China formally acknowledges Biden win, marks possible return of new major power relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday congratulated Joe Biden on his win in the US presidential election in what analysts call a well-timed, goodwill message, after China had adopted a cautious approach toward the highly disputed election results. This is believed to mark the likely return of a new major relationship between the two powers, following a tense period that saw bilateral ties in a downward spiral.

Congratulating Biden on his election as US president, Xi pointed out that promoting the healthy and stable development of China-US relations not only conforms to the fundamental interests of the people of the two nations, but also represents the common expectations of the international community.

“We hope the two sides will uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation, manage differences, promote the healthy and stable development of China-US ties,” Xi said, hoping that the two countries would work with other countries and the international community to advance the lofty cause of world peace and development.

On the same day, Vice President Wang Qishan sent a message to Kamala Harris on her election as US vice president.

“This is a well-timed message as US authorities have officially launched the transition process, which also shows China’s goodwill to cooperate with the US,” Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

This is also a message from China’s top leadership to the US president-elect, underscoring expectations for the two countries to work with each other in the future, Li said.

The transition period in the US has already begun, which is Trump’s way of “conceding,” some experts noted.

The congratulatory message came 18 days after US mainstream media projected Biden as the winner of the presidential election on November 7 and two days after the General Services Administration gave the green light for a transition on Monday. It also reflects China’s cautious approach toward the highly disputed US election results, and is in line with the stated policy of respecting the US election results and voters’ choice, experts said.

In the past, China has sent congratulatory messages to newly elected US presidents immediately after the election results were revealed, Yuan Zheng, a senior fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

“The chaos of the 2020 election has led China to choose a cautious approach,” said Yuan, noting that Russia is also expected to issue a congratulatory message soon.

Da Wei, director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that the timing for China to send the congratulations to Biden is proper for China – it is not too early or too late as the final results would be announced by the US Congress in January.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has still not congratulated Biden, media reported on Wednesday.

Four years ago, Xi’s congratulatory message to Trump was sent on November 9, a day after Trump won the election and Hillary Clinton accepted the result. Li Yuanchao, the then Chinese vice president sent his congratulations to Mike Pence.

Xi’s message also comes after the Chinese Foreign Ministry on November 13 offered congratulations to Biden and Harris, which did not specifically say they won the election.

In retrospect of the four-year term of Trump, he had maintained a good personal relationship with Xi for a while, as the strategic role of head-of-state diplomacy has been recognized by both sides, which played out its influence at a critical moment.

However, when the US entered the election year, Trump moved to contain China, which also led to the quick downward spiral of the bilateral relationship. As a result, Trump and Xi have not communicated with each other since March 27.

Still, some Chinese experts noted that China may make some goodwill gestures to Trump, such as inviting him to visit China after he leaves office, to avoid more extreme China policies in the last two months.

Following the leaders’ congratulatory messages, attention will be on how both sides will establish a communication channel and how to address the long list of challenges culminated over the past four years from a lingering trade and technology war to what Chinese officials call US meddling of China’s internal affairs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Some Chinese consider Biden as “an old friend,” as his visit to China, including watching a basketball match, bringing his Chinese-learning granddaughter to China and visiting suffering people from then earthquake-stricken Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, have left a positive imprint in some people’s memories.

Some Chinese experts on strategic politics said the rationality of the Biden administration could help China and the US break the current dilemma, which has brought the bilateral ties to “a freezing point.”

The message Xi sent to Biden underscores China’s understanding of the new type of major power relationships that has been put forward in the Obama era. Such message to Biden can be seen as an extension from the Obama era.

Xi’s congratulatory message expresses the hope that the new US administration would properly handle China-US relations, return to the track of win-win cooperation, get out of the trough and achieve healthy competition, Yuan noted.

“This is also China’s consistent position of hoping to develop a new model of major-country relations,” said Yuan.

China has always attached importance to the leading role of top leaders of China and the US in bilateral ties. Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the Global Times that the working relationship and friendship between the two leaders started when they were both vice presidents of the two countries, and this will be helpful, but China-US ties have been damaged seriously and have become increasingly sensitive and complicated, so “we also need to be cautious.”

In his congratulatory message to Biden, Xi also reaffirmed the content of a new type of major power relationships – “the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” – an idea to shape the bilateral relations that China first initiated in Obama’s term.

In Obama’s time, the US at least respected the idea, but the Trump administration has totally overthrown it and launched a great power competition against China, so the idea was not even mentioned that much in recent years, Jin said, adding that “to reaffirm the idea, China is showing its clear expectations to the incoming Biden administration. But to what extent Biden would respond remains a question.”

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