A transatlantic alliance fractured by Donald Trump’s unilateral trade policies appeared headed for repair as both President-elect Joe Biden and Europe signaled an urgency to rejoin a united front against China’s ascendancy in the global economy.
“The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our—or at least what used to be our—allies on the same page,” Biden told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “It’s going to be a major priority for me in the opening weeks of my presidency to try to get us back on the same page with our allies.”
Meanwhile, in Brussels, the European Union is making a sweeping proposal for cooperation with the incoming Biden administration to counter the influence of countries like China and Russia.
“This combined power and influence is indispensable to anchor global cooperation in the 21st century,” the European Commission, the 27-nation EU’s executive arm, said in a strategy paper published Wednesday. “Our joint commitment is essential in a world where authoritarian powers seek to subvert democracies, aggressive actors try to destabilize regions and institutions, and closed economies exploit the openness our own societies depend on.”
Brewing Trade War
The Trump administration and the EU have been at loggerheads over issues ranging from digital taxes on large tech companies, to aircraft subsidies and the leadership of the World Trade Organization. High on the list of potential economic risks in a second Trump term was a tariff war between the U.S. and Europe, which the current president has called worse than China when it comes to cross-border commerce.
In his recent public remarks, Biden is confirming interest in a renewed multilateral approach to address trade imbalances with America’s traditional allies.
For the EU, the aim is to bring the U.S. back into the multilateral system that the country was instrumental in forging after World War II and to leverage transatlantic unity to shape global developments in policy areas ranging from trade to health.
In his interview with the Times, Biden said he wouldn’t immediately scupper the trade agreement Trump reached with China in January and will review it before making any decisions. The deal, billed as the first step in a series, led to a ceasefire on tariffs between the world’s two largest economies and pledges from Beijing to purchase more American imports.
“I’m not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs,” Biden said, according to the report. “I’m not going to prejudice my options.”
Biden told Friedman he would first conduct a full review of the phase-one deal and consult with allies in Asia and Europe “so we can develop a coherent strategy.”
The yuan weakened against the dollar immediately after the news.
As part of the trade deal signed in January, China agreed to increase its purchases of U.S. goods by $200 billion through 2021, but it’s nowhere close to meeting those targets. The latest data through the end of October shows China had only bought about 44% of the promised amount for this year. Both the U.S. and China left tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods in place after the deal was signed.
China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its previous comments when asked about Biden’s views, with spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling reporters in Beijing Wednesday that resolving trade disputes with the U.S. requires mutual respect from both sides.
Biden said he hoped to tackle China’s “abusive practices,” including “stealing intellectual property, dumping products, illegal subsidies to corporations,” as well as forcing “tech transfers” from American companies to their Chinese counterparts.
But the U.S. needs “leverage” to deal with China, Biden said in the interview, adding “in my view, we don’t have it yet.” To build that, the U.S. needs a bipartisan consensus at home for government-led investments in research and development, infrastructure and education to better compete with China, he said.
“I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first,” he said, citing industries such as energy, biotechnology, advanced materials and artificial intelligence as key ones for large-scale investment in research.
On the campaign trail, Biden’s advisers alluded to him taking a gradual approach on China tariffs, saying he’d prioritize domestic issues like investing in research and development and U.S. manufacturing to compete with Beijing from a position of strength.
The president-elect’s latest comments suggest a cooling off of tensions between the two nations as he focuses attention on more immediate problems facing the U.S. economy, like the coronavirus pandemic.
“Most likely the new U.S. president would spend his first year in office on domestic issues,” said Larry Hu, head of China economics at Macquarie Group Ltd. “It could give a respite to both sides, whose relationship has deteriorated a lot since 2018.”
Still, Biden’s pledge to work with allies could signify a broader threat to China.
“After the past four years, it is difficult to expect a normalization of the bilateral relationship immediately,” said Raymond Yeung, chief economist for Greater China at Australia and New Zealand Banking Group. “As long as China continues to buy more from the U.S. and commit to the phase one agreement, the U.S. will say “why not”. Nonetheless, as most people expect, Biden’s administration will work closely with allies in his China policy.”