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Foreign Policy

Early Warning Indicators in Biden-China Relations

Feb 18, 2021
  • David Shambaugh

    Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, Director of the China Policy Program,George Washington University

Although the new Biden-Harris administration has only been in office for three weeks, and many people around the world are watching closing for clues, we now have some preliminary indications of how things may go in the future. While predictable, there is cause for concern.

From the early statements by President Biden himself, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Director of National Intelligence Haines, and other senior administration officials, two things are abundantly clear.

First, that the Biden administration is adopting an overall framework of “competition” with China. President Biden even used the term “extreme competition” in one recent interview, while referring to China as “our most serious competitor” in his first major foreign policy speech. This indicates considerable continuity with the approach of the former Trump administration—although it is clear that the new administration’s competitive tactics will be somewhat different and perhaps more effective. All Biden officials have emphasized the importance of a coordinated approach with multiple allies and partners to counter China’s malign practices.

If Beijing was anticipating or hoping for a “reset” and return of relations to a predominantly cooperative mode, that perspective is clearly not shared in Washington. For its part, Beijing seems to be in denial that the relationship is characterized by competition—it never officially uses the term and only speaks of the need for cooperation.

Second, administration statements have highlighted the values-oriented approach the Biden team will take not only towards China, but Russia and other authoritarian regimes as well. The Democratic Party in the United States has long had two main camps on foreign policy—the “values first” and the “realpolitik” camps. The Biden administration is dominated by the former school. The administration includes several high-ranking officials with responsibility for China affairs who come with strong backgrounds in human rights and democracy promotion work in NGOs.

The values-centric focus was made clear, for example, in Secretary of State Blinken’s February 5 telephone call with Yang Jiechi (China’s foreign policy supremo). President Biden himself also prioritized the Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang issues in his February 10 phone call with President Xi Jinping (along with tough words on China’s “coercive and unfair trading practices”).

Thus, although Beijing reflexively rejects these positions, it can expect sustained criticism from Washington concerning the persecution of Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong citizens, and broader human rights abuses—which will bump up directly against Beijing’s claim that these are entirely China’s “internal affairs” that “brook no outside interference.”

While the new Biden administration has set out these two early pillars of its China policy, much remains to be fleshed out into strategies, policies, and actions. A variety of reviews on different aspects of China-related policies are underway. It is likely that a considerable amount will be retained from the Trump administration, which fundamentally reconfigured the overall strategic framework, specific policies, and budgets to confront China. There is broad bipartisan support, including on Capitol Hill, for the overall framework to compete assertively with, occasionally confront, but sometimes cooperate with China when it is in U.S. national interests (climate change, “non-traditional” security issues, North Korea, for example).

What about Beijing’s early actions vis-à-vis the Biden administration? The best indication of China’s approach was captured in Yang Jiechi’s February 2nd speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Given Yang’s senior status as a member of the CCP Politburo and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, his words matter.

From an American perspective, the speech must be said to have been a distinct failure. As one leading Brookings Institution expert observed afterwards: “The speech misfired on timing, tone, and substance. If the goal of Yang’s speech was to build U.S. support for an improvement in overall relations, it missed the mark.” Instead of reassuring and acknowledging American concerns, Yang went out of his way to scold and lecture the United States. The speech was filled with stock propaganda phrases, which seemed aimed more at the Chinese Communist Party Propaganda Department than at an American audience. If Chinese officials wish to be effective in communicating with American and other foreign audiences, they would be well advised to completely drop such propaganda tropes.

Beyond the turgid phraseology, Director Yang (adopted a hectoring and sanctimonious tone in his speech—casting all blame for the deterioration of relations on the Trump administration and not acknowledging a single thing that China has contributed to the precipitous downturn in ties in recent years. Director Yang went to great lengths to criticize the U.S. for its “misguided policies,” “strategic misjudgments,” “stumbling blocks,” and other “erroneous” policies and actions—while simultaneously arguing that China only seeks “cooperation.” Towards the end, Yang did sketch out a brief menu for some pragmatic cooperative actions that should be explored by both sides. But this came only after a litany of tough language warning the U.S. to cease “interference in China’s internal affairs” and respect its “core interests”—specially mentioning Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang—and warning that “they constitute a redline that must not be crossed.” Not surprisingly, warnings concerning Taiwan also figured prominently in Yang’s address.

For his part, President Xi used less stringent language in his phone call with President Biden, but still warned that: “The Taiwan question and issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, etc. are China's internal affairs and concern China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the U.S. side should respect China's core interests and act prudently.”

Yang’s speech and President Xi’s words—taken together with public statements by President Biden, National Security Advisor Sullivan, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin—suggest to this observer that a significant clash-of-values is on the horizon. The Biden administration is clearly going to prioritize values and human rights in its approach to China—and this is going to bump up directly against what China defines as its “core interests” and “internal affairs.” The United States does not accept that what goes on inside of China’s borders is only China’s business. More broadly, the Biden approach to comprehensive competition will further aggravate Beijing and put it on the defensive. For its part, Beijing seems to be in denial about the real state of rivalry between the two great powers.

Both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the entire world should buckle their seat belts and expect that Sino-American relations are likely going to remain high-stress, combative, and difficult. The important question is: can the two powers also erect a framework for buffering and managing their intensifying competition? That should be a priority for both sides. If the United States and the Soviet Union were able to do so, the U.S. and PRC should also be able to as well. 

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