By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Amazon Fresh uses bins that would have been marked up 25% because of tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. But Ben Zhang, whose company Greater Pacific Industries imports them, last year shifted operations to Cambodia, where he could obtain them duty-free. He also found new supply chains in Vietnam, the Philippines, Burma, and Taiwan.
“I cannot predict the future,” he said in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly. “But we are hopeful that President-elect Biden will lift the tariffs soon.”
Like other local notaries, whether in trade or politics, many have strong but guarded optimism for how a Biden administration will bring stability and mutual growth back to China-U.S. relations.
Greater Pacific Industries, which Zhang founded, was able to import $40 million worth of personal protective gear last year to provide relief for the pandemic. But this year, demand for that is expected to fall off.
Former Gov. Gary Locke sees increased multilateralism, a willingness to engage China on human rights issues, predictability in foreign policy, and an existing relationship of mutual respect between President-elect Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“The fundamental difference will be working with our other partners and taking a more unified coalition approach to get China to change economic and trade policies,” said Locke, in an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly. “Unilateral trade policies have only benefited consumers of other countries—even those that are aligned with us.”
Zhang has similar hopes.
“We are hoping President-elect Biden will reform the trade relations with China and other countries, including the European Union, Japan, Korea, Canada and others,” he said. “Perhaps an indication of this is that [Biden] recently said he will re-enter those international organizations such as the WTO and WHO and team up with allies to pressure China to meet international standards.”
In February, China pledged to massively increase its purchasing of three types of exports from the U.S.—agricultural, energy, and manufacturing. China had agreed to purchase $137.3 billion worth of goods from the U.S. by October. In actuality, it had only imported a total of $75.5 billion—less than 55%, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Western countries like the U.S. want the China market, the strong middle class there,” added Zhang. “If you consider the buying power of China’s currency, it may have already passed the U.S. as the number one economy.”
He also said that, unlike 40 years ago, China has now developed its military to the point so that if foreign powers “don’t get what they want, they can’t start a war as in the past.”
The Biden administration will also adopt a multilateral approach in addressing human rights, said Locke.
“We’re not going to reverse course and jump all over the map so that world leaders are left guessing.” Nor will trade issues deter him from addressing human rights, he added.
At the same time, Locke said he has observed Biden and Xi together, and they show mutual respect and are candid with each other.
“Joe Biden believes in personal relationships and following through,” said Locke.
Multilateralism will also be important as the U.S. contends with a country that is set to become the world’s largest economy using a system of state-sponsored capitalism that has been a threat to some U.S. and western companies, said J. Norwell Coquillard, executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council.
“They run around the world and buy up German and American companies for the technology, for example. They buy them up, transfer the technology and then some of the companies go out of business.”
Coquillard added the Biden administration will “reach out to other allies to pressure China to play by the established rules.”
Noting that China is far behind in its agreement to buy U.S. products, and might blame their laggardness on the pandemic, he remarked that perhaps the quickest way to catch up would be to purchase Boeing aircraft.
Boeing has not sold a single airplane to China since 2017, he said. The reasons included the trade war with the Trump administration and the issues surrounding the 737 Max. But he also corroborated news reports that China still aims to become the world leader in the areas of artificial intelligence and aircraft manufacturing.
“They have plans to take over the world in those areas,” Coquillard said.
Still, he stressed, “China is on course to become the world’s largest economy and that’s a fact—so people need to get over this and move on.”
However, another factor influencing the relationship between the U.S. and China will be Congress, said David Bachman, a professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, in an email. Given how strongly critical Congress is of China on a bipartisan level, he said he did not think U.S. relations with China will change all that much.
“Republicans are set to make an issue of China in the 2022 and 2024 elections if Biden is seen as soft.” At the same time, “Biden will also be more likely to be focusing his limited political capital on domestic issues,” he said.
“Some tariffs might be reduced, and this might help trade a bit, but I don’t see major changes in the overall relationship or in Washington State China relations,” he added.
For Benjamin Lee, chairman of the Greater Hong Kong China Business Association of Washington, a Biden presidency might also signal a return to normalcy, in which Chinese Americans are not targeted for their ethnicity.
Earlier this year, the FBI paid him a visit.
“We just want to ask you some questions about your relationship with China,” the agents said.
Lee was already gloomy. His family’s textile business in China, which has run for five generations, had to lay off 30% of its workers in Southeast Asia in the past year.
He named a list of high-end department stores that used to carry his family company’s products. Some of them are shuttered. Others are reeling.
And it’s not just the pandemic. A generational shift has contributed to the decline in retail shopping.
“All the young people, they don’t want to go out,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has prevented him from hosting his annual gala to raise money for charity that also serves as a networking opportunity for Chinese and U.S. businesses.
When the FBI visited him, they came to his home.
“I told them to talk to my attorney,” he said.
Under the Trump administration, Chinese and Chinese Americans have been targeted by law enforcement as national security threats.
Under a Biden administration, such attitudes could change. His cabinet choices seem to indicate a shift.
The president-elect is “assembling a very, very diverse group in the highest positions,” said Locke. “He is breaking glass ceilings left and right, and it’s about integrity and competence.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.