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Foreign Policy

Drain the China-U.S. Swamp

Nov 19, 2020
  • An Gang

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

China US cartoon.jpg

U.S. President Donald Trump, still refusing to concede the 2020 election as of this writing, has a penchant for the phrase “drain the swamp.” Four years ago, Trump campaigned to drain the swamp in Washington, vowing to eliminate the influence of special interests and lobbyists, fight political corruption and break down barriers the establishment had erected.

Unfortunately, Trump failed to fulfill his promise over the past four years; rather, he was devoured by the swamp in Washington. His failure to win reelection partly resulted from a counterattack of the establishment. At the same time, all unconventional, unprofessional and deglobalizing actions from the Trump administration — highlighting political polarization at home while building up hostility between major powers, dodging international responsibilities and destroying global rules abroad, swamped the postwar international order and dealt a rare blow to American soft power that had grown since World War II.

For President-elect Joseph Biden, “heal” and “rectify” will be the keywords of the next two years. The Biden administration will overhaul Trump’s policies on pandemic response, the economy, society, immigration and energy, as well as on international multilateral issues, in a bid to honor his pledges to heal the nation and “restore American leadership.”

Divisions in the U.S., however, is sharp. With allegiance to pluralism and liberalism, the Democratic Party advocates higher taxes for the wealthy, bigger government, stronger supervision and higher welfare. The Republican Party, committed to Anglo-Saxon values, claims to back low tax rates, small government and moderate supervision. The divergence seems irreconcilable — so much that it may even intensify class conflicts. There is little possibility for the Biden administration to make good on its commitments within only four years, and so the Democrats may be trounced by the Republicans in the next election.

Despite his many disadvantages, Trump garnered stronger support than expected in his reelection bid, a testament to the country’s underlying trend of conservatism, which may well take the lead in the next two or three decades and have far-reaching influence on national policies and diplomacy. The Biden administration has already been painted as progressive — something that will certainly follow modest economic nationalism and considerable diplomatic opportunism. Nevertheless, the GOP is projected to hold onto its Senate majority and gain more House seats when the dust of the 2020 election finally settles. This will be enough to check the Biden administration and thus defend Trumpism without Trump.

Strategic retrenchment during the Barack Obama administration made strides during Trump’s presidency. The Biden administration will reverse these gains by reuniting with allies, returning to the international system and reasserting the U.S. presence in the global agenda, including on climate change and clean energy. It will, however, retain part of Trump’s legacy. First, Biden will reinforce major-power competition in U.S. global strategy; second, he will send more strategic forces toward the Indo-Pacific region; third, the U.S. will revamp its thinking, customizing technology and tactics and optimizing weapons in response to the strategic threat of China; and, fourth, the shared values of the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India alliance will be leveraged.

These moves will not differ much from those of the Trump administration, but they will borrow some thoughts from the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy during Obama’s presidency, including special reliance on U.S. ally Japan. Then the Biden administration’s strategy will take shape.

Trump’s diplomatic realism, with aggressiveness in line with “America first” over the past four years has eviscerated China-U.S. relations. Confronted with escalating provocations from Washington, China was forced to take reciprocal countermeasures. Thus, the two countries were caught in a vicious circle of “act-respond-react,” dragging them ever closer to the Thucydides trap of inevitable war.

Today, strategic competition has gained the upper hand over win-win cooperation in China-U.S. relations. Instead of constructive coordination, leading powers and emerging countries are rejecting and excluding each other in the current multilateral system — cases of which abound throughout the world. The U.S. ban on Huawei in 5G networks and TikTok have sent a worrying signal of technological, economic and even structural decoupling with China. The South China Sea has seen military confrontation normalized, and the U.S. has transitioned from strategic ambiguity toward strategic clarity on the Taiwan question.

Ideological disputes and even a clash of civilizations loom ahead of the two powers. Taken together, all of these aspects of China-U.S. relations have fundamentally changed and cannot return to their previous state.

More dangerous than the tech and economic decoupling is psychological decoupling. After several years of push-pull, the social foundation maintaining long-term cooperation between China and the U.S. has begun to collapse. Given the high uncertainty about relations between the two countries, it has become a broad consensus for senior officials and the business community on both sides that they should reduce excessive reliance on each other’s supply chains and develop their own Plan B.

The idea of interdependence and mutual benefit within the global system seems to be no longer popular in managing China-U.S. relations. Uncle Sam’s disastrous coronavirus response, frequent racial conflicts, growing divide between political parties, presidential election fiascos and irresponsibility on global issues have upended the long-standing moral and institutional picture of the superpower for the Chinese people. At the same time, China has been labeled in the eyes of the American people as the greatest threat since the Cold War.

American intellectuals are generally frustrated at the failure to change China with a strategy of engagement. That is to say, both sides have been disillusioned by the other, and that has become one of the leading factors affecting their decision-making.

When Biden takes office, he will prioritize the fight against the coronavirus in his country and then turn to easing foreign relations and getting back to the global agenda. This may offer a window of opportunity for easing China-U.S. relations. Nonetheless, the damage caused by the Trump administration will not vanish quickly. Washington’s China policy was created not only out of political, economic and social considerations but out of a clear bipartisan consensus that China is a major threat.

The U.S. government, whether controlled by the Democrats or the Republicans, is thus required to take a harder line. The structural disputes between China and the U.S. have already spread to all areas over the past few years — a critical period for both sides. All the polices, executive orders and legislative bills that the White House and Congress have approved to contain China have been destructive and uncontrollable at an unprecedented level.

China-U.S. relations, which are about to step onto a new stage, will find far more challenges than opportunities. The top priority is to restore stability as much as possible. In other words, despite the fully-formed landscape of strategic competition, the two major powers should build up, through rational engagement, a paradigm of coexistence, with goals, bottom lines, rules and boundaries, with a view toward leading this big game from fierce clashes to policy coordination.

