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Foreign Policy

Keeping the Diplomatic Boat Afloat

Oct 03, 2023
  • Huang Jing

    University Professor at Shanghai International Studies University

Recently, senior officials from the United States have made a flurry of visits to China and met with Chinese counterparts, including the topmost leader Xi Jinping, for lengthy and wide-ranging exchanges. Although little is known to the public about the specific substance of these exchanges, both sides stated that the exchanges were candid and constructive.

In particular, the 12-hour meeting between Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, demonstrated the breadth and depth of the exchanges and, more important, the willingness shared by both sides to reach some kind of compromise necessary for keeping the bilateral relationship at least manageable.

The high-level exchanges suggest that it is a shared quest to prevent relations from spiraling out of control. After all, we live in an increasingly integrated and interlinked world, communication and cooperation between China and the United States is conducive to the stability and development of the two countries and the world at large. Should the two major powers clash, especially in a way that spirals out of control, it would be an unbearable disaster for mankind. This understanding should be the basis upon which the two countries carry out high-level exchanges. It’s a consensus that will unquestionably have a positive bearing on China and the United States and the future contours of the world.

Obviously, there are many factors driving the decision of the Biden administration to initiate the exchanges. First of all, it concluded debt ceiling negotiations with the Republican Party, which at the time seemed to mean that bipartisan politics would remain on an even keel for some time. The recent bipartisan compromise, despite fierce opposition by the far-right republican congressmen, to keep the government open, suggests that neither side desires to spoil the party for now, at least before the U.S. presidential election.

Externally, the U.S. and its allies managed to iron out their differences in their approaches towards China at the G7 and NATO summits. The United States is meeting Europe halfway regarding its China policy bottom line of “no confrontation, no decoupling.” Europe has coalesced around the U.S. definition of China as “the most consequential” competitor, hence a systemic rival. And both sides have agreed on “de-risking.” In the same vein, senior U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed their stance of not seeking confrontation nor decoupling from China, primarily out of attempt to give public reassurance to European allies and shore up its “leadership” position in the alliance.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry stressed that the environmental issue is not a bilateral one between China and the U.S. but rather a “universal issue” — which also smacks of a kind of appeasement toward European allies who put environmental issues front and center. 

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden, through the high-level exchanges, could demonstrate to rationalist folks in the U.S. and realist interest groups (such as Wall Street and multinationals) his willingness and ability to communicate and cooperate with China. On the other hand, both before and after their visits to China, senior U.S. officials reiterated the view that China is America’s most “consequential” competitor. They relapsed into harsh rhetoric, which is meant to demonstrate to both the hawkish and liberal interest groups at home (e.g., groupings that uphold “universal values” and anti-globalization labor unions) their resolve and ability to outcompete China. This is for Biden to seize the moral high ground and political initiative in the upcoming presidential election — or, to put it simply, to have it both ways and thus gain more traction on both moral and political grounds as the stage is set for the election. 

What is more baffling is that the hard-line comments by the officials after their China visits are highly inconsistent with the rational stance they seemed to take in China. This renders the agreement reached during the visits difficult to implement. For example, barely after Blinken returned to U.S. soil, Biden made some scathing comments about China’s topmost leader during a speech in San Francisco. Domestic observers were aghast and began to wonder whether the U.S. would backtrack from the outcomes reached during Blinken’s visit.

Another case in point follows Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s visit to China, which was a success. Some U.S. ratings agencies downgraded U.S. Treasury instruments (for unwarranted reasons), prompting a strong reaction from the market. That episode forced the hand of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who later announced another interest rate hike during the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium. First and foremost, this made China’s decision to buy U.S. debt appear ill-considered. It also disrupted China’s policies to revitalize its stock market, as northbound funds scrambled to cash out.

There are examples galore in which internal political wrangling derailed the implementation of agreements reached by the two countries. In fact, since Biden came to power, China and the United States have held several summits online and offline, with each side stressing that the two heads of state had urged their respective teams to implement the agreements that had been reached at the summit. But implementation always seems to fall short. The underlying reason for this is the inability (or unwillingness) of the Biden administration to overcome the internal opposition (or subortage) against the agreements and understandings reached at the summits.

I am of the view that the so-called U.S.-China “competition” is a facade, and the underlying race is to outcompete each other in “running one’s own house well.” After all, for both countries, the most formidable challenges originate domestically. In other words, domestic political uncertainty is the biggest obstacle to maintaining a stable, or at least manageable China-U.S. relationship.

In this sense, the deep rift in American society and its resulting political polarization are at the heart of the prolonged stall in China-U.S. relations. It is precisely for this reason that China, in its own interest, wishes to see a politically stable and economically prosperous United States. After all, an America in disorder is absolutely no good news for the whole world, including China.

The U.S. presidential election is on the horizon, but we see an unprecedented phenomenon in the US political arean: For Republican and Democrat establishments alike, there is little enthusiasm for Trump and Biden, their two seemingly unstoppable candidates. While in a dilemma of lacking electable choices, the Republican elites can barely conceal its anxiety or even phobia for Trump being nominated, let alone another term under his presidency. Democrats are similarly wary and indecisive about Biden’s nomination. It is revealing that to this date few among the liberal media, with its traditional Democratic leanings — such as CNN, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe — have publicly endorsed Biden.

This worrisome phenomenon reveals a seemingly irreconcilable division in the US society as well as the ruling elites, which has further spurred partisan infights and polarization in policymaking — a fundamental cause of political uncertainty in the United States. If the 2024 presidential election becomes a showdown between Trump and Biden, it will not only severely dent the confidence of the entire world — especially U.S. allies — in the United States, but also create significant uncertainty in China-U.S. relations. In such a showdown, China will unescapably be a key issue and a political lightning rod in presidential debates, further straining the already fraught relationship.

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that nationalistic sentiment (or patriotic zeal) will be on rise in both countries, which surely makes the management of the bilateral relationship a formidable challenge for Beijing and Washington. It is in this sense that for both, maintaining domestic political stability is a sine qua non, for not only the stability of bilateral relations, but also their own respective wellbeing.

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