The U.S. and China seem like two star-crossed lovers, their relations doomed even though both sides express hopes of stabilizing ties amid growing crises. Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken and State Councilor/Politburo member Wang Yi met during the Munich Security Conference, they appeared to achieve little other than highlight their differences. The plan to build on last November’s meeting between the two nations’ presidents and establish ongoing discussions on important issues remains stalled.
Worse, a perfect storm appears to threaten the relationship. The consequences of a collapse could be horrific. The most volatile issue between the two countries currently is Taiwan. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is almost certain to visit this year, likely with a plane full of congressmen, Republicans and Democrats. That will undoubtedly trigger a sharp Chinese response.
At the Munich conference Vice President Kamala Harris noted the possibility of Beijing giving military support to Russia, an issue also raised by Blinken with Wang. America’s secretary of state warned that China moving toward lethal assistance “would have serious consequences on our own relationship.”
In a bipartisan vote, the Republican-dominated House created a select committee whose primary political purpose is to demonize the People’s Republic of China. A number of policymakers talk about increasingly dramatic decoupling, even of goods of minimal strategic importance. President Joe Biden has been tougher than his predecessor on the PRC and is expected to announce his reelection bid in the near future. His campaign is sure to highlight his confrontational economic and security policies toward Beijing.
The urge to decouple economically has spread to state governments. The latest ploy is to ban Chinese buyers of agricultural land, as if they could take it back to the PRC. Republican-controlled states are likely to take the lead in other areas, even those, like agriculture, in which national security is not plausibly at stake. To some observers such targeted attacks bring to mind the “yellow peril” demagoguery of the past.
Overall, the potential for mistake and misunderstanding is growing rapidly. Beijing has contributed to the increasingly unhappy relationship as well, most dramatically illustrated by the extended spy balloon controversy, which caused Blinken to cancel his planned trip to China. Undoubtedly, the Xi government’s increasingly nationalistic and ideological approaches also will stoke new confrontations with Washington, especially involving aggressive international activities, contested territorial claims, state economic policies, and human rights.
The bilateral relationship desperately needs to be rescued from this downward spiral. U.S. officials should seek support across the political spectrum to put a floor under American policy toward the PRC, as well as bilateral relations. Action is needed at three levels. First, the two governments should engage in a discreet dialogue on how to address the inevitable partisan political attacks in the upcoming American presidential campaign.
The assault likely will come from two directions. The House select committee on China is likely to host hearings and produce publications critical of both Beijing and any overtures from the Biden administration. The PRC also will be under fire from presidential candidates starting with former president Donald Trump, but also highlighted by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who has made confrontation with the PRC a focus of his incipient campaign, and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who in her announcement speech insisted that China would not only lose, but “end up on the ash heap of history.”
In response, President Biden will be forced to prove his bona fides rhetorically, at least. And substantive compromise will become especially difficult. The administration already has initiated economic war, tossed the gauntlet on military assistance to Russia, and upped pressure on Taiwan—for instance, sending a senior Pentagon official to Taiwan in mid-February. GOP criticism will encourage the president to take even harsher measures.
Second, dialogue is needed among Americans over future policy toward the PRC. There is much to criticize in Chinese policies, especially over human rights. Yet Beijing’s challenge to the U.S. is very different from that posed by the Soviet Union. Despite the increasingly desperate rhetoric in Washington, America continues to operate from a position of strength.
Indeed, there is an air of unreality surrounding the most extreme attacks on China, especially from uber-hawks on the political right. Full economic decoupling would be highly disruptive to both economies; a full-scale cold war would commit the U.S. to decades of massive military outlays in an attempt to contain a great power some 7000 miles away; Beijing is no more likely than Washington to allow another nation to dictate its internal politics, irrespective of sanctions. Americans desperately need to set priorities among such issues as balloon espionage, semiconductor chips, Third World loans, human rights, and farmland ownership.
Third, the U.S. would benefit from listening as well as dictating to military allies, friendly states, China’s neighbors, and the Global South over policy toward Beijing. The prospect of military conflict horrifies everyone. There is no guarantee that even America’s closest allies would join the U.S. to defend Taiwan. The PRC’s growing economic role is an international reality and influences even governments close to America. Virtually no one wants to choose between Washington and Beijing. Other nations which refused to join the U.S. against Russia certainly won’t treat China as an enemy at America’s request.
The PRC shares blame in the dangerous state of bilateral relations. President Xi Jinping’s policies have earned much of the opprobrium heaped upon them. Nevertheless, Washington’s illusion that it not only is entitled to run the world, but is capable of doing so, is proving to be especially dangerous today. Presidents Biden and Xi must find a way through today’s particularly volatile international environment.