Beijing expects less volatile relations with Washington under Joe Biden but does not believe the new administration will veer significantly from the hardline approach taken by Donald Trump, according to Chinese government advisers and analysts.
As of Monday morning, neither China’s foreign ministry nor President Xi Jinping had publicly commented on Mr Biden’s victory over Mr Trump in the US presidential election. Chinese state media has instead focused on how divided the US appeared to be and the Mr Trump’s unwillingness to officially concede.
“US democracy’s fate is in the hands of Mr Trump,” Hu Xijin, editor of the ultranationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote on Twitter after Mr Biden’s victory was confirmed. “If he rejects this result . . . it will have far-reaching impact.”
Flashpoints between the Trump administration and China have ranged from curbs on access to US technology to Beijing’s policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
On Monday, some state media outlets, including the Global Times, expressed cautious optimism that strained ties between the world’s two largest economies could be repaired. But most advisers to Beijing believe that the tensions that have brought China-US relations to their lowest point in at least 40 years will not be quickly resolved.
“There will be no significant difference under Biden on major issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, Tibet and China’s religious and human rights situations,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin university in Beijing, who advises China’s State Council on foreign affairs. “But Biden is not nearly as wild, vulgar and volatile as Trump, so he can be expected to bring more predictability and stability to Washington’s China policy.”
One notable source of friction has been Xinjiang, the north-west Chinese region where more than 1m Muslim Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained. Beijing contends that its detention camps are vocational training centres aimed at curbing religious extremism.
At times, Mr Trump played down the matter as he pursued a “phase 1” trade agreement between the countries. But within weeks of signing the deal in January, the spread of Covid-19 from central China to the US hit both the American economy and Mr Trump’s hopes for re-election.
The Trump administration has also moved to limit Chinese companies’ access to US technology and impose sanctions against officials over Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where a controversial national security law was enacted earlier this year in a bid to crush pro-democracy protests.
Other recent flashpoints have included US arms sales to Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing claims as part of its sovereign territory, and Mr Xi’s construction of island fortifications in the South China Sea.
Chinese analysts expect fewer geopolitical spats under Mr Biden than Mr Trump, who angered Mr Xi with sudden tariff hikes at critical moments in trade talks and by referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese plague” or “Wuhan virus”.
“Biden sees China as a competitor while Trump sees China as an adversary,” said Lu Xiang, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Competitors’ relations are based on rules.”
One person who advises Chinese leaders and asked not to be identified noted that Mr Biden has deeper problems to deal with at home before turning his attention to China.
“The biggest issues for Biden are domestic, starting with Covid but also the economy and infrastructure,” the person said. “It’s unlikely China will be near the top of his list.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing
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