How 2020 Shaped U.S.-China Relations
from Asia Program

How 2020 Shaped U.S.-China Relations

A protester holds a U.S. flag outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston after the U.S. State Department ordered China to close the consulate.
A protester holds a U.S. flag outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston after the U.S. State Department ordered China to close the consulate. Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

This year, tensions between Washington and Beijing flared over many issues. As the Biden administration prepares to take over, what lies ahead for one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships?

December 15, 2020 10:48 am (EST)

A protester holds a U.S. flag outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston after the U.S. State Department ordered China to close the consulate.
A protester holds a U.S. flag outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston after the U.S. State Department ordered China to close the consulate. Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

U.S.-China relations sharply deteriorated in 2020, after three years of steadily declining under the Donald J. Trump administration. Beijing and Washington traded blame over the coronavirus pandemic, remained locked in a trade war, competed over 5G networks and other technologies, and clashed over rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among other issues.

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U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden will have to grapple with all these challenges from day one in office. In this roundup, CFR experts look back on significant moments over the past year that will have lasting implications for the relationship and offer their analysis on what to expect under Biden.

Trump’s China Gift

Elizabeth C. Economy, Senior Fellow for China Studies

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China

2020 in Review

Transition 2021

Hong Kong

COVID-19

The Trump administration’s China policy is here to stay—or at least that is what the administration is working furiously to ensure. In the weeks following the U.S. presidential election, administration officials have undertaken a flurry of activities related to Tibet, Taiwan, financial decoupling, and the South China Sea, adding to the vast edifice of initiatives they have constructed over the past four years. While it may appear as though these last-minute actions will make it more difficult for the incoming Biden administration, the opposite is true. The more policies the Trump administration piles on, the greater the leverage and range of options it leaves for the Biden team. 

The Biden administration will have the luxury of deciding how much to retain of what the Trump team has built. Some decisions, such as whether to maintain tariffs on $370 billion worth of Chinese goods, will be challenging. The tariffs have hurt the U.S. economy, but they have also given the United States economic leverage. Moreover, unwinding them too quickly will leave the new administration open to accusations of being soft on China. Other moves, including reviving the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India, and Japan; elevating the U.S.-Taiwan relationship; and sanctioning officials and companies suspected of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, are likely here to stay. Some efforts, such as the aggressive prosecution of those involved in Chinese influence activities in the United States, could be maintained but tempered significantly.

The Biden administration could realize some quick wins by filling in the gaping holes the Trump team has created by abandoning traditional sources of U.S. leverage and influence. Rejoining international institutions and agreements, partnering with European allies, strengthening the United States, and reconstructing the U.S.-China diplomatic framework are likely all on Biden’s agenda.

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But realizing the benefits and rectifying the mistakes of the Trump administration’s China policy is good only for the first one hundred days. The true test for the Biden administration is what it will do about China in the remaining 1,360.

COVID-19 Accelerates the Downward Spiral

Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health

In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has intertwined with domestic politics to set it and China further apart. President Trump sought to deflect domestic attention away from spiking COVID-19 cases and protests triggered by George Floyd’s killing by contending that China should be held accountable for the pandemic and accusing the World Health Organization (WHO) of being Beijing’s puppet. The perception of China as the culprit of the pandemic and disruptions to global supply chains have led some U.S. politicians to demand a decoupling from China. Conspiracy theories about the origins of the outbreak, which were encouraged by disinformation and misinformation efforts from both sides, exacerbated mistrust between the two nations. At the same time, the pandemic has led to a significant increase in the proportion of American people with a negative view of China: an October Pew Research Center survey found that 73 percent of Americans view China negatively, the highest level since 2005.

More on:

China

2020 in Review

Transition 2021

Hong Kong

COVID-19

In China, the government’s ability to rapidly contain the virus’s spread, in conjunction with the U.S.-China diplomatic row, has solidified nationalism and anti-Americanism. Trump’s deliberate usage of the phrase “China virus” touched a raw nerve and elicited a nationalist backlash, leading to the expulsion of American journalists in China. Chinese state media outlets have portrayed the United States as a diminishing and hostile power. Washington’s perceived failure in global health leadership and bullying of Beijing have convinced even liberal-minded elites in China that the country should move to reduce the risks associated with interdependence with the United States. The Chinese public’s views toward the United States in May 2020 were significantly more negative than they were a year earlier.

Hong Kong Crackdown Inflicts Lasting Damage

Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies

The damage inflicted on Hong Kong’s freedoms in 2020—and subsequently on China’s relations with Western liberal democracies, including the United States—appears to be irreversible for the foreseeable future.

