Biden is expected to maintain a hard line on most matters, including export restrictions to Huawei, though he will probably enlist more support from international allies and maintain more consistent policies than the ones Trump sometimes announced, and rescinded, via tweet, China watchers say.
Biden is also expected to pursue more funding for basic research and ease some Trump-era restrictions on immigration of the highly skilled, to give the United States more resources to compete in the tech economy.
Biden’s likely course flows from the increasingly bipartisan consensus among members of Congress that overly warm relations with China and tolerance of its unfair trade practices helped fuel a technological rival that now threatens U.S. leadership.
“The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property,” Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs in the spring, echoing many of Trump’s complaints. “It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage — and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future.”
But the best way to confront China is by forming a “united front” with allies, he wrote.
“When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.”
That would mark a departure from Trump, who picked trade fights with friends and foes alike, making it harder to enlist allies’ help in confronting Chinese trade practices, or in limiting Western adoption of Chinese tech such as Huawei telecom equipment.
“Trump did the right thing in confronting China. Where he completely did the wrong thing was in alienating the Europeans,” said James Lewis, a longtime diplomat and head of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You can force the Chinese to change, but to do that you need the U.S., Japan, Europe, Berlin.”
One approach could be to back a U.K. proposal for a new alliance of 10 democracies, or D-10, to help promote Western technology, including for 5G telecommunications networks.
Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, supported that general idea in September, saying the United States must work with allies to set common policies on export controls, investment restrictions and technical standards to ensure an “ecosystem that protects and promotes liberal democratic values.”
“One of the things that we are seeing is a world that is dividing to some extent along a fault line between techno-democracies on the one hand and techno-autocracies on the other hand,” Blinken said during a webinar hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “And techno-democracies have to do a much better job in working together, thinking together, acting together to try to set the standard.”
Some China watchers express skepticism that enlisting allies will yield better results, considering that allies such as Germany depend heavily on exports to China and have appeared reluctant to take a confrontational tone with Beijing.
To win more help from the Europeans, Lewis said, the Biden administration may need to address some of their complaints about U.S. tech companies, which European officials have accused of violating privacy and antitrust laws.
“We don’t want to be captured by China but we don’t want to be captured by the Americans, either,” is a common European refrain, Lewis said.
In a Foreign Affairs article last year, Jake Sullivan, a top Biden adviser and former Obama administration official, suggested that like-minded nations consider banding together to set trade rules on issues “that the World Trade Organization does not currently address,” such as how to deal with state-owned enterprises. Western nations have long complained that China’s state-owned companies receive unfair government support that allows them to flood the market with cheap goods.
Such a trade group could be “layered over the WTO system,” wrote Sullivan and co-author Kurt M. Campbell, an Obama-era diplomat and co-founder of the Asia Group consultancy. “The combined gravitational pull of this community would present China with a choice: either curb its free-riding and start complying with trade rules, or accept less favorable terms from more than half of the global economy,” they wrote.
The president-elect’s team, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, hasn’t communicated its plans for TikTok and WeChat, the Chinese apps the Trump administration sought to ban, before federal courts halted the bans with preliminary injunctions.
In September, Biden mentioned TikTok on the campaign trail, saying it was “a matter of genuine concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people, particularly in the United States of America,” Reuters reported.
Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said he doesn’t think the Biden administration will devote much time to the apps because it will have “bigger fish to fry.”
The U.S. semiconductor sector is one of the biggest industries hanging in the balance after the presidential election. The Trump administration banned the export of U.S. chips and other technology to Huawei in May 2019, hoping to undermine its ability to produce equipment for 5G mobile networks. It has tightened the rules several times since, most recently by banning chip factories anywhere in the world from supplying Huawei if they use U.S. manufacturing equipment or chip-design software.
China hawks applauded the latest measure but the U.S. semiconductor industry panned it, saying the prohibitions were broader than necessary to protect national security and would harm an important American industry.
The industry has pushed for some loosening of the rules to allow the sale of more “commoditized” semiconductors to Huawei — the kind used in cellphones and other consumer electronics.
Tech analysts say the Trump administration has issued a few licenses allowing such sales, and that the Biden administration may be open to a bit more relaxation for lower-tech chips. “I expect they’re going to be more precise and narrow the focus, particularly for the chip industry, to allow the sale of chips that are pretty much used for commodity products,” said Adam Segal, a technology and security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But overall, the chip sector isn’t expecting broad changes to China policy under Biden, John Neuffer, chief executive of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said in an interview.
“It’s clear to us there is a continued muscular approach to China in the cards, and what may change, it sounds like the tone may change,” he said.
Biden’s approach will be shaped in part by the need to work with Congress, where many Republicans and some Democrats have called for more curbs on Chinese technology and on trade with China, including a more rigorous review of Chinese investments in the United States.
One big difference China watchers expect from Biden is consistency. Trump often sent mixed messages through his erratic tweets and statements, calling Huawei a security threat one day and then suggesting days later that it was more of a bargaining chip in the U.S-China trade talks.
“The administration’s messaging was significantly hampered by the president, who consistently tried to use Huawei as negotiating leverage for an economic deal, a trade deal,” said Paul Scharre, a former Pentagon official and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Likewise, Trump undermined his calls for Canadians and Europeans to view some Chinese technology as a national security threat by also labeling aluminum and steel from those allied regions a national security threat, and then slapping tariffs on them, said the Council of Foreign Relations’ Segal.