China on Friday congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for their election victory — one of the last major countries to do so — in a belated and measured response that analysts in Beijing said reflected the Chinese leadership’s expectations of a turbulent end to the Trump administration and a continued confrontational relationship with the U.S.
“We respect the choice of the American people. We express our congratulations to Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing, in the first acknowledgement from Beijing of the election results.
Mr. Wang did, however, stop short of either referring to Mr. Biden as the President-elect or assuming he would be in charge next year, and added that China “understands the result of the U.S. election will be determined in accordance with U.S. laws and procedures”, in an apparent acknowledgement of President Donald Trump’s ongoing effort to question the election result and mount a legal challenge.
Beijing’s delayed and careful reaction was in some sense a reflection of lessons learned from 2016 when “the Chinese leadership overwhelmingly, like the rest of the world, put their bet on Hillary Clinton,” Wei Lingling, co-author of Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War , told The Hindu , speaking earlier this week.
With Mr. Trump still in office until January 20 — or longer, should he succeed with legal challenges that most experts in the U.S. suggest face tall odds — China’s immediate objective was “to not provoke Trump even further”.
“For the Chinese, the next two months could potentially be the most dangerous period for the U.S.-China relationship,” Ms. Wei said.
Gao Zhikai, a strategic expert in Beijing who is Vice President of the Center for China and Globalisation, said he expected the election “will eventually settle down with Joe Biden as the finally legally ascertained President-elect”.
“Let us hope President Trump will come to terms with his presidential defeat and concede to President-elect Biden; let us hope President-elect Biden will use all the wisdom and courage to make sure that the U.S. will do the right things in working for peace, stability and development in the U.S. and in the world,” he said.
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“China-U.S. relations for the past three years and more have been poisoned and distorted by some people in high positions in Washington. China needs to stand firm on matters of vital interest to its principles,” he added. “China and the U.S. need to reengage and get along with each other. The U.S. will need to come to terms to the imminent reality that China will be an economy larger than the U.S., and an equally important country in terms of political impact in the world. It is important to reset China-U.S. relations as soon as possible, so that these two countries can get along with each other, and avoid coming to blows against each other.”
Few, however, expect a complete reset, and the leadership in Beijing appears to be bracing for a period of continued confrontation with the new administration in Washington, and for Mr. Biden to not only pursue many of Mr. Trump’s policies, but perhaps to do so more effectively.
“The Biden administration would pursue a more strategic approach, working with allies to confront China not just on trade but technology issues,” Ms. Wei said. “Trump’s go-it-alone strategy alienated a lot of allies. Where China dropped the ball was they could have moved faster in terms of cutting agreements with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, but time and again, they have proved they are not willing to make any kind of concession to anyone.”
“Two years from now,” she added, “Beijing will miss President Trump.”