Silence from Putin, Xi on Biden victory as China considers next move

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Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at a Central Committee meeting on October 29 - Ju Peng /Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at a Central Committee meeting on October 29 - Ju Peng /Xinhua

Russia and China have yet to congratulate US president-elect Joe Biden on his election victory, in a foretaste of the tumultuous diplomatic wrangling likely to follow.

Incumbent President Donald Trump has yet to concede defeat and has sworn to unleash a wave of lawsuits to challenge the election result.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Mr Putin will take his time before commenting. 

“We think it’d be proper to wait for the official results,” Mr Peskov said.

He would not specify, however, what would be good enough for the Kremlin to call it official.

Asked why Mr Putin rushed to congratulate Mr Trump four years earlier and would not do the same for Mr Biden this time, Mr Peskov pointed to lawsuits by the Trump campaign as well as calls for a recount.

 “The sitting president has announced certain legal procedures… This makes the situation different (from 2016),” he said.

Russian opposition Alexei Navalny, who survived a nerve agent poisoning in August and accused Mr Putin of being behind what appears to be an attempt on his life, tweeted his congratulations to Mr Biden and Kamala Harris over the weekend.

He congratulated Americans on holding a "free and fair election" which he described as "a privilege which is not available to all countries."

Mr Navalny mounted an impressive presidential campaign against Mr Putin in 2018 but was disqualified from running.

Russia has enjoyed a smoother relationship with Washington than China over the last four years, though both authoritarian states have benefited from a waning US under Mr Trump. 

Mr Trump’s “America First” policy alienated both friends and foes and diminished Western alliances – a shift that gave room for Russia and China to expand influence globally.

Perhaps more noteworthy is Chinese leader Xi Jinping's decision to keep silent.

On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry said cryptically that it noted Mr Biden had been declared the winner but stopped short of congratulating him, adding that the "outcome of the election will be determined in accordance with U.S. laws and procedures". 

Under Mr Trump, US relations with China crumbled as the two nations sparred over trade, technology, the coronavirus, espionage and more. But Beijing took the long view that the benefits of a retreating US outweighed the short-term geopolitical pain. 

Mr Biden is a much more experienced statesman and has already pledged to encourage diplomatic allies to work in concert on challenging issues, which could be worrying both Beijing and Moscow. 

Indeed, he’s used the word “thug” to label both Mr Putin and Mr Xi while on the campaign trail. 

Silence from Russia and China signals potential resistance, and perhaps confusion – at least from Beijing – as to how best to engage the next US administration. 

Beijing is “used to having a concession speech – that’s their cue,” said James Green, a longtime US diplomat who served in China under the Obama and Trump administrations. 

“They have to come to terms with how unconventional Trump is, and that he’s probably not going to give a concession speech – and then when is the right time?” 

For Mr Xi, rocky bilateral ties means the optics of exactly when he publicly recognises the next US president are tricky.

“If China seems to be rushing to embrace Biden at this moment, then they would immediately play into campaign rhetoric – Trump’s criticism that Biden is China’s man,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

“But of course China doesn’t want to be seen as too stingy.”

There’s little to signal that Mr Biden will be softer on China than Mr Trump. On the campaign trail, the Democrat leader talked tough on China, going so far as to call Mr Xi a “thug.”

There are signs, however, that Beijing is interested in a reset with Washington. 

On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry again reiterated that the nations should "step up communication and dialogue".

An editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, said: “Bubbles have occurred in the US’ China policy this year where the Trump administration created tensions in China-US relations on purpose. We believe it is possible to pop those bubbles.” 

The state media outlet suggested cooperating on an emergency pandemic response could be one way for the countries to begin engaging with each other. A separate editorial in China Daily newspaper mentioned trade as a potential starting point. 

Another area could be climate change, said political science professor Mr Yang, noting that Mr Xi’s recent pledge to turn China carbon neutral by 2060 was perhaps in anticipation of a Biden win. 

Climate is an issue where both countries “would clearly benefit from interacting with each other, especially if the US rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement,” he said.

There are also areas that China has already made clear are off-limits, however, such as Hong Kong. The US, UK and other Western nations have criticised eroding liberties in the city, especially after Beijing imposed a national security law on the city, designed in part to curb pro-democracy protests that rocked the city 

While Mr Biden will have plenty on his domestic agenda when he takes office in January – including curbing the coronavirus, supporting the economy and addressing deeply divisive social and racial equality issues – he will also have to deal with China almost immediately. 

The first anniversary of the ‘phase one’ trade deal inked under Mr Trump falls around the same time as Mr Biden is expected to be sworn in. China has already said it will be unable to meet the terms of the trade agreement.

Experts say the broader, bipartisan wariness in Washington toward Beijing won't be changing anytime soon. Concern over national security risks posed by Chinese tech firms, such as telecoms company Huawei, along with espionage threats, haven’t dissipated. 

This may make it difficult for the new administration to negotiate with Beijing to reopen the US consulate in Chengdu and the Chinese consulate in Houston – both forced to shutter as diplomatic ties deteriorated to new lows this year. 

A Biden administration review of the US' China policy will almost certainly mean some sort of change in approach, however. 

That in itself may give Beijing a chance “to recalibrate how poorly they’ve been doing not just with the US, but basically everyone else,” said diplomat Mr Green. 

China’s ‘wolf warrior’ mantle – a more aggressive diplomatic approach – has in many ways backfired and ended up alienating many nations. 

Some swagger will remain, added Mr Green, as Beijing continues to crow that its political “system is working well, and in fact has worked better in controlling the pandemic, and economic management, than liberal democracy, which is just really messy."

As such, even if Mr Xi eventually does congratulate Mr Biden, he will probably offer fairly muted remarks. 

“Something that some in Beijing will certainly not want to publicise domestically too much is the example, once again, of everyday people choosing and possibly removing their own leaders via the ballot box, lest China’s own citizens get too many ideas,” said Curtis Chin, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. 

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has also yet to react to Biden's victory.

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