not. What we should expect is a reassertion of diplomatic dialogue between the world’s two great nations on multiple fronts where there is potential to establish common ground — climate change, fish harvesting and global terrorism, for example — rather than a single-minded and punitive focus on trade. A broader and more measured China agenda will bring our allies back into the fold and add strength and credibility to U.S. resistance against Chinese assertions of power.
The Trump administration was not all bad. Trump publicly stated what many knew but were afraid to say. China was no longer an emerging economy deserving of special consideration but an economic powerhouse with global ambitions. As in many complex relationships, we and our allies must subtly calculate how and when to cooperate with China, how and when to compete.
China’s rise must be respected. China must be represented appropriately on the international stage. Relations with China must be broadened and repaired. But China must be resisted when our values and the security of allies who share those values are at stake.
John A. Quelch is dean of the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School and dean emeritus at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, China.