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The Four Paths of US-China Relations

There is little question that the future of US-China relations will depend heavily on who leads each country in the years ahead. But in thinking about that future, it would be a mistake simply to assume that the US is heading for a changing of the guard, or that China is fated to have continuity at the top.

ANN ARBOR – There is no bilateral diplomatic relationship more consequential than the one between the United States and China, which affects not only the two countries but all of humanity. And now, the future of this relationship hinges on who will lead each country in the years ahead.

In the US, the next presidential election is barely two months away, and – barring complications – either the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, will be sworn in on January 20, 2021. In China’s case, however, almost everyone assumes that President Xi Jinping will hold the reins of power indefinitely. But while a change in the top Chinese leadership seems improbable, it is not impossible. As such, we should really be considering the possibility of four separate scenarios in Sino-American relations.

First, suppose that Biden wins and China remains under Xi’s leadership for the long term. In a commentary for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden promised that his main foreign-policy priority as president would be to restore America’s global leadership and democratic alliances. He wants to invest in infrastructure, education, and research and development. With a Biden administration, one could expect less drama and inflammatory rhetoric toward China.

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