The early overtures to China's neighbors reflected Biden's campaign promise of staying tough on China but seeking a united front instead of the Trump administration's more unilateral approach. China's government has been cautiously optimistic about calmer relations with Washington under a Biden administration, although officials have no illusions of a major thaw.
“We respect the American people’s choice,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin at a regular news conference. “We congratulate Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.”
At the same time, Wang added, “we understand the U.S. election results will be confirmed based on U.S. law and procedure.”
China’s Foreign Ministry previously had held off extending congratulations, saying only that it “noted” Biden’s claim of victory. Chinese foreign policy analysts explained the stance as a precautionary one, because President Trump has not conceded.
On Thursday in the United States, Edison Research projected that Biden would win Arizona, adding to the size of his projected victory in the electoral college.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said he believed the delay in China’s response probably reflected the government’s rigid decision-making process.
“More likely, no one in the the Chinese government dared to make a call on this until they have heard from [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping on how Xi would like to play it,” he said. “Xi took time to think about it and finally decided to reach out to Biden, after allowing the confusion in Washington to be known to the Chinese.”
Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter, said Beijing had been wary of congratulating Biden too early to avoid upsetting U.S.-China relations at a volatile moment before Trump conceded.
“Perhaps they have decided waiting much longer will antagonize Biden, so they have to get off the fence,” Bishop said. “And they want to start engaging with Team Biden.”
Beijing’s change of tack followed Biden’s pledges of support for U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region — a step that would have raised the urgency for China to open its lines of communications with the president-elect.
In particular, Biden’s discussion with Japan about territory claimed by China would have irked Beijing.
On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Biden gave a “commitment” in their phone call that U.S. pledges to defend Japan would include the Senkaku Islands, disputed rocky outcrops that are administered by Japan. China also claims the archipelago, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands.
With its centrally controlled bureaucracy, Beijing is generally conservative in its public remarks, and it is not unusual for it to issue statements days late in an uncertain situation. Trump’s refusal to concede despite Biden’s projected large margin of victory put China and other countries in uncharted territory.
In 2016, Xi congratulated Trump on Nov. 9, after Democrat Hillary Clinton conceded the election that day.
U.S.-China relations have continued to be tense this week. The White House on Thursday issued an executive order banning U.S. investments in a few dozen Chinese companies it says have links to China’s military.
Beijing also seized on the global distraction this week to gut Hong Kong’s legislature by ordering the disqualification of lawmakers deemed “unpatriotic.” The move was met with outrage from Western officials.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called it “a clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration,” a treaty signed in 1984 before the British handover of Hong Kong to China.
Lyric Li in Beijing and Gerry Shih in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.