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Foreign Policy

Meeting Each Other Halfway -- Rebuild China-U.S. Relations

Nov 16, 2020
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

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When Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States, emerged as the winner of the 2020 presidential election, a fresh opportunity opened for China-U.S. relations. Both sides can pivot to cooperation while properly managing differences and stem the downward spiral of the past few years. Battered ties have a chance to return to the right track.

Understandably, America’s major political parties differ on a whole range of issues. Biden, a moderate Democrat, may adopt a more constructive policy approach than that of his conservative Republican predecessors.

The China-U.S. relationship needs a new framework to repair damage done over the past four years by the Trump administration. It has been pure havoc.

First and foremost, the U.S. came to regard China as its primary rival and a major threat; hence, under President Donald Trump, it has launched all-around attacks and containment measures so numerous that the positive exchange mechanisms built over many decades have been almost entirely unwound. With the exception of trade negotiations, communication channels between the two countries have virtually all closed. People-to-people exchanges were uninterrupted over four decades until the advent of the Trump administration, which has left practically no stone unturned to disrupt them. This has created myriad barriers to two-way communication and cooperation.

President Jimmy Carter made a personal commitment to Deng Xiaoping before formal diplomatic ties were established that the United States would accept a large number of Chinese students, and there was a subsequent surge. Nowadays, it could be a tall order for a Chinese student to be accepted into the U.S. According to official data, from April and September, F1 student visa applications by Chinese shrank by 99 percent from the same period in 2019, which is chilling news.

More disconcerting is that in the past few months, senior U.S. officials, including the attorney general, FBI director, national security adviser and secretary of state all acted in sync on a mission to smear and demonize China with out-and-out malicious attacks and containment far out of scale with the normal differences and competition between states. The intensity and frequency of the negative rhetoric has dwarfed the cuts and thrusts between the U.S. and USSR during the height of the Cold War. Were it not for the trade links, the ship of China -U.S. relations would have capsized. The Biden administration has its job cut out, inheriting a relationship battered and scarred at the hands of the Trump administration.

To rebuild China U.S. relations, both sides will need to sit at the table for comprehensive, good faith, in-depth dialogues through which both can convey their strategic intentions clearly and advance understanding at a higher level and build up nascent trust. In the lead-up to establishing formal ties between China and the U.S., when Dr. Henry Kissinger visited China in 1971, he and Premier Zhou Enlai had deep conversations that built trust. Now we need to summon the same spirit and courage to carry relations through this challenging time.

This does not mean that both sides have to wait until a final framework is reached before taking any action. Rather, they could start with the low-hanging fruit and focus on pragmatic cooperation. The following five areas are a good beginning:

First, tackle the challenge presented by the pandemic. This is the most pressing issue for the United States. The two countries successfully addressed the challenges of SARS and EBOLA together, but the Trump administration refused to engage in any international cooperation, including with China when the novel coronavirus emerged. That explains why the pandemic is still spreading in the U.S., a country with 5 percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of the deaths. The incoming administration should encourage bilateral cooperation in research and development on the virus and vaccines as part of broader international engagement.

Second, strengthen economic and trade cooperation. This could have been an area of positive outcomes that would have benefited both sides. But the Trump administration launched a trade war against China, leading to rising tariffs and ending up shifting the burden to U.S. consumers and businesses. Not long ago, 3,500 enterprises filed a lawsuit over the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese imports and demanded a refund for a portion of the tariffs paid on their side.

The trade war attests to two facts: It is a race to the bottom that’s hurting both sides, and bashing China doesn’t offer any solutions to the domestic problems in the U.S., such as job creation. The so-called reshoring effort pushed by Trump has faced a tepid reception from U.S. companies. The advent of a new administration may usher in new dynamics for bilateral economic and trade relations.

Third, renew the commitment to fighting climate change. This is in the Democrats’ DNA. Biden was actively involved in bilateral climate change cooperation under the Obama administration. Concluding the Paris accord was a milestone.

China made a renewed commitment to reaching peak carbon emissions by the end of the decade and to achieve carbon neutrality in 2060. And Biden made it explicitly clear during the election campaign that he will bring the U.S. back to the Paris agreement. A resumption of cooperation between China and the U.S. on climate change is highly likely.

Fourth, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. China and the U.S. had a good track record of cooperation with regard to the nuclear issue in Iran and on the Korean Peninsula.

Fifth, expand people-to-people exchanges. These thrived under the Obama administration, with reciprocal 10-year-validity visa arrangements set up for tourists. The Trump administration tossed people-to-people exchanges to the wayside, and the new administration must restore normal exchanges. Both sides should chart a new course in this arena.

In short, the potential for cooperation is wide-ranging, far beyond the scope listed above.

Still, we must keep our expectations for the new Biden administration realistic. The neck-and-neck election and mass street protests by supporters of both political parties in the U.S. speaks volumes about the deep rift in U.S. society, not only between the Democrats and Republicans but between the elites and the grassroots and between Whites and minorities. The rift will also feature prominently in Congress, which is expected to remain closely divided after the election. Trump came to power riding a wave of populism, and continued to stoke populism. He championed “America first,” and threw a monkey wrench into China-U.S. relations.

All these dynamics will constrain policymaking under the new administration. We should be mindful that a Biden administration cannot be construed as a third term for Obama term, and China-U.S. relations will not simply go back to where they were when Biden was vice president.

Looking ahead, China-U.S. relations will be defined during the Biden presidency by the coexistence of cooperation and differences. The two countries will compete, but that won’t exclude cooperation. Confrontation is not the sole option. Both sides have gained a trove of experience over the decades, and both are well-equipped to manage differences well when the new administration takes office.

No matter what changes take place in the two countries and beyond, China and the U.S. stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. This will remain unchanged. But only cooperation will take us to a better future.  

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