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International affairs

What does the 2020 US election mean for Australia and China?

Australia must brace for a “tough environment” going forward, as the tensions between the United States and China are likely to continue under the next US administration, Asialink CEO Penny Burtt told a recent CEDA event.

Ms Burtt joined United States Studies Centre Chief Executive Officer, Professor Simon Jackman; S&P Global Ratings Global Chief Economist, Paul Gruenwald; and Austrade Deputy Chief Executive Officer Global Client Services, Sally-Ann Watts, for a discussion about the US election and what it meant for Australia.

The livestream event was held after election day, but before US president-elect Joe Biden officially won the 2020 election.

Ms Burtt said the US would not step back from concerns about China, including unfair trade practices, intellectual property and activity in the South China Sea, regardless of who won the election.

“It would be naïve to suggest that the Washington-Beijing tensions are simply going to vanish under a Biden presidency,” she said.

“It’s quite clear that the level of bipartisanship and the range of tensions driving Sino-US difficulties are so broad that they are going to persist for the near future.”

However, there might be a reordering of US-China policies and a de-escalation in rhetoric from a Biden administration, the Asialink CEO noted.

“The US is going to face a harder road in our immediate region, made harder by the policies of the previous administration. What that means is that it’s quite a tough environment for Australia going forward,” she said.

Prof. Jackman explained that one of the legacies of the Trump administration was the change in the United States' strategic mindset about China.

“A multi-dimensional, multi-domain challenge from China, in particular for technological, economic, ideational primacy over the balance of the 21st century, is what the game is all about,” he said.

“That has been embraced across both sides of the aisle in Washington. Biden’s foreign policy team have that as a founding axiomatic starting point, they bring that sensibility to office.

“What will change from the Trump administration is the policy modus operandi for that – the way that defines policy footing will differ markedly.

“I think the tariffs on China will stay in place for the short term, [because] I think Democrats begrudgingly concede that that has rattled China’s cage and is a point of leverage that they aren’t in a big hurry to give up.” 

From an economic perspective, Mr Gruenwald said there would be few differences between the China policy objectives of the Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration.

He said they shared concerns around technology, data, health security and other areas, however their tactics and approaches would differ.

“Just to give you one example, the weaponisation of trade will probably be much less under a Biden administration,” he said.