Donald Trump was happy to go it alone on China, using the power of U.S. sanctions and trade tariffs to make Chinese goods more expensive, punish responsible officials for human-rights violations and attempt to corral Beijing’s behaviour.
But with Joe Biden as president, U.S. allies, Canada included, stand to be called on to join the United States in acting on China. There will be new pressures to choose between a long-time ally who is a pre-eminent trading partner and a rising economic power whose government pays little heed to Western values.
Mr. Biden has pledged “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behaviour” that will almost certainly involve asking close allies to join hands on measures intended to rebuff China.
In part, that will place U.S. allies in a familiar place: The Trump administration made similar demands of other countries to reject Huawei technology. But in other areas, the Trump White House acted alone, imposing tariffs on US$360-billion in Chinese goods, and placing sanctions on companies and officials responsible for the mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang and the destruction of liberties in Hong Kong.
But Mr. Biden, and his designated secretary of state Antony Blinken, advocate a different approach. “We can’t solve all the world’s problems alone,” Mr. Blinken told CNN last year. “We need to be working with other countries.”
He has also repeatedly said, “The world does not organize itself.”
Mr. Biden, in 2017, described an approach to Russia with equal application to China: “To fight back, the United States must lead its democratic allies.”
He has shed little light on the specific tools he intends to use against China, but has promised to organize a “summit for democracy” intended to “forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values.”
For the Justin Trudeau government, that is likely to mean new impetus to take action against China. Ottawa has been vocal in criticizing Beijing, but more reluctant to act than Washington. It has stalled a decision on the use of Huawei technology, while declining to impose human rights-related sanctions on officials and companies accused of damaging human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
This week, the U.S. banned all imports of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang; Canada, by contrast, threatened only to pull government support from Canadian companies that use forced labour.
Under Mr. Trudeau, the Canadian mantra on China has been “challenge and co-operate.” With Mr. Biden as president, will Ottawa also be willing to confront?
On issues such as the use of Chinese technology, “Canada will be in a position where it’s being expected to take sides,” said Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau.
“And I think the choice is obvious.”
It is in Canada’s interests to work with the U.S., he said, to “build up a co-ordinated group of countries to counter China’s threats and bullying,” but also in hopes of securing other gains. In promoting supply chain security, for example, Canada could seek exemptions from Buy American policies in the U.S.
For countries injured by Chinese economic reprisals, a Biden White House also promises assistance over the Trump administration’s indifference when China retaliated for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, whose extradition the U.S. requested. Shortly after Ms. Meng was arrested, Chinese authorities detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who remain behind bars more than two years later.
“How have they helped Canada on that front?” asked Gordon Flake, who leads the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia. Under Mr. Biden, “what you’re going to get is real U.S. support,” he said.
Canada could also push for a rejuvenated U.S. role at global organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
“I want to see what we can do to bring America back into institutions,” said Paul Evans, a scholar with the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. “If we can get the Americans to confront China in those contexts, we’ve really advanced something that might make a difference.”
China, however, has shown skill in using international organizations to its advantage. In October, 39 countries signed a document calling for China to respect human rights. But nearly 100 signed documents supportive of Beijing.
“It’s impossible that the U.S under Biden will build a Cold War-style anti-China alliance,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.
He pointed to the recently concluded European Union investment agreement with China as evidence that wealthy democracies will prioritize economic gain with China over other concerns. “The EU’s deep economic and trade ties with China dictate that it cannot fully side with the U.S.,” Prof. Wu said.
And Beijing’s economic muscle is only growing stronger.
“Conflict with China won’t achieve anything positive for U.S. allies, particularly Canada, New Zealand and post-Brexit U.K.,” said Wang Yong, director of the Center for American Studies at Peking University. And outside the Five Eyes, he said, “U.S. influence is in a state of continuous decline.”
Even among groups of countries that share dim views on Beijing, a Biden administration is unlikely to find agreement to the kinds of strong action the Trump White House was willing to take alone, said Alex He, a former scholar at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
For Beijing, Mr. Biden’s promised tactics will be “no problem,” said Mr. He, now a research fellow at the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
“I think China is very happy that Biden won the presidential election.”
With reporting from Alexandra Li
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