As the poet Shelley once hopefully wrote, ‘if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ When it comes to China–US relations now, it seems that spring is quite far behind.
At the beginning of 2021, there were modest hopes. The good news was that Joe Biden had won the US presidential election. Trump’s trade war had sent the relationship into a deep dive. His manipulation of the China question for domestic political gain contributed to its further deterioration. His handling of the Taiwan issue towards the end of his term increased the risk of accidental conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
Biden is the polar opposite of Trump. He belongs to the US policy mainstream, characterised as professional, decent and cool-headed. Some believed this was a positive sign for China–US relations and held prospect a more pragmatic approach toward China. The Chinese government shared this view and signalled its willingness to work with the new administration.
After the Biden administration officially took office, Yang Jiechi, in charge of China’s foreign relations, said ‘it is a task for both China and the United States to restore the relationship to a predictable and constructive track of development and build a model of interaction between the two major countries that focuses on peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation’.
But many in Washington interpreted Yang’s message as an effort to blame the United States for the problems between the two countries instead of an expression of goodwill. On assuming office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defined the new administration’s approach towards China as a mixture of competition, confrontation and cooperation.
It soon became clear that competition would continue to dominate US policy towards China. Washington blasted China’s behaviour on a range of issues, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, the South China Sea and human rights. Blinken labelled China’s policies in Xinjiang as a ‘genocide’. The Biden administration also stepped up efforts to rally its allies to ‘push back’ on China.
Washington’s uncompromising posture drew frustration and anger from Beijing. Many in China concluded that the Biden administration’s China policy was worse than the Trump administration’s since it sought to create an international anti-China front. A tit-for-tat exchange between Beijing and Washington followed. At the two countries’ first high-level face-to-face meeting in Alaska on 13 November 2021, there was a heated exchange.
Despite some cooperation on particular issues, like climate change, the conflict between the two sides has increased. The issue that drew the most attention turned out to be Taiwan. Taiwan authorities’ efforts to push for independence coupled with increasing US endorsement and support elicited a tougher stance from China, which included sending military aircraft to patrol the vicinity of Taiwan. The vicious cycle of interactions between Beijing, Taipei and Washington increased the likelihood of a military showdown.
Against this background, the virtual summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden on 16 November was more about how to set guard rails for the relationship than exploring the possibility of substantive cooperation. Despite the summit, the relationship between Beijing and Washington continues to slide. The most recent bickering includes a US official boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, sanctions over Xinjiang and Chinese retaliation.
Why has the relationship evolved in this way?
The rise of China has elevated security concerns among US realists about China’s strategic intentions, especially in the light of China’s military moves to defend its proclaimed territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Political developments in China have also disappointed US liberals who had banked on the hope of encouraging political reform in China through engagement.
Trump’s race-to-the-bottom anti-China rhetoric provided a vent for frustration with China for both US realists and liberals alike and contributed to a political atmosphere in the United States in which being tough is the right and only posture when it comes to China.
Given the anti-China consensus in the US Congress and the slim majority the governing Democrats enjoy, Biden has had to remain tough on China to get anything done at home. This includes the appointment of cabinet officials, passing bills to contain COVID-19 and rebuilding infrastructure.
How the two countries interacted with each other, which was characterised by megaphone diplomacy for domestic consumption, undermined any goodwill that remained for stabilisation and improvement of the relationship.
In the short run, these factors are unlikely to change. The 2022 mid-term elections bode ill for China–US relations because the Republicans who stand on an even tougher policy toward China appear likely to win.
Under these circumstances, the Biden administration is unlikely to be able to advance a pragmatic approach toward China. Ahead of the 20th Party Congress, China is also unlikely to compromise.
The stabilisation and improvement of China–US relations is likely to remain a distant prospect for some time yet.