If the first meeting between the Biden administration and Chinese officials last week underscored anything, it’s that the US and China are unlikely to be friendly in the years to come.
The two sides’ views of how the world should run are diametrically opposed — and competition more than cooperation will guide how Washington and Beijing interact for a long time.
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken told his Chinese counterparts at the meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, that the Biden administration wouldn’t accept an international system that runs on Beijing’s concept of power, which he described as “a world in which might makes right and winners take all.” That, the top American diplomat said, “would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”
But Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign affairs official, rejected that China should abide by the US-backed “rules-based international order” Blinken advocated for, which Yang noted is also “advocated by a small number of countries.” Instead, Yang asserted it was “important for all of us to come together to build a new type of international relations, ensuring fairness, justice, and mutual respect.”
The yawning gap between the two sides makes it clear: “This is the battle for the international system,” Elizabeth Economy, an expert on China at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, told me. “The challenge,” she added, is “fundamental.”
Which is why, even though discord between the two countries is higher now than it’s been in decades, most experts I spoke to said the Biden administration shouldn’t try to improve relations with China. Washington should instead push Beijing hard on issues such as human rights, military aggression, economic coercion, and much more. Anything less, experts said, would implicitly invite China to run roughshod over the world.
Progress can still be made despite the tensions. Where interests align — on climate change, North Korea, Afghanistan, and other issues — both sides can find common ground. But the American Enterprise Institute’s Zack Cooper told me cooperation for cooperation’s sake shouldn’t be the desired outcome. “The goal should be a results-oriented relationship,” he said. “What’s the point of discussion if we’re not actually going to resolve any of the problems?”
Experts said this isn’t quite a new Cold War, though it may feel like it. That’s because the real sticking points are about trade, technology, and the rules of cyberspace rather than the threat of nuclear annihilation.
This is a superpower rivalry for a new era — and it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.
“The relationship has deteriorated to the worst point that I’ve seen in the last two decades,” said Economy. While ties haven’t reached rock bottom, “we’ve got conflict in pretty much every single policy area.”
Engagement with China didn’t work. Biden is pursuing a course correction.
Engagement with China, meaning consistent and significant dialogue on areas of mutual interest, defined Washington-Beijing relations since the Nixon era. There was bipartisan agreement on that in the US, and recent presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both approached Beijing in this way.
Both wanted China to become a “responsible stakeholder.” That’s a wonderfully wonky Washington term that mostly means they hoped Beijing would come to abide by the global rules of the game on everything from trade to military affairs to international relations, even as the country gained immense power.
Instead of bullying or threatening China to force it to stop doing things like cheating on international trade rules, stealing other countries’ intellectual property, and grievously violating human rights at home (among other things), the strategy was to develop close economic ties with China and encourage it to become more integrated into the world economy. The hope was that would lead Beijing to start acting more responsibly on its own because it would be in its self-interest to do so.
That didn’t happen, though. Instead, China under President Xi Jinping became more authoritarian internally and far more aggressive on the world stage.
Among many acts, China has forcibly placed roughly 2 million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, stripped Hong Kong of its democracy, and turned Taiwan into a global flashpoint that could erupt into a much larger conflict.
And its aggressive behavior toward the US and its interests continues. Beijing has stolen US technological and personnel secrets for its own advantage, antagonized US allies in the South China Sea, killed or imprisoned more than a dozen American informants, and taken millions of US jobs over the past two decades. Most recently, China reportedly hacked America’s payroll agency.
The Trump administration, then, felt it was time for the US to correct course. “What do the American people have to show now, 50 years on from engagement with China?” Trump’s then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked a crowd at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum last month. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”
Trump’s team confronted China mostly via a trade war, aiming to hurt Beijing’s economy by displacing it from the center of global supply chains and barring it from exporting some of its technology to the US and partner nations.