Beijing’s moves against Hong Kong have profoundly worsened U.S.-China relations, though they were not designed to do so. Beijing was undoubtedly aware that its sudden crushing of Hong Kong’s limited and struggling democracy would be costly to China’s relations with the United Kingdom, the United States, and many other powers. Indeed, the Trump administration has sanctioned Chinese and Hong Kong officials and ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special trade status. Beijing nevertheless felt compelled to act because of the embarrassing instability created by millions of democratic protesters in its prize special administrative region. 

The succession of Hong Kong–related edicts issued by China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, and its Standing Committee, as well as the prompt implementation of that legislation under the guidance of newly installed central government secret police and officials, have neutered Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, eliminated prospects for free elections, limited the powers of its independent courts, intimidated the media, intensified patriotism in public education, restricted academic freedom, and authorized totalitarian surveillance. The moves have created an unprecedented local climate of inhibition and fear.

This dramatic transformation will not be the end of Hong Kong as a global financial hub, as it has already begun to boost economic integration with mainland China. But it is surely the death of the democratic hopes of most of its 7.5 million people. President-Elect Biden, who some Hong Kongers have accused of being weak toward China, will continue to grapple with how to respond.

Tech Rivalry Intensifies Over 5G, TikTok

Adam Segal, Ira A. Lipman Chair in Emerging Technologies and National Security and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

This year saw significant escalation in the technology competition between the United States and China. Most important, in May, the U.S. Commerce Department tightened the noose on Huawei, cutting the telecommunications manufacturer off from critical semiconductor suppliers and expanding restrictions on U.S. technology. These measures dealt a severe blow to the company’s 5G business, and, as a result, several European countries announced restrictions on Huawei’s participation in their telecommunication networks. In addition, the Trump administration moved to ban the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat for national security reasons, which would mark the first time the United States widely blocks foreign information technology. While these restrictions have so far been halted by the courts, the Trump administration further announced its intention to limit Chinese telecom carriers and cloud service providers as well as restrict Chinese developers’ access to American mobile application stores.

Beijing is trying to insulate itself from Washington’s pressure. In recent months, it announced a new strategy to maintain economic growth and reduce its reliance on foreign markets and technology. The domestic chip industry is an especially important area of focus, with the government spending billions of dollars to support research and development, encouraging small firms to enter the sector, recruiting talent from Taiwan and conducting cyberattacks on Taiwanese chip firms, and exploring open-source technologies that could be beyond the reach of American export control laws. In addition, the Chinese leadership is asserting more political control over the technology sector: it issued new guidelines to increase the influence of the Chinese Communist Party within firms; blocked the IPO of Ant Group, one of the world’s highest valued financial technology companies; and unveiled new anti-monopoly regulations that limit the influence of the biggest companies.

The U.S.-China struggle over technology will not disappear in 2021. The Biden administration’s technology policy will likely be more multilateral and more closely tied to domestic economic initiatives, but still oriented toward competition with China. Beijing will not abandon its efforts to increase indigenous innovation capabilities and reduce U.S. leverage. Technology competition is now a defining element of the bilateral relationship.

China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy Hurts Its Relationships

Julian Gewirtz, Senior Fellow for China Studies

When Canada moved forward with its plan to welcome pro-democracy protesters from Hong Kong as refugees, Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu threatened the safety of Canadians in Hong Kong. Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming brazenly criticized journalists who reported on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted attacks at government officials worldwide and spread disinformation about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s leaders may regularly issue paeans to peace, bonhomie, and “a community of common destiny,” but these combative, strident figures have become China’s face to the world. The pattern of behavior is now widely known as Wolf Warrior diplomacy, in reference to the top-grossing Chinese film Wolf Warrior 2, an action-heavy nationalistic confection. This approach long predates 2020, but it has become the dominant note of China’s diplomatic interactions over the past year.

Why? Some have pointed to President Trump’s outrageous rhetoric, including toward China, and his America First foreign policy. There are some other connections to Trump; for example, Wolf Warrior diplomats regularly borrow the phrase “fake news.” But there’s much more to the story.

First, China’s leaders have committed to increasing what they call China’s “discourse power”—the ability to make the rest of the world listen to their views—and shouting loudly is one way to be heard. Second, China’s diplomats seem to believe that this strident, nationalistic tone will underscore the country’s newfound strength, putting a sharp point on its demand to be treated with deference. Third, their assessment that the United States is a declining and hostile power emboldens them to press harder and further. Fourth, these aggressive envoys reveal one consequence of Xi Jinping’s emphasis on what could be called “apparatchik machismo.” “Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” Xi asked in an internal speech in 2013. “No one was man enough, and no one came out to fight,” he said. These words might as well be the Wolf Warriors’ credo.

But the record of Wolf Warrior diplomacy has been dismal. Countries that have squared off with China do not seem intimidated, and attitudes toward China in countries such as Australia, India, and the United States have turned sharply negative. China has claimed its rhetorical blows are purely defensive responses to criticism from the United States and elsewhere. If this is defense, it is proving quite costly.

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