Hopes have evaporated, over the past six months, that a Joe Biden presidency would rescue American foreign policy. Instead of bombastic, hawkish Trumpism, the United States now just has toned down hawkish policy. What to make of all this for U.S.-China relations?
The first place to start is with the historic context of current U.S. foreign policy. Most pundits avoid this step and just react to current events thereby losing a realistic assessment of Washington’s foibles. But a sense of history provides essential perspective.
Back in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar Cold War, Washington had a choice for its future national strategy. On the one hand, it could take a breather, retrench, and adjust for the coming multipolar world. On the other hand, it could choose a path of unipolar hegemony. Mistakenly, the U.S. Establishment elite, on a bipartisan basis, chose the latter.
Thus, for the last generation, Washington - whether under Democrats or Republicans - shortsightedly sought to impose U.S. hegemony which it calls global “leadership.”
But the world does not stand still. International relations are dynamic as power and influence shift through the centuries. Five hundred years of Western domination began to end after World War II and today the international system has several great powers, as well as medium powers. A policy of hegemony under these circumstances is neither wise nor sustainable.
Five hundred years ago, the economies of China and India were the largest on the planet. China in the present era will be moving to number one shortly, and India has been on the rise. Meanwhile, the United States suffers from profound internal decay involving a crushed middle class, rising poverty, widespread illiteracy, drug abuse, rising crime and violence, racial polarization, and the like.
As a great power in relative decline externally and noticeable decline internally, Washington today does not have much room for strategic mistakes.
The U.S. establishment on a bipartisan basis decided to update the Cold War as a result of an extensive review of U.S. foreign policy undertaken 2006-2008. The Cold War update saw China as a rising threat and Russia as a significant challenge. This was the origin of the “Pivot” to Asia by the Obama administration. The objective was to better contain the Eurasian landmass with China and Russia as the targets.
Simply stated, Donald Trump continued the Obama policy but with increased pressure on China. Trump launched the trade and tech wars and shifted from Obama’s restrained rhetoric to aggressively hostile rhetoric and policy. Of course, as a consequence, U.S.-China relations plummeted.
Enter Joe Biden. It was expected by many that a Biden presidency would bring with it a moderated foreign policy and set the stage for improving relations with China. Given that relations were at a nadir, this was and is by no means an easy task and requires prudence, vision, and a cooperative spirit.
A half year into the Biden presidency improvement in relations is not in evidence. Sharp and undiplomatic language from Washington continues to suggest an underlying hostility toward China and its rise.
Interaction at the Alaska and Tianjin meetings indicated that Chinese patience with Washington has worn very thin. On the other hand, Washington’s mantra of human rights accusations as well as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang rhetoric continues unabated.
Washington, whether under Democrats or Republicans, seems to be in a state of some delusion and hysteria. A glance at Congress illustrates this with regard to China and Russia policy.
It is normal for incoming administrations to undertake searching foreign policy reviews. These are complex undertakings involving all manner of inter-agency activity in order to hammer out policy options. These policy reviews take a number of months to complete. China is the subject of one such review.
The tone of the first half year of Biden’s China policy remained sharp against China, though not as bombastic as during the Trump years. Biden maintained both the trade war and the tech war as part of the economic warfare component of U.S. national strategy. Biden continued the information war as well as the political war seeking to exploit Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan as weaknesses
On the military side, Biden continued the Obama “Pivot” of military power to the Pacific, now often called the “Indo-Pacific” by Washington. As part of this effort, Biden continued to tighten relations with Japan and other alliance relationships as part of containment policy. Additionally, Biden has tried to advance the “Quad” concept that aligns the U.S. with India, Australia, and Japan against China.
The Quad concept appears somewhat shaky as India poses something of a question mark. So Washington has tightened relations with Japan and Australia considering them more reliable partners.
Biden has tightened relations with Taiwan, raising the question of the status of the so-called policy of “ambiguity” by the U.S. on the Taiwan issue. Nonetheless, the U.S. has not recognized Taiwan as a separate state so far but, on the other hand, continues to build up Taiwan’s military capability. Biden’s diplomacy around the world has attempted to encourage countries to maintain their ties with Taiwan and for others to develop new ties with Taiwan, without much success.
So where does all this leave U.S.-China relations?
Evidently, relations are in a very bad place. This is not to say that improvement is impossible. In diplomacy, anything is possible given vision and competence. Thus, there is certainly the possibility for improvement of relations under Biden if a decision is made to do so.
The best way forward would appear to be in the trade war area. It is mutually beneficial to wind this down and to restore normal trading relationships. Billions of dollars and countless jobs are at stake. The trade war has increased inflationary pressure in the U.S. as costs to importers are simply shifted to consumers. So trade is definitely a good place to start.
Other forms of cooperation are also not so difficult to get going. The environment is a major issue. Various types of mutually beneficial cooperation can be undertaken with regard to global warming and to the health of the oceans, for example. These are not controversial and appropriate scientific exchanges can be immediately geared up.
People-to-people connections can easily be geared up as well. Cultural exchanges are not controversial, although in the education field they have become so. It is time for the U.S. to drop its very negative posture on education and scientific exchange. But exchanges in the arts can certainly go forward.
With new ambassadors in Beijing and in Washington, a fresh start on diplomatic dialogue can begin. It is essential that diplomacy in the interest of stability and peace be undertaken.
In sum, the first six months of the Biden administration has not seen improvement in relations but that does not exclude the possibility of improvement in the remaining years of Biden’s administration. Washington must be realistic and consider the changing international situation as context for improving its relations with Beijing. A change in tone and substance by Washington is essential to peace and development in this new era.