Cautious welcome for Biden in Beijing

The Chinese government’s delayed response to the president-elect’s victory indicates wariness, but LNG trade could be a bridge to better relations

It perhaps came as no surprise when China dispensed with usual etiquette to take its time acknowledging US president-elect on his election win, given nearly four tumultuous years of a Trump administration that trampled decorum on numerous occasions.

The belated congratulations from Beijing to Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris after days of silence represented a break with diplomatic protocol—especially since it came not from Chinese president , but from a foreign ministry spokesman. “We respect the American people’s choice,” said Wang Wenbin.

As congratulations go, it was not the warmest—indicative of caution in Beijing over the incoming administration. The pragmatism is likely justified as observers in both China and the US do not expect a major improvement in ties under Biden, particularly as talking tough on China is a topic of rare bipartisan agreement in Washington these days.

Chinese state media has in turns reacted to Biden’s victory with resignation and cautious optimism. Biden, the China ­Daily newspaper wrote in an editorial in late November, “is unlikely to change any of the Trump administration’s harsh policies toward China, as he knows there is broad anti-China sentiment among lawmakers of both parties”.

“We should not put too much expectation on Biden, because to contain and confront China is a strategic consensus between the two parties of the US,” Jin Canrong, an international relations scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, told the Global Times newspaper. At the same time, Jin said Biden would usher in a “buffer period” as Trump’s successor “will be more moderate and mature in handling foreign affairs”.

The probability is that China’s leaders see Biden as a more measured and sophisticated, but not necessarily less formidable, US leader. He is unlikely to engage in the kind of confrontational rhetoric that has coloured Trump’s combative relationship with China, but nor will he be more accommodating—not least because his hands are seemingly tied when it comes to dealing with Beijing.

Trump’s trade and technology policies on China have resonated with an American public that has soured on Sino-US economic ties, and the outgoing president may be preparing even tougher measures that would make it politically untenable for Biden to change course.

Art of the deal

While Biden has not outlined his China policy in detail yet, it is worth noting that he was vice-president during the Obama-era ‘pivot’ to East Asia nearly a decade ago. The legacy of the pivot is mixed, but many expect Biden—a consummate dealmaker—to be better at re-engaging the US’ other Asian partners and mending bruised alliances.

Despite the tense relations, he will inevitably need to cooperate with China’s authoritarian leaders to tackle the common challenges of climate change and a pandemic that has claimed 1.5mn lives worldwide.

The probability is that China’s leaders see Biden as a more measured and sophisticated, but not necessarily less formidable, US leader

It is here that energy could help mend the rift. Biden sent mixed messages on fracking in the run-up to the US election, but the massive shale plays beneath Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana could offer a diplomatic win for Beijing and Washington—US LNG could help meet China’s ever-growing gas import reliance. Respected US foreign policy experts have previously said LNG deals are on the table just waiting for signatures once the political climate is detoxified.

There are already signs that energy trade is normalising between the world’s two largest economies, even as broader political relations have remained strained. China resumed US LNG imports in April after an almost year-long hiatus, while US LNG developer Cheniere made a tentative agreement this month to sell cargoes to a Chinese utility. The moves are encouraging but far from a breakthrough. More steps will be needed, including a probable renegotiation of the phase one trade deal that China is struggling to fulfil.

Energy can still, though, be complementary between the two superpowers. There would be worse ways to begin a rapprochement than by simply expanding trade between the world’s top consumer of energy and the fastest-growing major energy exporter.

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