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Foreign Policy

Biden’s China Policy Dilemma

Sep 18, 2021
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Seven months into office, the Biden administration has not announced any comprehensive review of its China policy. Instead of positive dynamics in U.S.-China relations, as had been widely expected, the high-level strategic dialogue is largely a stalemate.

The dilemma faced by the Biden administration regarding its China policy adjustment is directly related to the current state of U.S. domestic affairs. At bottom, it is the result of the rationale that underpins U.S. strategic competition with China — a rationale that runs counter to the prevailing trend of international relations.

In their major power relationship, China and the U.S. always evolve in lockstep with the dynamics of the international landscape. Globalization has spurred the development of a multipolar world. Over the course of recent history China has achieved a peaceful rise, while U.S. hegemony has been diminishing.

At the same time, China and the U.S. have developed closer economic, trade and financial ties, and the world has increasingly become a community with a shared future. Since the late Obama administration, structural changes in U.S.-China relations have been afoot. These are a consequential component of the changing dynamics in international relations.

The National Security Strategy report released in 2017 during the Trump administration identified great power competition as the main challenge facing the United States in the new era, while portraying China as the main adversary, thus defining the U.S.-China relationship as one of strategic competition. Its train of logic was that a rapidly rising China poses the greatest challenge to U.S. global dominance.

Obviously, the essential goal of the U.S. strategic competition with China is to maintain U.S. dominance, or hegemonic position, as the world’s sole superpower after the Cold War. This is the logic of both the Trump and Biden administrations’ strategies regarding China. Disregarding historical trends and the evolving nature of international relations, Washington policymakers insist on taking containment of China’s peaceful rise as the main diplomatic strategy for maintaining U.S. dominance. Their logic and goals are both fundamentally flawed.

In a departure from Donald Trump, President Joe Biden seeks to show that U.S. foreign policy is more structured, so he emphasizes America’s position of leadership and stresses a return to multilateralism. On China policy, the Biden administration highlights “speaking from a position of strength” and having a “differentiated policy,” which means it wants to flex its muscles as warranted by circumstances. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put this message across during the U.S.-China High-Level Strategic Dialogue in Alaska.

Blinken listed three circumstances in which U.S.-China relations could play out in the now widely quoted “Blinken trichotomy”: a United States that is “competitive when it should be,” “collaborative when it can be” and “adversarial when it must be.”

An examination of the policy practices of the Biden administration, in line with the Blinken trichotomy, reveals five categories of U.S. policy objectives:

Category A Ensure U.S. dominance and strategic power advantage. The U.S. seeks to undermine and contain China’s strategic competitiveness, with a clear intent to engineer a selective decoupling — such as cutting off U.S. China engagement in areas critical to U.S. national security while rallying and pressuring allies to take joint actions. Within this context, U.S.-China relations are adversarially competitive, locked in a zero-sum game.

Category BCurb the expansion of China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region as well as globally. The U.S. mobilized the so-called “democratic alliance” to attack, hinder and constrain China’s national affairs and foreign relations development in the military, economic, political, and cultural spheres in the name of maintaining the so-called “rules-based international order” and to tarnish China’s international image. In this context, U.S.-China relations are either confrontational or competitive.

Category CMaintain interdependent U.S.-China economic, trade, and financial relations. Within this context, bilateral relations are both competitive and cooperative.

Category DCooperate with China as necessary and appropriate on common global challenges. These include climate change, the global pandemic, nuclear non-proliferation and issues related to strategic stability.

Category EManage differences between the two countries. The goal is to avoid any full-fledged conflict and confrontation arising from miscalculation or unforeseen events.

In terms of format, the Biden administration is trying to implement its so-called “differentiated” and “controlled” strategic competition. However, the past seven months have shown that the Blinken trichotomy has been practiced in each of the five policy goal categories without clear criteria or boundaries. Underpinned by the core objective of containing China’s competitiveness, U.S. policy tilts toward confrontational competition. The areas and issues where cooperation should be actively encouraged are largely overshadowed by the U.S. focus on strategic competition.

In view of the above analysis, it will be a tall order for the Biden administration to escape its current China policy dilemma so long as the mainstream view in U.S. policymaking circles opposing China’s peaceful rise remains unchanged, and the fact that the Biden administration has its hands tied because of the Democrats’ slim majority in Congress and enormous pressure from Republicans building toward the midterm elections next year and the presidential election in 2024. It is not a stretch of imagination that the current state of U.S. China relations will be the norm in the next few years.

(The foregoing is a speech delivered at a recent Taihe Civilization Forum. Some minor edits have been made for clarity.)

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