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Foreign Policy

Orientation of China-U.S. Interaction During the Biden Presidency

Feb 24, 2021
  • Nie Wenjuan

    Deputy Director of Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University

China-U.S. relations finally experienced a temporary respite with a new U.S. administration assuming office in the beginning of 2021. During the four years under the Trump administration, the China-U.S. relationship turned increasingly confrontational, constantly on the brink of losing control. From identifying China as a "rival" and "revisionist state" in 2017 and the trade conflict that started in 2018, to Mike Pompeo's malicious attack on China in his July, 2020, speech, to closing the Chinese Consulate General in Huston, to the dual-carrier provocation in the South China Sea, and to those regarding Taiwan challenging Chinese red lines, the previous administration almost pushed bilateral ties into all-round collapse. China-U.S. relations may see a "turnaround,” with the new Biden administration in office and their proposal of utilizing the diplomatic principles of “competition and cooperation” with China. Though Biden's election win had to do with many domestic factors, and its adjustment of China policies wouldn't be a dramatic "rollback,” from the perspective of major-country interaction, the previous trend of the two countries heading toward all-round confrontation was irrational, unsustainable, and inconsistent with their fundamental interests. Therefore, it is to some extent a historical necessity for the U.S. to adjust its tough China policy, and in order to prevent the worst scenario from materializing, the two parties must build a new framework of major-country interaction. 

On February 4, President Biden delivered his first foreign policy speech after assuming office at the U.S. State Department. This formally set the tune of U.S.-China policy as "competition and cooperation.” The competitive aspect lies in the basic retention of the Trump administration's positioning of U.S.-China strategy, calling China the U.S.’' "most serious competitor,” which brings direct challenges to U.S. prosperity, security and democratic values. It also explicitly pointed out subjects of China-U.S. conflicts, in fields such as economy, diplomacy, military, human rights, intellectual property rights and global governance. Lastly, the speech revealed the values competition between China and the U.S.. To the Biden administration, U.S. leadership is at a new moment in history, when Chinese and Russian authoritarianism is constantly pressing ahead. In Biden's eyes, U.S. democratic values are the cornerstone of its global strength, the source of U.S. power, and a lasting U.S. advantage. They also see that U.S. democratic values are facing unprecedented Chinese challenges. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has felt its democratic values be subject to challenges from a major country, which will have complex and far-reaching influences on U.S. foreign policies. 

In Biden's speech, the competitive aspect of U.S. relations with China appeared more prominent, while the cooperative aspect was conspicuously weak. But, considering this was the first expression of U.S. willingness for cooperation with China prior to official communication with the Chinese government, as well as the State Department serving as the venue choice to convey the message, this was a relatively mild way to expound the U.S. stance. Compared with the Trump administration's name-calling and provocative rhetoric, Biden's speech took a milder tone, hence leaving room for future cooperation. The day after Biden's speech, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo of Communist Party of China Central Committee and the director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, spoke with U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken, which was the first phone call between the two. 

The slight significance of Biden’s speech attached to cooperative relations with China presaged the difficulty for China-U.S. cooperation in the next few years. Structural conflicts exist in bilateral relations, and it is very difficult to maneuver significant, substantial improvements. This has almost become a self-evident consensus between the two sides. From a systemic perspective, however, the two major countries need to co-exist, so have to find ways for cooperation with the purpose of co-existing, while also drawing bottom lines for competition. In order to co-exist, China and the U.S. must make efforts to respect each other's core interests and key concerns, which to some extent is a matter of life or death, involves identity, belongs to "non-negotiable items" which the other side must abide by. Just as Yang Jiechi stated before Biden's speech, Beijing wishes the U.S. would respect China's significant concerns, claiming such issues involve core Chinese interests and national dignity, and national feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese, or China-U.S. relations and the U.S.’' own interests would suffer serious damage. They also must leave the other side some strategic space so that the system operation can be more or less inclusive and flexible. As the strength of a major country grows, it inevitably will upset the existing order to some extent, and both parties need to reasonably recognize and handle such shocks. China needs to have a clear understanding of the necessity of U.S. leadership for the present-day international system. But the U.S. needs to be reasonable about the proper expansion of Chinese influences and be aware that it is unrealistic to single-mindedly suppress China, either unilaterally or multilaterally. Both countries must also put effort into establishing a basic, principled consensus on system operation and order-building, so as to preserve the peace, stability and development of the system. 

China and the U.S. as two major countries have contradictions and conflicts on the bilateral level, but they have jointly built the current international system, whose operation has its own principles. China and the U.S. need to transcend the bilateral scope and conform to the laws of historical development. They must carry forward the fruits of human civilizations from the higher levels of international system, international community and even humanity. In conclusion, after a period of "patience", the Biden administration will still need to face the test of how to co-exist and cooperate with China within the system.

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