Webinar on: “Incoming Biden Administration: More Turbulence or More Predictability in US-China Relations?”

In this webinar, Prof Shen Dingli assessed how US-China ties have changed and where it is headed, highlighting the challenges in the relationship and areas where he thinks the two countries can still work together. Prof Shen also discussed the implications of the evolving US-China relationship on Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular, including China’s vision of a regional order and how it differs from the one envisioned by the US.


Friday, 15 January 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Incoming Biden Administration: More Turbulence or More Predictability in US-China Relations?” on Friday, delivered by Prof Shen Dingli. Prof Shen is a Professor and former Executive Dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, and former Director of its Center for American Studies. He is also an Honorary Visiting Professor of Washington University in St. Louis. His research and publications cover China-US security relations, regional security and international strategy, arms control and non-proliferation, and the foreign and defence policy of China and the US.

Prof Shen Dingli
Prof Shen Dingli envisaged that out of the 200 US-China Obama-era dialogues, at least 10 will be restored during the Biden administration. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

To understand the current deterioration of ties between the US and China, Prof Shen noted, it is useful to first examine the robustness of US-China ties under the Obama administration. US-China ties during this period was underpinned by two parallel high-level dialogues – a strategic/economic dialogue and a people-to-people/cultural dialogue, with the latter chaired by then Vice Premier Liu Yandong and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. By the end of Obama’s second term there were some 200 dialogues between the Chinese central government and the US federal government. There are, Prof Shen pointed out, little to no such dialogues between the US and China now. People-to-people ties have also suffered – while there used to be hundreds of flights per week connecting the US and China, there were little to no civilian flights between the two countries for most of 2020, much also a result of the ongoing Covid pandemic. Instead, US-China relations since the Trump administration have been dogged by a hunt for spies among Chinese students in the United States, the tit-for-tat closing of consulates in both the United States and China, a tech war, as well as mutual posturing over Taiwan affairs.

Prof Shen envisaged that out of the 200 US-China Obama-era dialogues, at least 10 will be restored during the Biden administration. A climate change dialogue, for instance, will likely resume between the two sides, given the need for China to purchase US technology in order to meet its carbon reduction obligations. A public health dialogue, in tandem with the US’s rejoining of the WHO, will also likely be pursued given the current interest in investigating the origins of the coronavirus in China as well as to coordinate the global distribution of Covid vaccines. Dialogues on the reopening of consulates in Houston and Chengdu, the resumption of travel visas, as well the US’s rejoining of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are also likely to happen.

There will, however, also be limits to this warming of ties under Biden, Prof Shen noted. Firstly, it will be difficult for Biden to reverse Trump’s policies on Hong Kong, given the bipartisan support in Congress for a tough stance on the issue. Any de-escalation, Prof Shen noted, would first require Beijing to reverse Hong Kong’s National Security Act, which is a highly unlikely event. Moreover, most of the restrictions imposed on Hong Kong in the wake of the National Security Act have been Acts of Congress rather than presidential executive orders. Given the current political mood in the United States, it would be unlikely that Congress would reverse these restrictions in the near future. Secondly, with regard to the ‘technological decoupling’ of the United States and China, Prof Shen pointed out that the continued delisting of Chinese technological firms from US bourses is likely to continue, with Biden unlikely to reverse Trump’s moves to weed out Chinese companies with alleged links to the military. Lastly, the Indo-Pacific Strategy will likely endure beyond Trump. Any attempt by Biden to abandon the policy will be seen as an abandonment of the US allies – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, etc. – which have embraced the policy.

The webinar concluded with a virtual Q&A session which covered issues ranging from the role of Southeast Asia in the future US-China relationship, Belt and Road Initiative projects in Southeast Asia, prospective developments at the upcoming World Economic Forum in Singapore, the Hong Kong, Taiwan and South China Sea issues as well as global reception to China’s  ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’. 

Over 70 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)