No quick reset for the U.S.-China conflict
How will the Biden administration tackle this geopolitical challenge?
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World leaders gave a warm welcome to the Biden administration at the annual Davos conference this week, said Natasha Turak at CNBC. While President Biden did not speak at this year's all-virtual summit, his latest moves to "rejoin the global community," such as re-entering the Paris Agreement, were broadly embraced at the World Economic Forum event. But the real news came from China's President Xi Jinping, whose virtual-Davos remarks made clear that "the single most important geopolitical challenge and question mark for Biden" remains America's relationship with China. Xi lost no time in giving the new president a "warning against confrontation," said James Areddy at The Wall Street Journal. Carefully positioned "in front of a rendering of the Great Wall, designed to deter foreign invasions," Xi threatened that sanctions, "supply disruptions," or further "decoupling" between the U.S. and China could end in a "new Cold War." China has "signaled a desire to reset its relationship with the U.S." following a battering trade war and years of confrontation with former President Trump. But the acrimony isn't expected to dissipate anytime soon, as Biden hopes to "rally allies to challenge Beijing on a range of issues," from trade to technology and human rights.
The Trump administration left Biden a "ticking time bomb in the form of tariffs," said Chad Bown at Foreign Affairs. Trump used national security as his justification for imposing levies on nearly $50 billion in imported steel and aluminum in 2018. But any ruling from the World Trade Organization "could prove devastating for the trading system." If the WTO allows the tariffs, "it opens a giant loophole for any country to justify protectionism by invoking national security." But if it rules against them, U.S. populist politicians like Republican Sen. Josh Hawley could "spark a rebellion" against the WTO. Biden "has echoed many of his predecessor's complaints about China," and seems to think he can stay the course on tariffs, said Zhang Jun and Shi Shuo at the Japan Times. But as long as the Trump-era 25 percent tariffs on many Chinese-made goods remain in place, even the limited trade accord struck last year "will be fundamentally unworkable, and further progress toward a mutually beneficial trade relationship will be all but impossible."
Biden's trade vision may be one of the few areas where he and Trump have some overlap, said Yuka Hayashi at The Wall Street Journal. The new president fulfilled a campaign pledge this week with a "Buy American" executive order that echoes some of Trump's "America First" policies. Biden's order is mainly limited to tightening rules on government procurement. But other countries are "warily" awaiting details of exactly how the plan will be implemented, to see if the Biden administration strikes a tone that shows it "wants to cooperate with allies." Biden has to define "a viable middle path to shared prosperity," said Roya Wolverson at Quartz. It's clear "the isolationism of the Trump era did little to protect the American worker." But the pandemic's impact on supply chains underscored how a "lax approach to global market forces" leaves us vulnerable. Biden's challenge will be convincing Americans that "global openness and cooperation" can co-exist with protections for U.S. workers and interests.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.