On 28 December, President-elect Joe Biden announced that Washington's position regarding China would be stronger when it builds coalitions of "like-minded partners and allies" in order to hold Beijing "accountable" for what he called "trade abuses, technology and human rights".
The comment came as Sino-American tensions over a negative balance of trade with the People's Republic, mutual tariff frictions, blacklisting of Chinese telecom giants by the US - and most recently the coronavirus pandemic blamed by the White House on Beijing - which have been simmering all through Donald Trump's tenure continue to grow.
What's Behind Biden's Rhetoric?
Joe Biden's rhetoric is by no means surprising, given that contradictions between Washington and Beijing emerged under the Barack Obama administration, says Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based China expert, author and columnist.
"The US problems with China didn’t start with Trump; possibly they began to gain momentum slowly after the 2008 financial crisis and after the friction with Japan on the Senkaku Islands and on the South China Sea after 2010," he says.
In 2011, the Brookings, an American reputable research group, emphasised Barack Obama's policy shift aimed at solidifying Washington's leadership role in Asia "for decades to come". According to the think-tank, it was a response to what it called "Chinese heavy-handedness in the [Asia-Pacific] region", as well as tensions in the East China Sea, and the South China Sea dispute. Obama's strategy also included the promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement which excluded China and was largely seen as an attempt to "contain" the People's Republic.
Although Obama chose to exert pressure on China through partnership and alliances, President Donald Trump, who shredded the TPP on entering the Oval Office, thought he could push Beijing into a bilateral deal, according to Sisci.
"In fact the US in its history rarely coped with big problems bilaterally, it always sought to build alliances and coalitions, which incidentally may prove useful also to other goals besides the ones faced at the moment", the Beijing-based China expert explains. "Biden then is reverting to a traditional tool of American policy, one that the US knows quite well, in fact arguably is better at than a bilateral take".
The incoming Biden administration and its appointees - including Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan - have long been strong supporters of multilateralism, alliances, and international co-operation to deal with bilateral, regional and global problems, echoes Dr Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI).
"It should be said that foreign policy experts largely feel the Trump administration’s trajectory towards China was broadly correct but they are largely critical of his unlinked, undisciplined, and chaotic framing and implementation", he suggests.
Nagy has drawn attention to the fact that Biden made it clear previously that he would not immediately lift tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports and other trade restrictions including "those associated with dual use technology including the 1st tier semi-conductors".
'The Framework of a New World Order'
The aforementioned coalition of democracies is likely to include Japan, Australia, the EU, the UK, India and other friends of the US are the likely candidates to do this "with South Korea and ASEAN countries probably the weakest links in any alignment", adds Nagy.
Though the professor expects "a continuation of a hard line against Beijing" he presumes that it would be "a smarter, more multilateral" approach aimed at "shaping Chinese behaviour", but not in any way "containing" the People's Republic.
"Most of the US allies that would contribute to forming an aligned group of states that would like to pressure China such that it develops within a rules based system would not be willing to join an explicitly anti-China coalition", he believes. "Their biggest trading partner is China and they depend on the China-centered global production network. This makes an overtly anti-China coalition unlikely to form."
Sisci also thinks that the Biden administration will fall short of creating an "overtly anti-China" coalition. According to him, the new "coalition of democracies" will not be aimed against anyone, "at least at the moment".
"Then, for instance, if China were to change its system then it could join the coalition", he suggests. "If it doesn’t, it remains outside".
The Beijing-based expert suggests that the formation of new coalitions "could be the framework of a new world order where de facto the US calls on everybody to declare its alignment".
"We don’t know how this will unfold and evolve but this is apparently the game we are all called to play," Sisci concludes.