How will the U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris, approach U.S.-China relations?

Over the past several months, countless scholars and policy analysts have put forward predictions and recommendations for how the Biden administration might approach relations with China. Will Washington send an olive branch to Beijing in the interest of containing the spread of COVID-19? Will the administration work with China to curb global carbon emissions? What steps will Biden take to forestall the descent into a new Cold War?

Often overlooked in this discussion is the role that the Vice President will play in the crafting of American foreign policy. Biden and his team are entering the White House amid severe domestic challenges — from COVID-19 and an economic recession to an accelerated decay in American democracy. While the President’s hands will be tied at home, the Vice President may assume a greater role in foreign affairs. During the Obama years, by comparison, the President faced off against a slow economic recovery and drawn-out political gridlock, so it was the Vice President that famously spent “more time” with China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping than any other world leader. Now, in 2021, it is worth considering how the new Vice President might approach relations with Beijing.

It goes without saying that the bilateral relationship with China will be one of the most significant foreign policy issues of the United States for the foreseeable future. By many accounts, the United States and China have entered a period of great power rivalry. Competition has intensified across all aspects of the relationship, from trade and technology to global governance and strategic domains. In many cases, China is narrowing the power gap with the U.S. The U.K.’s Center for Economics and Business Research, for example, predicts that China’s economy will overtake the U.S.’ in dollar terms by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast. Going forward, the Vice President’s style of engagement with Chinese leaders will greatly affect whether or not the two countries’ are able to effectively manage intensified competition.

Harris’ record on China policy reveals her largely principled view of foreign affairs. As a Senator, Harris co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which permit the use of sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations. In her own words, the Vice President claims, “We [the administration] will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won’t allow human rights abuses to go unchecked.” In this way, Harris’ worldview can be characterized as a continuation of the liberal tradition in American politics, one that seeks to promote democratic values abroad.

When asked to describe the most important foreign policy achievement of the United States since the end of World War II, Harris cited “the post-war community of international institutions.” In this spirit, the Vice President is expected to reaffirm America’s commitment to multilateralism in the form of institutions — like NATO and the WHO — and revitalize international agreements — like the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement.

Despite her predilection toward values-based foreign policy, Harris is far from insensitive to economic and strategic concerns. During the Vice Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October, the then-democratic nominee argued that the Trump administration had “lost” the trade war with China. Harris characterized the administration’s unilateral tariff policies as self-defeating, while voicing support for addressing China’s trade violations within international bodies like the WTO. In conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019, Harris similarly suggested that the U.S. “work with allies in Europe and Asia to confront China on its troubling trade practices.” Forming this kind of joint coalition could enable the new administration to strike a stronger bargain with Beijing and, ultimately, prove even tougher on China than the administration before it.

In this way, the Vice President’s liberalism cannot be separated from her strategic thinking. Harris recognizes that upholding American values and related institutions sustains U.S. credibility and attracts allies. As such, the Vice President has recommended forging stronger ties with neglected partners in Africa to preempt “illiberal countries” from laying the ground rules there.

The rub, of course, is that a principled foreign policy risks alienating so-called illiberal counterparts just as it may bring like-minded parties closer together. If the U.S. insists, for instance, that China alter its behavior with respect to core sovereignty interests — in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Tibet — cooperation in other areas may be hard to come by, even on issues where the U.S. and China largely agree.

Looking back, it is clear that relations between Washington and Beijing remained stable during the Obama years largely as a result of the circumscribed scope in which engagement was carried out. While climate change and the economy remained front-rank issues, human rights and strategic concerns were relegated to secondary importance. It is within this context that the U.S. effectively coordinated with China during the financial crisis and signed several joint resolutions on climate change. On the other hand, the administration was unable to restrain China’s militarization of the South China Sea or put an end to state-sponsored cyberattacks on U.S. personnel and organizations. What this means for the incoming administration is that joint talks will have to proceed along parallel tracks whereby mutual differences can coexist with concrete progress on other issues. This approach may be best summarized with the Chinese idiom, “harmony through difference” (和而不同).

Over the next four years, the Vice President is expected to bring noticeable changes to the U.S.-China relationship, but her leadership is unlikely to significantly alter its long-term trajectory. While the form of engagement may shift — from bilateralism to multilateralism — and the focus of negotiations could change — from the U.S. trade deficit to climate change or human rights — U.S. relations with China are likely to remain fraught for decades to come.

The views expressed in the attached article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center.

Nathaniel Sher
Nathaniel Sher
Nathaniel Sher is a Research Assistant at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. He writes about U.S.-China relations, tech policy, and global governance. Nathaniel received his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.