The recently concluded San Francisco summit of the leaders of China and the United States — presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden — has achieved fruitful results. Not only was it of great significance for improving bilateral relations but it addressed major global concerns and injected some stability into the current turbulent world order. The focus of the summit was on restoring communication channels, expanding dialogue and managing risks. It sent positive signals for easing bilateral relations.
The outcomes of this summit are practical and deliverable. The two countries reached more than 20 points of consensus in areas such as diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges, global governance and military security. These achievements pave the way for further cooperation between the two countries, particularly making tangible progress on issues such as climate change, military communication, narcotics trafficking and collaboration on artificial intelligence.
The achievement is conducive to establishing effective mechanisms for China and the U.S. in managing the risks of bilateral competition and military escalation and contributing responsibly to their global role as major powers. The important points of agreement illustrate that the two countries have extensive common interests and that the relationship between the two should not be simplistically defined as “strategic competition.” Moreover, the current international community more than ever needs a stable relationship. The two countries should not disappoint countries around the world and should contribute more to global peace and development.
What needs to be recognized is that there are still differences between China and the U.S. — and an opportunity window for potential adjustments in U.S. policy toward China — but a fundamental shift in strategy is difficult to achieve. Through this summit, it is evident that the two countries have different interpretations of the so-called great power competition. While the U.S. emphasizes a reluctance to let competition turn into confrontation and conflict, it consistently approaches the issue from a negative perspective, unwilling to admit that it has a misguided position and strategy toward China. China, on the other hand, holds a different view, believing that great power competition is not the defining feature of this era and cannot address the challenges faced by China, the U.S. and the world. The U.S. needs a clearer understanding of the nature of U.S.-China relations and should make greater efforts to expand cooperation with China, rather than gradually falling into the trap of great power competition.
The more immediate challenge is that with the arrival of the U.S. election year the two-party system there will bring more uncertainty and risks to China-U.S. relations. Especially in the coming period, politicians from both parties will more aggressively play the China card, demonstrating a tough stance to gain political support. Republican candidates have crafted their political messages carefully to try to show flaws in the Biden administration’s China policy. Faced with criticism from competitors about being “soft on China,” Biden and Democratic politicians will also find it difficult to abandon tough measures against China.
Taking a longer-term perspective, regardless which party’s candidate wins the 2024 election, China-U.S. relations face challenges. From the Democratic Party’s perspective, since Biden took office, he has focused on investing domestically and increased competition with China — for example, in semiconductors and critical minerals — attempting to gain an advantage, consolidate its leadership position and impede China’s rapid development. Yet the Biden administration still hopes for limited areas of cooperation, engaging with China on such issues as climate change and fentanyl.
If the Democratic Party holds on to power, the basic direction of these policies will not change, but the logic and system will become more sophisticated. In particular, the “democratic coalition,” of countries, which was not successfully built because of the Ukrainian crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can be expected to be refined and improved, greatly increasing the pressure on third parties to take sides.
The current Biden administration, although there are specific policy disputes within departments, does not have core disagreements on the tone and focus of sanctions against China. There are only differences in the degree and means. If a Republican is successfully elected as U.S. president, there will be more changes in China-U.S. competition than if the Democrats were to simply continue current policies and adjust their framework.
First, while enhancing domestic investment, Republicans will also strengthen their portrayal of a China threat, combining internal difficulties in the U.S. with competition against China. For example, they will try to limit the number of Chinese students in the U.S. and sensationalize the alleged negative influence of Chinese companies in the country.
Second, with their tough attitude, Republican will create new points of competition against China to differentiate them the Biden administration’s supposedly soft image. The new government may build more barriers in areas such as artificial intelligence, military technology and even financial cooperation and investment. Or it may propose extreme anti-China policies to appease internal right-wing conservative elements, bringing more shocks to bilateral relations.
Third, communication channels between China and the U.S. may become unstable. No Republican candidate for president has put forward specific policy proposals to broaden the depth and breadth of China-U.S. consultations and exchanges. That said, at the local level there are governors and others who maintain a more neutral posture. This means that China-U.S. cooperation at the federal level may encounter greater difficulties, and any positive forces of communication may be more inclined to sink to the local level.
Faced with the varied challenges mentioned above, China and the U.S. should continue to maintain communication, deepen cooperation and leverage the leading role of the San Francisco summit. They should extend the positive momentum by keeping communication channels open at all levels, use institutionalized measures to manage differences, strengthen coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues and provide more public benefits to the world.
The two countries should deeply understand and adhere to the principle that win-win cooperation is the essence of China-U.S. relations. They should deepen cooperation in various fields as currently framed, explore prospects for cooperation on more issues and make efforts to carry out and expand people-to-people and local-level cultural exchanges, such as friendly city activities, scholar visits and youth interactions as they lay a more solid foundation for China-U.S. relations.