That approach partially worked, in that some jobs in China moved elsewhere, Beijing suffered an economic slowdown, and certain allies were made more skeptical of Chinese technologies companies like Huawei. Trump’s actions also socialized the idea in Washington that competition with China was a worthwhile endeavor, even if his methods didn’t receive bipartisan support.
But most experts warned that the administration’s unilateral plan of attack, without significant buy-in from other countries, wouldn’t be enough to compel Beijing to alter its behavior. They were right.
As Trump left office, China, for example, proceeded to imprison Uyghurs and take more control of Hong Kong while doing little to change its trading practices with the US. All that bluster, then, didn’t accomplish Trump’s goal of fundamentally changing the way Beijing acted in the world.
Enter the Biden administration.
Biden’s China strategy is competitive by nature
Biden has been clear on the need to counter China. “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States,” he said during a February speech.
“We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance. But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so,” he continued.
Pushing Beijing to protect human rights and not use force or coercion to achieve its goals, while leaving the door to cooperate on areas of mutual interest, is the Biden administration’s China game plan.
“Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” Blinken said during a March 3 foreign policy address.
To do that, the Biden administration has two main plays.
First, they hope to enlist allies and partners in an international effort to compel Beijing to change its ways. Biden firmly believes the US will only get the upper hand on China by proving it has a coalition of friends willing to thwart Beijing’s most troublesome policies in unison.
Think of it like a geopolitical gang-up: the US and its crew versus a mostly lonely China. “We need to rally the democratic world together more than ever,” a former Biden staffer told me last year. “It’ll be a democratic alliance to save the world.”
Biden’s meeting earlier this month with “the Quad” — a coalition of anti-China nations featuring India, Australia, and Japan — is case in point. While they don’t openly say the express aim of the group is to counter Beijing’s actions in the Indo-Pacific, most experts say that is very clearly the point of the group.
Second, the Biden administration wants to revitalize America at home. That means, among other things, improving the nation’s democracy, pursuing racial equity, becoming more competitive economically and technologically, and rebuilding trust in the US as the world’s leader.
This is an important part of the China plan, experts say. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, DC. “It’s a whole issue of rejuvenating America.”
The thinking, most experts and US officials note, is that a stronger America working in lockstep with allies will give it more leverage to challenge China’s aggressions and influence when working with Beijing on shared concerns.
The problem with this competitive approach, some assert, is that it limits the opportunities for the US and China to build trust with one another. Which means the potential for conflict — even a military skirmish over Taiwan or in the South China Sea — remains very real.
Another concern is that treating China like an enemy could further fuel anti-Asian sentiment and even hate crimes, which are already on the rise in the US.
“When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who look Chinese,” Russell Jeung, a history professor at San Francisco State University who helped found Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, told the Washington Post last week. “American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians.”
Biden has tried to address this, including by ordering the federal government not to use the kind of racist language Trump often used when discussing the coronavirus, and has called the recent rise in “vicious hate crimes” against Asian Americans “un-American.”
But some experts worry that despite the change in rhetoric, the administration’s framing of China as an adversary still risks engendering anti-Chinese and anti-Asian prejudice.
“Biden and Trump have very different tones on China,” said Van Jackson, a former Obama Pentagon official for Asia. “[National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan hasn’t and isn’t going to say ‘kung flu’ racist bullshit, for example. But beyond the more restrained rhetoric, the only difference seems to be a desire to leverage allies and multilateralism to take on China.”
“We can oppose and mitigate undesirable Chinese conduct in foreign policy without a narrative of strategic competition or ideological rivalry,” he continued.
Yet most experts I spoke to still believe it’s critical that the US confront China. “I don’t see seeking a better relationship as a goal in and of itself,” said CSIS’s Glaser. “If the Chinese see that, they will take advantage of it and see the US as weak.”
It seems that the Biden administration agrees. On Monday, for example, the US alongside its allies announced sanctions on two Chinese officials for “serious human rights abuses” against the Uyghurs.
“The administration has identified its overall orientation, and they’re very comfortable with it,” said Hoover’s Economy.