As Biden’s approval ratings plunge, is he about to get tougher on China?

  • Tentative detente between Beijing and Washington may not last long as the US president tries to shore up support at home
  • While Biden is often portrayed by Chinese state media as a weak leader, observers say he shouldn’t be underestimated

In China, official media outlets often portray Joe Biden as a weak leader. The US president, who turns 79 on Saturday, has also been mocked on China’s tightly controlled social media – over his age, gaffes and plunging approval ratings – against a backdrop of strained ties and rising anti-American sentiment.

While many observers see these portrayals as exaggerated, they say declining support for Biden at home could pose trouble for a tentative detente between the two powers following talks this week.

Recent US polls have painted a worrying picture for the Biden administration, just 10 months in, despite positive signs of economic recovery such as falling unemployment.

Biden’s job approval rating hit a new low of 41 per cent in the latest survey by The Washington Post and ABC News over rising inflation and the coronavirus, which is still ravaging the US. It was down from over 50 per cent before America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

In a poll by NBC News last month, more than 70 per cent of American voters – including many Democrats – said the US was headed in the wrong direction, complaining about the economy and Biden’s inability to unite the country.

Beijing and Washington are at odds over a long list of issues, from trade and technology to human rights

 

After the Democrats’ defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial election this month, the Biden administration is “in a fairly weakened position” a year out from the midterms, according to Huang Jing, dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University.

“Apart from the newly passed US$1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the three-way Aukus security pact [between the US, Australia and Britain], Biden has not accomplished much either at home or abroad,” he said.

Huang said recent polls suggested the Democratic Party could face losses in the midterm elections.

“He could effectively become a lame duck if his party loses its majorities in the US House and Senate next year,” he said, adding that would undermine Washington’s efforts to reassure allies over its moves to confront Beijing and Moscow. “Biden is quite vulnerable now, which means he may have to act tough on foreign policy issues, especially on China.”

Zhu Feng, an international affairs expert at Nanjing University, was also concerned that Biden could take a harder line on China.

“There won’t be a reset of bilateral ties and it goes beyond crisis management because the nature of US-China relations has changed,” he said. “We are seeing some kind of detente, but it may not last long as Biden’s China policy looks set to be questioned during the midterm elections. In response, Biden will have to get tougher on China as he tries to strengthen his domestic standing.”

A virtual summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday may have helped to ease tensions. But Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, noted that – compared to Xi, who has just cemented his status at a key Communist Party meeting – Biden is preoccupied with domestic economic and political issues.

“Biden is facing a debt ceiling deadline which may shut down his government. The differences in the two leaders’ ability to execute could not be starker,” he said.

The US line-up at the summit – especially the involvement of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen – also indicated that Biden may want to play the China card to tackle domestic problems.

“The choice of Yellen as the only cabinet secretary other than [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken to be at the table next to Biden was interesting,” Luft said. “It indicates that Biden is increasingly concerned about the fall of the dollar against the yuan, which makes imports more expensive and contributes to the spike in inflation.”

Biden’s costly infrastructure and social spending agendas will add trillions to America’s national debt and some of it is expected to be footed by China, according to Luft. “It should be taken as a signal that Biden wants to shift the focus from the military dimension to the fiscal one. If true, we are likely to see Yellen playing a growing role in US-China relations over the coming months,” he said.

Huang from BLCU also believed Yellen’s presence at the talks sent a positive signal. “It underscored the importance of economic relations, especially fiscal stability, which remain a priority issue for both sides” despite rising tensions over many other issues, he said. “Ensuring fiscal stability is in the interests of both sides and neither side wants to see another 2008 financial crisis.”

As for Biden, Pang Zhongying, an expert on international affairs at Ocean University of China in Qingdao, said he knows China well and understands how to find a balance between exerting pressure and maintaining communication – including his direct dialogue with Xi.

“He has deliberately kept Beijing waiting as he manages to revitalise the American alliance system and firm up support from its allies and partners on China,” Pang said.

He added that the bipartisan infrastructure bill would likely give Biden a major boost at home.

“Beijing should appreciate that Biden is a shrewd politician who is basically friendly towards China and values US-China cooperation despite all his talk about competition,” he said. “Compared with Donald Trump, the Biden presidency still offers a window of opportunity for China.”

The official Chinese media line on Biden has been consistent. State-controlled tabloid Global Times declared him to be a “weak president” after his inauguration in January. After this week’s summit, an editorial in the nationalist paper trumpeted “China’s effective resistance to US bullying on all fronts”.

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said it was unwise for state media and others to underestimate the Biden administration. “The infrastructure law has propelled the Biden administration into a strong position,” she said. “I can’t think of why people may want to belittle Biden other than that it may make themselves feel good.”

Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that while Biden lacked the political capital at home to warm up relations, Xi also faced “tremendous tensions or uncertainties” ahead of next year’s party congress.

“China faces a multitude of daunting challenges including economic disparity, the potential bursting of a property bubble, unemployment pressure,” he said during a webinar after the Xi-Biden meeting on Tuesday. He also listed officials’ misuse of power, protests, environmental degradation, food safety and public health as being among the challenges for Beijing.

Huang from BLCU agreed that domestic issues loom large for both sides. “The US-China competition in a sense will be largely decided by a battle over which side is more capable of addressing their domestic problems,” he said.

Author: Shi Jiangtao, SCMP

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