How would a Biden administration deal with China?

Joe Biden may win this week’s US presidential election bringing sweeping change to Washington. If he does claim victory, what will happen to relations with China?

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  1. Garry White

Donald Trump’s technology war with China will be one of the defining themes of his presidency. His attacks on Chinese technology companies were aimed at securing future US technological leadership – therefore maintaining America’s position as the unquestioned global hegemon. But, as the world prepares for a potential change in the White House following next week’s election, would a Biden win result in a sigh of relief from Beijing?

Ties between the world’s most significant economic giants have deteriorated significantly this year. China hawks in the Trump administration, fuelled by suspicion over Chinese actions at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, ramped its actions against Chinese companies that they believe produce components that will enable Beijing to spy on the west.

It is no coincidence that the two companies the US appears to want to starve out of existence by limiting their markets and supply of components – Huawei and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) – are at the vanguard of the 5G technological revolution. Video sharing app TikTok has been targeted too because Washington claims it will share data with Chinese authorities – and data is the most valuable commodity around as we enter the 5G-fuelled world. All these Chinese businesses have denied the US allegations.

Trump’s big achievement

Donald Trump’s major achievement as president has been securing a dramatic shift in the attitude to China in Washington and the wider US. In his long political career, Mr Biden has always been “pro-engagement” with Beijing, but his position has now evolved so much he referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug” in February.   

During the campaign, Mr Biden has vowed to stand up to Beijing but derided Trump’s Phase One trade deal signed in January, accusing the president of acting tough but damaging American manufacturing. Indeed, a study by a US newspaper this week showed the trade war didn’t achieve its aim of returning factory jobs to America. There were winners and losers – but the net effect was basically no net new jobs. The analysis also showed that most of the gains in US manufacturing jobs happened prior to tariffs being introduced.

Nevertheless, Mr Biden has not made any commitment to alter the current tariff regime. “I will use tariffs when they are needed, but the difference between me and Trump is that I will have a strategy – a plan – to use those tariffs to win, not just to fake toughness.” Mr Biden said in May. However, he has promised a more global approach to counter Chinese companies' influence, which should please allies frustrated by Trump’s “America First” policies.

These changes will involve an increased focus on Chinese human rights abuses. The Biden campaign has accused China of committing a “genocide” of Uighurs in Xinjiang – an extremely loaded term that the Trump administration has shied away from using. Increasing pressure on Beijing about its internal affairs is likely to cause relations to deteriorate further, not improve. Mr Trump appeared to deliberately side-line these issues, as he fought for jobs for his agricultural base in the Mid-West. This implies that the battle could get tougher still under a Biden presidency, as his “thug” counterpart in Beijing is further driven to outcompete the US in technology.

The tech war will rumble on

So, will a change of guard at the White House increase or decrease the chances of a fragmentation of the internet – a so-called Splinternet divided between East and West because of political disagreements?

The trade war between America and China is really a conflict about technology. Donald Trump’s administration has claimed – correctly – that Chinese high-tech companies have only managed to grow and succeed because of the “systematic theft” of US inventions and ideas.

These alleged violations of US intellectual property have resulted in the rapid development of Chinese technological know-how. Huawei is at the centre of the storm because of the importance of 5G to the economy of tomorrow – and the quality of its components such as antennae. SMIC is being targeted because it is trying to develop next-generation semiconductors that will be integral to the 5G networks driving tomorrow’s economy. The trade war is not really about trade.

There is now a race for technological supremacy – and the physical parts that make up the internet are already being divided between East and West. Just this week, BT Group signed a deal to use Ericsson's 5G radio antennas, base stations and other components to upgrade its EE mobile network in the UK. It now predicts that half of all its 5G traffic will be transmitted via the Swedish company's kit in due course. This has allowed it to ditch Huawei – at the behest of the UK government following pressure from Washington – while not becoming entirely dependent on Nokia as a supplier.

The policy against China and the rise of its technology giants is unlikely to be altered significantly should a President Biden emerge next week, but the tactics are likely to change. There will be more pressure on human rights – and this will not go down well with the Chinese Politburo. It will fuel Beijing’s desire to be better than America in its technological accomplishments – accelerating competition between the two mega-states.

As these divisions widen, it is entirely possible that Mr Biden could accelerate the disagreements and competition that will be the foundation of a new digital iron curtain between East and West. It’s possible he could go even further than Donald Trump dared in upsetting the Chinese and motivating its technology sector to be the best of the best. A President Joe Biden could be more likely to bring about a split in the internet than President Donald Trump.

A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph

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