But in capitals around the world, foreign leaders are already clamoring for his attention, hoping to reset relationships and restore norms that shifted under President Donald Trump.
Nowhere will there be greater opportunity for a shift than in the US-China relationship, which has deteriorated to historic lows during Trump’s term in office. Over the past four years, both sides have slapped the other with trade tariffs, restricted access for tech companies, journalists and diplomats, shuttered consulates, and squared off militarily in the South China Sea.
Analysts in both countries are still debating whether Biden will embrace Trump’s more punitive policies towards China or move to reset relations between Washington and Beijing.
Even in Chinese state-run media, there are signs the ruling Communist Party is holding its breath, unsure of which direction the new administration will take.
As yet, no official policy statements on China have been released by the Biden transition team. Biden, though, is no foreign policy novice. During his almost five decades in national politics, Biden has repeatedly brushed up against China. As a senator, he played a role in China becoming a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Analysts are now looking back over past statements and more recent comments made on the campaign trail for insight into how Biden will approach what might be his most pressing foreign policy challenge.
Relations with Beijing
During the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president from 2009 to 2017, relations with Beijing were assigned a high degree of importance, stemming in part from China’s new status as the world’s second-largest economy.
Though China was gaining strength both economically and militarily, diplomacy during this period was guided for the most part by attempts at cooperation, rather than confrontation. Major disputes were mostly contained, and centered on security issues, such as China’s military buildup in the South China Sea and cyber espionage.
According to Obama, the relationship between two countries would shape the 21st century, and therefore stable relations were critical not only for the US, but for the world at large.
Biden traveled to Beijing on numerous occasions during efforts to gain Chinese support for a number of key Obama policies, including attempts to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In public remarks, Biden described relations in optimistic terms. “If we get this relationship right with a genuine new model, the possibilities are limitless.”
But despite accusations from the Trump campaign that Biden was too close to China, there is evidence that his views have shifted in recent years in line with the changing mood in Washington, where Beijing is increasingly viewed not as America’s potential partner, but as its primary rival.
“Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security, and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government,” the 2020 platform said.
One of the main planks of President Trump’s foreign policy platform has been his trade war with China.
Since mid-2018, the Trump administration has placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, in an attempt to drive down the US trade deficit with China and force Beijing to further open its economy.
“Manufacturing’s gone in recession. Agriculture lost billions of dollars that taxpayers had to pay. We’re going after China in the wrong way,” he said.
Instead Biden appears to favor building a global coalition to force China into liberalizing its economy.
“What I’d make China do is play by the international rules, not like he has done,” Biden said during his second debate with Trump in October. “We need to be having the rest of our friends with us saying to China, ‘These are the rules. You play by them, or you’re going to pay the price for not playing by them economically’.”
There are also signs that Biden may embrace aspects of Trump’s tech war against China. Under Trump, the US has tried to push diplomatic partners to reject 5G technology made in China, cut off Beijing from vital US components and targeted popular apps run by Chinese companies.
In the 2020 Democratic Platform, there is another hint that a Biden administration will continue Trump’s push to stop allies from using 5G technology produced by Chinese tech giant Huawei. “We will work with our allies and partners to develop secure 5G networks and address threats in cyberspace,” the platform said.
South China Sea
Both the Obama and the Trump administrations have pursued policies that pushed back against the Chinese government’s broad, unproven claims in the South China Sea.
Biden has made no major public statements on the South China Sea but there is no indication at this stage that he will reverse Trump’s tough policies in the region — he might even strengthen them.
In 2016 the Democratic platform referred simply to protecting “freedom of the seas in the South China Sea.” Four years later, it now explicitly warns of “the Chinese military’s intimidation” in the region.
Biden has reinforced his position on staring down China’s expansionist claims in Asia Pacific since becoming President-elect. In a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide on Thursday, Biden committed to defending the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both Japan and China.
Biden has long been in favor of US support for Taiwan and its democratically elected government. In fact, during his time as a senator, the President-elect voted for the original Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, which allowed the US to maintain unofficial relations with Taipei while also formally recognizing the Beijing government.
Biden hasn’t spoken extensively about Taiwan on the campaign trail or since beginning his transition. But there is no indication he is planning to back down on Trump’s policies.
Biden tweeted his congratulations to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen when she was reelected in January 2020 and she reciprocated when he won in November.
In a telling sign, the Democratic Party removed all mention of a “One China” policy from its platform in 2020, the agreement by which the US acknowledged that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it.
The policy, which had featured in 2016, was replaced by new seemingly updated language. Instead, the Democrats are now committed to continuing “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
Xinjiang and Hong Kong
Since the Trump administration took power in 2017, there has been a growing stream of reports of widespread human rights abuses in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
The US State Department estimates up to 2 million citizens from Muslim minorities, including a large number of Uyghur people, have been held in detention centers, where former detainees allege they were indoctrinated, abused and even sterilized.
In the past 12 months, the Trump administration has taken a series of punitive actions against China over its Xinjiang policies, including sanctions targeting Communist Party officials and bans on goods made possibly with Uyghur forced labor.
But all statements by Biden, his campaign and the Democratic Party point show little tolerance for Beijing’s alleged targeting of the Uyghurs and hints that a Biden administration will take further action.
Speaking about Chinese President Xi at a Democratic Primary debate in February, Biden said, “This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uyghurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.”
Exiled Uyghurs aren’t alone in their concerns that Trump leaving the White House would lead to the US backing down on its tough approach to China.
CNN’s James Griffiths, Steven Jiang and Jill Disis contributed to this story.