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Foreign Policy

‘Adaption’ is the Keyword

Feb 08, 2021
  • An Gang

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

Donald Trump has finally left the White House, much to the relief of many within China. During his four-year presidency, his “America first” policies and unscrupulous behavior decimated China-U.S. relations, while simultaneously drawing the United States into severe civil strife.

Because of China’s forceful responses, as well as the unexpected outbreak of the coronavirus, the U.S. administration failed to contain a rising China. Instead, it led the U.S. to a crushing strategic defeat, undermining various advantages it had long held in the complex relationship.

It now appears that the Trump administration had no strategy at all, let alone the capability to deal with specific issues in a dignified manner. Its foreign policy was built on personal intuition and right-wing sentiments, and was intended to serve the interests of politicians in a small faction. It was therefore doomed to collapse in an attempt to defy history.

Nevertheless, Trump has bequeathed certain “legacies” to China-U.S. relations. The end of Washington’s decadeslong strategy of engaging with and transforming China lies at the core of the Trump administration’s policy changes. As a result, the U.S. has shifted toward a great-power rivalry with China on all fronts. China was forced to react to the multiple provocations of the Trump administration, and fierce struggles have enabled it to expand its approaches, boost its confidence, build up internal consensus and form new strategic visions.

As the Trump era ends, China-U.S. relations have been renewed, regardless of whether U.S. policy wonks and legislators are willing to admit it or not.

Relations are renewed, because historic changes are taking place in the balance of power between China and the U.S.. China is now able to contend with the U.S. for global leadership in some fields. It is now equipped with solid strengths to fight moves taken by the U.S. to undermine its interests and dignity, both on overall strategy and specific issues. Now, bilateral relations have shifted from a “weak-strong” model to a “strong-strong” one. 

Relations between China and the U.S. are renewed, also, because China has stepped into the center of the world stage at a vigorous pace. It now leads efforts to safeguard multilateralism, resist protectionism, reform global governance and promote regional cooperation. China currently plays a stronger, rather than weaker, role in the global supply chain because of the pandemic.

China, without exaggeration, is now a major player in the global system. By contrast, the U.S. has abdicated some of its global leadership responsibilities and will not be able to restore its battered reputation on the world stage even if it makes corrections in the post-Trump era.

Therefore, both China, once at the periphery of the global system, and the U.S., once at the center, are rapidly becoming pivotal in the global system.

Fresh bilateral relations are also seen in the fact that most countries and blocs in the vast middle ground between China and the U.S. refuse to take sides. They may hedge their bets (Japan, Singapore), seek “strategic independence” (European Union, India), or attempt to act as a balancer (ASEAN, Russia). The political paradigm of “two super powers plus multiple smaller ones” and the economic trend of “regional globalization” is increasingly prominent on a global scale. These two factors will underpin the fundamental China-U.S. rivalry for a considerable time to come.

China’s unprecedented ability to shape its relations with the U.S. is due to its new profile of strength. China is now able to take proactive action in bilateral agendas to influence Washington’s policy direction. Additionally, it can lay out sophisticated arrangements in the vast middle ground between China and the U.S. to gain leverage in struggles and bargains, making China more independent in its interactions with the U.S. Now is the time for China to actively determine the future of China-U.S. relations.

Discussions in Washington surrounding China policy will continue. However, differences and rifts between the Biden administration and Trump administration, no matter how large, are ultimately a matter of internal contradictions for the U.S. Biden will inevitably ponder foreign policy utilizing the conventional thinking inherited from Trump. U.S. strategists, now more aware that China is impossible to contain, are facing another problem that cannot be taken off the table. Does the U.S. need to adapt to the rise of China, and if so, how?

The U.S. has been mulling over this problem. Competing with China: A Strategic Framework, a report published by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in August, is representative of a typical way of thinking in the U.S. The report holds that the U.S. will go through five stages of grief in terms of how it sees its competition with China, including denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. The U.S. entered phase two at the end of the Trump presidency and will soon approach the junction between phases two and three.

