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A U.S.-China detente under Biden? Beijing isn’t betting on it.

A news report Sunday shows President-elect Joe Biden on a screen in Hong Kong. The erosion of human rights in the financial center has fueled tension between Washington and Beijing. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — With Joe Biden's triumph in the presidential election, governments around the world are bracing for a potentially dramatic reversal in the U.S. approach toward allies, foes and issues from trade to climate change.

In China? Not so much.

The Chinese government held off from immediately commenting on the election result on Sunday, but many Chinese analysts say that four years and a bruising showdown with the Trump administration have left a profound impression that the world’s two leading powers have ineluctably become rivals, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. While Biden could ease off Beijing in certain respects after Inauguration Day, many Chinese have adopted a fatalistic view of the post-Trump world: U.S.-China relations are likely to be fraught for four more years, if not a generation.

Part of the pessimism stems from Chinese expectations that Biden could pressure Beijing more effectively than President Trump by galvanizing U.S. allies and criticizing its human rights record — a strategy Biden and his advisers have touted on the campaign trail. But a larger challenge, Chinese analysts say, is a growing, bipartisan alarm in Washington about China’s rising strength, particularly in technology.

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“There will actually be more tension over human rights, Hong Kong, Xinjiang,” said Shen Dingli, a professor of American Studies at Fudan University, listing areas where China expects Biden to adopt a tougher line than Trump, who did not emphasize upholding human rights or liberal values as part of his foreign policy.

Shen and other analysts said China could seize the opportunity to quickly offer friendly gestures to Biden. Beijing would be happy to work on areas of potential collaboration, such as countering the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the United States back into a climate accord or patching up a nuclear agreement with Iran, Shen said.

“But overall, Biden will try to do what Trump couldn’t — suppress China — because the distance between China and the U.S. is drawing closer every year, and no leader, Democratic or Republican, will ever accept China overtaking America,” he said. “Pressure will be higher still come 2024.”

China’s Foreign Ministry, which has avoided expressing favor for either candidate, did not comment on Biden’s victory as of Sunday afternoon in Beijing.

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But as the Democrat led the vote count in recent days, a senior ministry official hinted that China was eager to turn a new page. The next U.S. administration should “meet halfway” with Beijing on matters of disagreement and collaborate whenever possible, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said in remarks that some state media outlets framed as a desire to move past the bitterness of the Trump years.

“Bull Piano,” a blog on WeChat that is associated with the official Xinhua News Agency but does not represent government positions, noted Sunday that Biden has called Russia a “threat” but China a “competitor.”

“We must not have illusions,” the unnamed writer said. “I hope we can return to a relatively rational track, but one thing is certain: Things will never be the same again. This world is not the world of before.”

Clashes over tech, trade

During his term, Trump exposed China’s vulnerabilities by erecting tariffs on its key export industry and denying sales of cutting-edge technology such as semiconductors to Huawei and other corporate players. In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly urged his country to patch up its vulnerabilities, shockproof the economy, and focus more on “doing our own things well” instead of worrying about fluctuations in U.S. policies toward China.

In recent months, a slew of far-reaching policies has reflected China’s preparations for future flare-ups with competitors like the United States. The ruling Communist Party rolled out development plans to become “self-sufficient” in advanced fields like computer chips and to rely less on selling products to other countries. Some of the policy motivations were long-standing, Chinese experts say: Beijing has long tried to overhaul the economy to become more dependent on domestic consumption.

But the blueprints were undeniably shaped by Trump’s attacks.

“Changes in U.S.-China relations increased the necessity of these policies,” said Mei Xinyu, a researcher who advises the Commerce Ministry. Mei said he was not “overly hopeful” that Biden would cancel Trump’s tariffs and said Chinese companies should be ready to live under the assumption of a “high-tariff environment.”

Taiwan frets over how a Biden administration would deal with China

Biden and his advisers have said many of Trump’s policies on China, including tariffs, are ineffective and should be reconsidered. Biden has also accused China of stealing intellectual property and pledged to invest in American workers and technology to compete with China, but it’s not clear whether he would use tools like Trump’s sanctions against Chinese technology companies.

Some Chinese are troubled by the pervasive gloominess. Ren Yi, a Harvard-educated independent writer in Beijing, said there was a growing trend among Chinese academics, bureaucrats and ordinary people to assume the two countries are destined for conflict.

Ren, who writes one of the country’s most popular political columns on WeChat, said he has tried to tell readers that a Democratic administration would be likely to focus on domestic issues, and most Americans are not preoccupied with China. But “mainstream Chinese have become disillusioned with America,” he said. “The trade war was a catalyst. Then came [Trump’s sanctions on] Huawei, TikTok, the use of American power against us, the dispute over the Hong Kong movement.”

'He knows the red line'

If there is room for optimism in Beijing, it is that Biden is a relatively known quantity, and Chinese analysts expect he would adhere to norms in diplomacy and negotiation. Although he called Xi a “thug” during a February debate, Biden has also talked up his extensive foreign policy record and experience meeting Chinese leaders. Xi, during a 2013 meeting in Beijing, referred to Biden as “my old friend.”

Victor Gao, a professor at China’s Soochow University and a former Foreign Ministry official, said he believed Beijing looked forward to somebody who was not Trump. “Trump is a man without decency,” he said. “China will be happy to deal with a president who is a man of decency.”

Xin Qiang, a professor at Fudan University who studies the United States and Taiwan, said some aspects of the bilateral relationship — such as technological competition with the United States — have been “changed forever.” But Xin predicted normalcy to return on sensitive issues like Taiwan. Biden is likely to support the island’s democracy, which China claims as its territory, while avoiding risky actions that could provoke military conflict, he said.

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In recent months, China has expressed displeasure with the warming ties between the Trump administration and Taiwan by dispatching fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace and airing propaganda warning bluntly of war. The Trump administration has supported Taiwan by selling advanced weaponry and dispatching senior officials to visit.

Biden “will be restrained and not as radical as President Trump,” Xin said. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “and has great expertise,” Xin said. “He knows the red line, the bottom line” of China.

But Xin and other experts acknowledge concerns about the future. A Pew Research Center poll this year showed U.S. sentiment toward China dropping to all-time lows, Xin said, and Chinese are already aware that “China-bashing could become worse” with the rise of a younger generation of U.S. politicians who may seek the presidency in 2024.

“I think there are considerable American forces who embrace trying to suppress China’s rise,” said Mei, the Commerce Ministry-affiliated researcher. “We are willing to improve relations with the United States, but we must not overlook the existence of these forces.”

He summed up the mood in Beijing.

When it comes to U.S. relations, Mei said, “prepare for the worst, and strive for the best.”

Dou reported from Seoul.

Taiwan frets over how a Biden administration would deal with China

China is awash with schadenfreude over U.S. election tumult

On China’s front line, emerging cold war haunts battle-worn Taiwanese islands