As he made clear in his recent speech in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping would surely love to see U.S. President Joe Biden—whom many have criticized as being soft on China in the past—ease simmering tensions between the two nations. But despite an apparent break from tradition during the Donald Trump administration, the personality or political party occupying the chair behind the Resolute Desk doesn’t much matter when it comes to America’s China policy.
What really counts is a cold, hard calculation of the tradeoffs between advancing America’s economic interests and defending its national security. That governing dynamic with a great economic power from the unfree world will dictate how a Biden administration, as well as future presidents from either party, will approach China.
Given how hotly contested presidential elections are, it may be difficult to conceive that the incumbent doesn’t matter to our relationship with the world’s second-largest economy. But research has shown that the president doesn’t even matter to the U.S. economy as much as many think.
In 2016, Princeton economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson found that, historically, Democratic presidencies have coincided with faster economic growth than Republican administrations. But the gap was not caused by the partisan policies emanating from the Oval Office. Instead, the authors attributed much of the edge to some positive factors Democratic presidents experienced through happenstance, such as more benign oil shocks and better productivity records. In short, some good luck was blended in with public policy. The economy under President Trump didn’t escape this pattern. It was strong during the first three years, until the pandemic hit.
U.S. policy toward China is also shaped by economic and national security calculations beyond which party controls the White House. For a long while since China’s “grand opening” in late 1970s, the math was easy: the economic lure from China’s large market was irresistible, while the country was too underdeveloped to pose any significant security concerns for the United States. The result was a romantic engagement policy consistently implemented from the Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama administrations.
The economic motivation was so strong that it took priority over other core U.S. values, such as promoting democracy and defending human rights abroad. Remember then-candidate Bill Clinton who called out “the butchers of Beijing” in Tiananmen Square and criticized President George H.W. Bush for “coddling dictators” in China? Once he became president, however, Clinton changed his tune and repeatedly renewed China’s preferential trade status regardless of its poor human rights record and eventually brought China into the World Trade Organization.
Candidate Obama offered to President W. Bush the idea of boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics over human rights in Tibet. But while President Obama reportedly supported the exiled Tibetan government leader in private, when the Dalai Lama visited the White House in 2010, Obama downplayed the meeting publicly, so as to not anger Beijing. The spiritual leader was shown an undignified way out of the meeting from a side door alongside heaps of trash.
This economic romance finally hit the wall in recent years as China fundamentally altered its reform and “opening-up” model, consequently tipping the economic to security considerations of United States. This dynamic is what shaped America’s China policy under President Trump and will continue to do so in the Biden and future administrations.
To better understand which direction the Chinese regime is headed, my research team developed the open-source Policy Change Index project, which reads the tea leaves in China’s propaganda to gauge its future actions. As we have demonstrated, China started to lose interest in pro-market reforms as early as 2004 and has increasingly prioritized its goal of leading the global stage since 2013. With less economic liberalization coupled with more foreign aggression in China, any attractive calculation for Washington becomes less appealing.
The Trump presidency may be unusual in many ways, but not quite in how it recognized the problem with China. In 2016, candidate Trump ran in part on his misguided obsession with trade deficits and alleged job loss to China. But legitimate security concerns caused by China, such as the economic coercion of other nations in its orbit and its soft-power campaigns to erode liberty within the United States, were brought to the forefront after President Trump took office. The end of the U.S.-China romance drove President Trump’s China policy, not the other way around.
There’s no question that President Trump’s isolationist approach to the China problem—using the trade war as a tactic to influence Chinese behavior—has not worked, which is why the nation’s China policy is now at a crossroads.
The challenge for presidents in the years to come will be to strike a delicate balance between romance and divorce with China. One would be misguided to think that the Biden administration’s China policy will be “Obama 2.0,” because the fact that President Biden is a Democrat doesn’t really matter. The overall cost-benefit calculation for Washington will stay the same.
Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a core developer of the open-sourced Policy Change Index project, which uses machine-learning algorithms to predict authoritarian regimes’ major policy moves by “reading” their propaganda.