Overall, there are two ways in which the U.S. may adapt its policies. It may carry forward Trump’s tough policies by stressing the underlying principle of containment. Conversely, it may adopt a more modest attitude, refraining from extremes, limiting competition, and pursuing pragmatic cooperation by giving China the respect it deserves as a global power.

For the time being, the Biden administration has neither the tools nor the will to stem China on all fronts. Instead, it needs to be focused on domestic “healing” and governance, thereby making the Biden administration more likely to turn to the second option. However, because of the characteristics of the political system and the strategic culture of the U.S., the handling of specific issues at the micro level has always played a large part in the adjustment and finalization of American foreign policy. Hence, there is still a slim chance that the Biden administration will lean toward the first option amid the present conflict between ideas and realities.

Adaption is not a one-way process. China needs to adapt to address three urgent needs.

First, it should align its words and deeds with its new profile of strength to truly match its status and position as a global power.

Second, it must objectively analyze current power dynamics with the U.S. despite the prominent trend of a “rising East and declining West.” China can do so by calmly understanding the limits of its capacity and properly arranging areas of cooperation and competition. Doing so will serve as a response to the U.S. reorientation toward a great-power rivalry, thus avoiding being trapped in this mindset.

Third, China needs to adapt its U.S. policy to fit the emergence of a more introverted, divided and antagonistic U.S. By fleshing out its “toolkit,” China can make its targets and approaches more enriched, solid and diverse, thereby delivering more strategic actions.

As the Biden administration steps into office, a window of opportunity has emerged for China-U.S. relations that may offer a brief respite. In this context, Chinese strategists have tested the waters by publicly voicing their views, holding dual-track or 1.5-track talks, and publishing articles signaling the intention to establish a new framework for bilateral relations built on proactive dialogue, effective controls and pragmatic cooperation.

However, because of the complex domestic politics of the U.S., unwritten rules for the transition of power and the entrenched and heated anti-China sentiment within the American electorate, these tentative moves by China have not received many positive responses. Moreover, U.S. strategists poured cold water on these attempts by stressing that there will be no reset of bilateral relations, instead arguing that the Biden administration will not use words like “stability,” “win-win” or “respect” in addresses and documents involving China.

Furthermore, during Senate confirmation hearings and other similar events, some military and political dignitaries nominated by Biden have even vowed to “defeat China” and have asserted that “we must not allow China to set the rules for the U.S.-China relations.”

The window of opportunity for renewed China-U.S. relations will be narrower and more limited than expected. This is because there is a significant chance that the China policy of the Biden administration will be more a continuation of, rather than a departure from, that of the Trump administration. Therefore, China policymakers need to work fast and seize every opportunity to arrange dialogues and cooperation, demonstrate China’s commitment to strategic blending and coordination of interests, strive to gain a clearer mutual understanding, reduce interference associated with ideology or unexpected developments and act tough toward new actions taken by the U.S. that harm China. By taking this proactive approach, a new line in China-U.S. relations will be drawn.

U.S. strategy toward China has been anchored in the concept of competition, a fait accompli that cannot be changed by China’s wishful thinking. But by taking the initiative, China still has the space and capacity to push the U.S. to further adjust its strategy. Accepting and adapting to a rising China could be a long, tortuous process. Before the U.S. can truly accept the fact that China is playing a key role as a major power in the global system, U.S. policymakers will feel both anxious and infuriated. Such sentiments might continue to dominate the handling of some specific issues. 

In any case, the state of America that Biden is inheriting from Trump, along with the current relationship between China and the U.S., is not equivalent to what Obama previously handed down to Trump in 2016. This makes it necessary for both sides to mull over what and how to adapt.

Historically, China-U.S. relations have shifted frequently, from a survival alliance in the 1940s, through strategic rapprochement in the 1970s, to mutual integration in the 1990s. Nearly all of these adjustments were driven by changes in the world’s overall strategic landscape.

This time, the driving forces underlying the changes in China-U.S. relations are China’s increasing strength and corresponding diplomatic shifts. Because the Trump administration failed to keep China pinned down, the U.S. will sooner or later be forced to adapt, even if it does not do so willingly.

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