The recently-concluded EU-China Investment Agreement has attracted severe criticism, with many commenters focusing specifically on the supposed naïveté of concluding a separate agreement with China instead of pursuing a joint approach together with the incoming Biden administration. However, this approach is in line with the EU’s stated desire to achieve a greater strategic autonomy, and in fact a sensible reaction to the uncertainty that has marked international politics since the Trump era.
In its last months in office, the Trump administration published a new, comprehensive framework on China policy. Despite the upcoming change in government, this report is notable for introducing a very ideology-centered perspective and rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War. It could therefore provide a glimpse on how Republicans will approach China policy in opposition and exert pressure on the new government to stick with the confrontative course taken by Trump.
With US-China relations caught in a seemingly inescapable downward spiral and mounting speculation about a new “Cold War”, could a Biden victory in the upcoming US election lead to a reduction in tensions? Based on what is known about Biden’s approach to China, we should not expect a fundamental shift, and the US-China confrontation is likely to shape the international system for years to come. However, a Biden strategy would seek to re-engage allies in Europe, and may offer them a bigger chance to influence this process.
The security dimension has long been the most contentious aspect of US-China relations, marked by strategic mistrust, great-power competition and several flashpoints in East Asia. Until recently, these tensions were moderated by much warmer and closer economic ties, civil society exchanges in business, education, academia, culture and tourism, as well as shared interests in globalization and trade. However, recent moves by the US and Chinese governments to “securitize” the previously cooperative aspects of their relationship have fundamentally altered this dynamic and greatly increased the likelihood of a permanent confrontation between the two great powers.