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Foreign Policy

A Look at America’s China Review

Jun 10, 2021
  • An Gang

    Research Fellow, Center for International Strategy and Security, Tsinghua University

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The new U.S. administration has been reviewing its China policy since President Joe Biden took office. And now the review enters its second half.

In the two-month first half of the review, the administration set the tone for long-term strategic competition with China, established the principle of beginning at home and setting the goal of rebuilding the middle class. It stressed that strategic competition with China must be bounded and managed to avoid disaster.

Such a framework for long-term strategic competition bears resemblances and differences to Trump’s savage competition. The difference lies in Biden’s emphasis on reinvigorating institutional confidence and innovative strengths by managing America’s own affairs rather than trying to crush its rivals. The two administrations are similar in the fact that when talking about domestic and foreign affairs, they always refer to the China challenge as the overall driving force for U.S. policy changes at home and abroad.

In the last days of the Trump administration, antagonizing China became a feature of its U.S.-China policy, and the White House and State Department took suppressive, nearly hysterical, statements and actions towards China. This contrasts with the Biden administration, which regards China as a serious, long-term adversary, but won’t exclude cooperation.

During the first half of its China policy review, the Biden administration followed the bounded strategic competition framework, focusing on four major actions:

The first was to clear out the Trump administration’s legacy on China, discarding some approaches and continuing others. The chaotic tactics involving trade wars were abandoned or shelved, while others are continuing or expanding. These instances include, as a cover, sanctions or restrictions on Chinese companies, officials and national security figures, unfair competition, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and human rights issues. Although the U.S. denies that it can fully decouple from China, the Biden administration has actually excelled in reviewing supply chains and promoting selective decoupling in the technology sector.

The second action was to tighten America’s global strategy. The U.S. withdrew ground forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan, negotiated symbolic interventions in Myanmar and focused on upgrading the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has a more clarified goal of containing and curbing China, as well as more diverse measures.

The third action was to coordinate with allies on policies to curb China under the banner of values and multilateralism. Although this kind of coordination did not induce France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India or other U.S. allies to explicitly pick sides, it made them evaluate the idea of their relationship with the U.S. overweighing the one with China.  This was particularly true in regard to transatlantic relations. The Biden administration leveraged Xinjiang-related issues and instigated U.S.-EU coordinated sanctions, which resulted in the suspension of ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement for Investment by the European Union parliament and driving a wedge into the ever-deepening China-EU cooperation.

The fourth action was to prioritize climate change in China-U.S. cooperation. The Biden administration reactivated the global agenda on climate change as a starting point to re-establish U.S. leadership globally. John Kerry, the presidential envoy for climate affairs, immediately contacted China’s climate team. He then visited Shanghai to make concessions on schedules for peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality. Later, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended Biden’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate via video link. Currently, the Chinese and U.S. climate teams maintain close communication, and the focus of discussion shifted to the implementation of peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality goals.

The meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, of top diplomats from both countries was an important sign that the Biden Administration’s review of its China policy had moved into its second half. After the meeting, the U.S. bolstered its policy mobilization and layout towards China, positioning it as long-term strategic competition.

The reexamination in the second half is an intertwined and coherent situation where the layout inside the court combines with the legislation outside the court. The Biden administration promotes bounded and managed competition, with a focus on science and technology, military and values. The Congress fast-tracked ill-disposed legislation concerning China in which the Biden administration and lawmakers from both parties stretch the rules. Critics say the Democratic Biden administration seems to view an aggressive China policy as a way to find common ground with Republicans, and that China policy has become an area of bipartisan cooperation.

As of April this year, a total of 366 China-related bills are in the queue in Congress, including the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, the Endless Frontier Act and the CHIPS for America Act (as part of the American Jobs Plan that Biden promotes). These Acts integrate with the review and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (S.1260), launched as a substitute amendment, with more than 1,400 pages. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, this is the most significant China-related legislative activity, and it has far-reaching significance. These legislative acts will greatly affect the long-term strategy of the U.S. toward China and deform China-U.S. relations.

The Taiwan question stands out in the second half of Biden’s China policy review. The focus here is whether the status quo is no longer sustainable and whether the U.S. will shift to strategic clarity. Regardless of the results, the U.S. side has identified the Taiwan question as the most dangerous source of conflict in China-U.S. relations at the moment and in the near future, followed by the South China Sea.

Accordingly, the U.S. military wishes to establish command-level communications with its Chinese counterpart, but the communication it promotes focuses on the control of military conduct at a technical level, rather than demonstrating good faith in strategic coordination.

It is difficult to resume trade negotiations in the second half. On May 27 and June 2, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen held a phone conversation with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for the first time. But the Biden administration has not agreed internally how to handle the Trump tariff legacy. There is also the changing macroeconomic situation, U.S. dollar deficiencies, the diminishing effect of social relief measures and inflationary pressures affecting U.S. judgment. Overall, the U.S. side has not shown a sense of urgency to restart negotiations.

If trade talks could be restarted, it would form a two-wheel drive scenario, together with climate talks, which jointly play a role in stopping the slide in bilateral relations. However, both negotiations concern vital interests of growth and are thus unlikely to be easily achieved. Judging by the V-shaped rebound in China-U.S. trading over the past year, even if  U.S. tariffs on imports from China returned to normal levels, it would be immediately translated into “politically incorrect,” with the U.S. trade deficit sharply widened.

The second half of Biden’s China policy review may not see a significant resumption of high-level contacts, exacerbating the drifting state of bilateral relations. The deactivation of high-level exchanges is not only due to the actual state of the U.S.-China relationship and the change in Biden’s own perception  but is also relevant to the reset of U.S.-Russia relations. Biden has strategized against Russia since he took office. He quickly reached an agreement with Russia on the extension of the New START treaty, and used tensions on Ukraine’s eastern border to play up the “Russian threat” as he reinvigorated transatlantic relations.

Then, in the complex U.S.-EU-Russia interaction, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project was given a green light, right before U.S. and Russian leaders decided to meet in Switzerland in June. The focus of their summit will be European security and global strategic stability.

When it proves difficult to comprehensively improve U.S.-Russia relations, the Biden administration plans to stabilize its European allies, avoid extreme hostility with China and Russia and limit the scope and pace of movement toward a China-Russia moving toward an alliance.

As for the review of America’s China policy, the alignment of strategic competition was established, and remains controversial, in its emphasis on ideological conflicts. The U.S. strategic community has been tempted to compare the competition between China and the U.S. to a contest between a liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Some already realize that this will strengthen both countries’ domestic mobilization to antagonize each other, which is not logically consistent with the original intention of avoiding a new cold war. The reality is that with COVID-19 as the catalyst the narrative of “institutional conflict” is promoted in both China and the U.S., which has an irreversible impact on the concrete policies of both countries.

According to U.S. media, the Biden administration’s China policy review will conclude this summer. It seems that in the limited time before that, overall bilateral relations will not significantly improve. On the contrary, they may continue to spiral downward as a result of specific events, such as redoubling efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19. It should be noted that with the Biden administration’s review of its China policy, the outcome was conceived before it was conducted. For China, rather than keeping track of the review, it is more important to be prepared for the action that follows and the official opening of the era of competition.

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