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Foreign Policy

Messages Within a Message

Dec 04, 2020
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

On Nov. 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message to Joe Biden congratulating him on his electoral victory. It was a clear signal that China has begun to approach the new administration in a cautious but steady way.

Actually, China had been refraining from wishing Biden well in the context of the domestic political struggles in the United States. Robert O’Brien, the U.S. national security adviser, slandered China by stating that China “had the most massive program to influence the United States politically” and that “we know the Chinese have taken the most active role” in seeking to interfere in the U.S. election. He provided no evidence.

Under the circumstances, prompt congratulations from China to Biden would not usher in a golden time for the China-U.S. relationship but would only give the Trump administration an excuse to further undermine bilateral ties, increasing obstacles to getting relations back on track.

Accordingly, China reiterated that the U.S. presidential election result would be determined by U.S. laws and procedures. On Nov. 13, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman for the first time congratulated Biden and Harris, based on reactions within the U.S. and from the international community. President Xi’s message was released after the U.S. General Services Administration informed President-elect Biden that the Trump administration was ready to begin the formal transition process. 

Multiple signals were embedded in Xi’s message.

First of all, China is trying to set the tone for relations. Xi said he hoped the two sides would uphold a spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. Although the relationship has experienced turbulence over the past few years, China wants to build up a new type of relationship between the two major powers with positive features.

China also emphasized the necessity of joint efforts to work for a better relationship. Since the China-U.S. relationship is one of the most important in the world, good conditions not only benefit the two countries and people from both sides but also contributes to world peace and prosperity.

Second, China attaches great importance to crisis management. Both China and the United States have realized that it’s unlikely for the two major powers to see eye-to-eye with each other, especially given their different political systems, modes of development, values and cultures. However, it would harm the interests of both sides if they fell into confrontation or war.

Even though politicians, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have attacked China with ideological prejudice, the country still aims to avoid miscalculation and favors a cooling of military tensions. In response to U.S. media reports that the U.S. was mulling a plan to use MQ-9 military drones to attack islands and reefs in the South China Sea — creating a so-called October Surprise to help Donald Trump win reelection, the U.S. side clarified through military and diplomatic channels that the reports did not match the facts and the US had no intention of fomenting a military crisis.

Third, China has reaffirmed that cooperation is the only correct choice for relations with the United States. Unveiling his cabinet selections, Biden signaled a return to traditional U.S. diplomacy and multilateralism. Former secretary of state John Kerry, chosen as Biden’s special envoy on climate change, confirmed that he would bring the U.S. back into the Paris climate accord, which Trump had abandoned. China has been a supportive factor in climate change cooperation. It is also likely that the Biden administration will adjust its policies toward Iran and reconsider the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to which China has fully committed.

In addition, China is willing to exchange views and share experiences with the U.S. to fight COVID-19. At the same time, it has been emphasizing the importance of China-U.S. cooperation on issues that benefit the international community. For example, China would like to work with the United States to support the World Health Organization and developing countries.

Fourth, China believes that the stabilization of the relationship is vital. During Obama’s term, the building of constructive mechanisms served as pillars of bilateral ties. When Xi met with Trump on April 6 and 7 at Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, four modes of dialogue were created to support communication, improve mutual trust, expand cooperation and manage differences.

Unfortunately, the dialogues did not fully play their role, which resulted in some miscalculations and more difficulties in the relationship. It is time for the two countries to renew their approach and stabilize the relationship.

Xi’s message to Biden revealed some Chinese expectations about the bilateral relationship. China is seeking a starting point at which relations can enter a new stage and the two countries will be able to draw up a blueprint for the future.

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