In Biden’s first year in the White House, it is unlikely that his administration will unveil any fully developed China policy. Nevertheless, it does have a clear goal for the coexistence of competition and cooperation, real demand for cooling overheated China-U.S. frictions and reliable and professional advisers around Biden who can maintain their composure to cope with thorny foreign affairs.

More important, the Democrats do not think disengagement and coercion can contain China or that there can be an absolute winner between the two powers. They don’t believe that zero cooperation will benefit their country or that multilateralism and economic globalization are outdated and ineffective in today’s world.

It is necessary, then, for China to take advantage of the window of opportunity and policy leeway to work on two things. First is pragmatic cooperation with the U.S. in containing the novel coronavirus through bilateral channels and multilateral frameworks such as the World Health Organization (which will probably be the first international organization to which Biden will announce the USA’s return) and to establish an effective point of cooperation with the new U.S. government.

Second is to rebuild high-level communication, which can help restart dialogues at all levels and in all fields in an orderly manner, thereby setting an agenda for China-U.S. relations during Biden’s presidency.

A buffer zone should be arranged between competition and cooperation to manage potential conflicts. In doing so, they must explain their strategic goals more clearly to each other to provide strategic memos for engagement over the next four years and rebuild predictability in the relationship.

After making progress in these two tasks, China and the U.S. may find it necessary (as Trump’s catchphrase goes) to “drain the swamp” — that is, to detoxify the Trump administration’s actions.

Here, the first step will be to renegotiate tariffs and establish a trade order based on fairness, reciprocity and rules. If possible, it is also advisable to wake up the Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiations, which had achieved positive progress near the end of the Obama administration but was abandoned by Trump.

Second will be to seek a truce in the “tech cold war,” leaving unresolved issues from the Trump administration to the market and law for settlement against a favorable political environment. Then China should strive to reach agreement with the U.S. on gradually avoiding comprehensive decoupling, thereby removing this preposterous concept from the countries’ agenda.

Third will be to resume cultural and people-to-people exchanges as much as possible, especially between think tanks, civil aviation and study-abroad projects.

Fourth will be to coordinate financial policies, rebuild industrial alignments and establish a reasonable relationship between China’s “dual circulation” economic strategy and America’s post-pandemic policies for economic recovery and financial stability, thus intensifying their mutual dependence in a globalized world.

Fifth will be to restart the dialogue on strategic security. Specifically, China should turn the discussion into regular strategic consultation, with a focus on nuclear issues, and learn to strike a new strategic balance with the U.S. and other global military powers.

When responding to global challenges, cooperation is undoubtedly the starting point that China and the U.S. must grasp to improve bilateral relations, revitalize global governance and exercise their own leadership after the change in U.S. government.

Of the top four priorities on Biden’s to-do list, climate change is last, but returning to the Paris agreement is a certainty. State governments and energy companies in the U.S. have never turned away from their emission reduction obligations. As for China, the 14th Five-Year Plan has set ambitious carbon neutral goals. China and the U.S. have sufficient motivation and latitude for cooperation. Presumably, Chinese think tanks are well-prepared to advise on policies in response to the initiative of State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi that they provide three to-do-lists — for cooperation, for dialogue and for dispute management. Since coordination between China and the U.S. at the global level can be renewed through changes in the international landscape and global governance structure, apart from pragmatic cooperation they need to communicate and negotiate on the evolution of international rules regarding climate change, deep oceans, space, the internet and artificial intelligence.

There are also hot issues where China and the U.S. can set benchmarks at the beginning of Biden’s presidency. On the North Korea nuclear issue, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — always keen to make its presence felt and test Washington’s resolve whenever a new U.S. president takes office — dis highly likely to repeat certain aggressive actions this year. The situation on the peninsula may see new fluctuations, but the legacy of direct contact between the top leaders of the U.S. and DPRK is marked in history. China has the responsibility to help manage and influence the issue on the peninsula, and it has a chance to play a greater role.

With regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, the Biden administration is expected to return to six-party talks. The U.S.-Iran relationship may harbor more complicated stress points after a brief period of easing, and where China will stand needs to be considered in advance.

The Middle East landscape has undergone major changes during Trump’s presidency. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promoted liberal-leaning adjustments and began to reconcile with Israel. The influences of Iran, Turkey, and Syria were suppressed after a period of expansion. All these will be a gift that the Biden administration is ready to accept.

China’s interests and influence in the Middle East will be reshaped accordingly, as well as by the advancement of the Belt and Road Initiative. It will be necessary and feasible for China and the U.S. to engage in dialogue on strategic issues in the Middle East.

The nature of draining the swamp will present a strategic trial during the transition. If the two sides confirm their sincerity, cooperation can expand. China-U.S. relations are also expected to quickly find their coopetition sweet spot that adapts to the new power balance and global trends. If the two sides cannot get rid of their hostile assumptions and if the handling of specific affairs is ultimately dominated by competition, containment and countermeasures, relations may return to a vicious cycle and slide into a new cold war.

Expectations for “draining the swamp” between Beijing and Washington need not be overly high. The swamp, in fact, cannot be drained, but the water level can drop significantly. In the act of draining, even a small amount of mutual trust is more important than anything else and should be based on candid communication and professional judgment. At the same time, it’s necessary for both parties to reach a tacit agreement on the sensitive questions of Taiwan and the South China Sea.

In the medium and long term, both parties should understand that although the China-U.S. relations cannot return to the past, the two countries can still move forward in dialogue, cooperation and dispute management, and they can achieve a certain degree of balance in their common interest and that of the international community. No way to return does not mean they should give up on the future of the relationship.

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