On January 20th, Joseph Biden marked his first year in office as the 46th president of the United States. At this time last year when he assumed office, a number of questions swirled on the horizon of U.S.-China ties.
After four years of fickleness, instability, threats and sanctions under Donald Trump, would President Biden deliver the U.S.-China relationship to a more normalized track of dialogue and cooperation? Would Mr. Biden rescind or modify the technology controls that his predecessor had imposed from May 2019 on in order to suppress China’s rise? Would Mr. Biden steer the U.S. government away from its decoupling-based theories and press China instead to keep structurally opening up and reforming its domestic marketplace? Would Mr. Biden soften the Trump administration’s defense guidance which, as encapsulated within its Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, prioritized the “defen[se of] the first [western Pacific] island-chain nations, including Taiwan” and the domination of all domains outside the first island-chain vis-à-vis China? And could President Biden bring Washington to cooperate with Beijing on virus control and climate change – two issue areas that were manifestly in their mutual interest to do so?
A year on, the best that can be said about the Biden administration’s approach towards China is that it has stopped digging the bilateral relationship into a deeper hole than it found itself in.
In fairness, the administration deserves credit on two important fronts. First, was the satisfactory resolution of the Meng Wanzhou case (as well as the release of the ‘two Michaels’) which, if left to fester leading to her extradition to America, would have heaped unbearable pressure on bilateral ties. Just as important was the swift appraisal and reconfirmation of the U.S.’ ‘One China’ policy by President Biden in his September 10th phone conversation with President Xi. White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell’s reconfirmation of the accompanying Taiwan Straits policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ was also timely. Had the policy been switched to ‘strategic clarity’ (on extending defense obligations to the renegade island), as many within the Beltway - who should have known better - were championing, it would have struck at the very foundations of Sino-American relations.
On the other hand, the elements of continuity with the Trump administration’s anti-China policies far outweighed the points of divergence.
The Biden administration doubled down on Trump-era technology controls, expanding them in some instances. Its supply chain review policy was geared towards decoupling the American and Chinese economies on a more selective but sustainable basis. The U.S. military’s close-in air, sea and underwater intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes near China’s coastline continued unabated, and was supplemented in September 2021 with the signing of the AUKUS agreement. And although the Trump-era crusades on virus origin and supposed ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang were prosecuted with lesser ardor, the insertion of the democracy v. autocracy frame to distortedly refract the great international challenges of the day as well as the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics were unhelpful to say the least
As a result, U.S.-China relations continue to tread water in early-2022. Rather than uproot the Trumpian anti-China policies and polemics that have unleashed a veritable excess of Sinophobic energy within the Beltway, the Biden administration chose to more-or-less go with the flow in 2021.
Looking ahead, it is unlikely that much will change in the immediate months ahead. A harsh take on China in this year’s National Security Strategy should be anticipated, especially with the appointment of the White House’s new resident Cold Warrior, National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. More to the point, the Biden administration can be reliably expected to continue to structurally reinforce the ‘extreme competition’ tendencies in the bilateral relationship, while holding out tactically for opportunities of transactional engagement – be it on climate change, non-proliferation or global macroeconomic coordination. It is unlikely to summon the resolve to return the bilateral relationship to a more normalized track of dialogue and cooperation. And witnessing this diffidence and perhaps worse, the continuing hostility in Washington’s approach, Beijing too is likely to reciprocate the attitude by limiting cooperation to the lowest common denominator level.
Parenthetically, it bears noting that Democratic administrations dating back to Clinton in the early 1990s have lacked purposeful outreach to China during their first terms in office, for a variety of reasons. Their second term record, be it Clinton’s or Obama’s, holds out hope however for a markedly more cordial and productive Sino-American relationship if Mr. Biden can secure reelection – even in this post-Trump era of strained, confrontational ties.
In mid-November, President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden held their long-awaited meeting, albeit virtually. In his remarks, President Xi suggested that the two sides adopt a ‘peaceful coexistence, no conflict, no confrontation’ bottom line and sincerely adhere to it. For his part, President Biden spoke of the need to manage strategic risks responsibly and equip the relationship with common sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict. Fifty years to the month that Chairman Mao and President Nixon imaginatively forged a great bilateral partnership, President Xi and President Biden should now use their respective approaches as a common bottom line and articulate a new paradigm of ties for the next quarter-century founded on the principle of ‘stable and constructive coexistence.’
In his famous treatise of European peacemaking in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Henry Kissinger had observed that the essence of wise international relations was the transformation of force into reciprocal obligation by identifying a legitimizing principle of order based on a loose consensus on the nature of justice in the international system. Given the importance of their relationship to Asia and the world, both Washington and Beijing must rise above their parochial visions of ideology and justice and sculpt a bilateral consensus of a durable new era of ties. One that keeps tensions within a manageable range, prioritizes stability and coexistence, encourages communication, and privileges a constructive working relationship in areas of common interest without trampling on the other party’s system, values, and regional commitments.