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Foreign Policy

Wobbling Forward on the Road Ahead

Mar 27, 2024
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Recently, I traveled to Washington D.C. and New York for a series of visits. The main focus was exchanging views with officials and experts from the United States on the current and next stage of China-U.S. relations. The aim was to better understand the fluctuations in U.S. policy toward China and the development trend of the relationship.

With the summit in San Francisco, the relationship between the two countries entered a relatively stable period. However, it should be noted that the U.S. remains steadfast in its posture of strategic competition with China, which makes adjustments in the short term difficult. Yet, San Francisco has been crucial for stabilizing bilateral relations, with the leaders of both countries playing a strategic leadership role. A series of dialogue mechanisms have gradually unfolded, with both sides not only clarifying their respective principled positions on key issues but also promoting dialogue and cooperation in multiple areas and gradually expanding into more.

For example, cooperation on the fentanyl issue will help law enforcement agencies in both countries further enhance communication and collaboration. The upcoming governmental dialogue on artificial intelligence may also help to some extent in easing tensions in the technology sector. It can be observed that the U.S. is also considering how to better leverage the positive summit meetings and achieve practical results through promoting dialogue and cooperation across various levels and fields. In the short to medium term, the China-U.S. relationship this year may continue to be relatively stable, but it’s also necessary to be vigilant, to guard against possible challenges.

First, it is of crucial importance to correctly perceive and address points of risk in regional security. As to the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and other matters, the U.S. maintains its own understanding and policy orientation, which may differ from China’s. But there is a consensus on both sides that neither wishes to see military conflicts erupt in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. must also consider how to balance security dilemmas with alliance commitments. Pursuing absolute security for oneself may exacerbate the overall security situation, while excessive commitments to allies may lead to escalation of crises, potentially dragging the U.S. into an unnecessary conflict.

Second, how to respond to the interference of domestic political factors — such as those associated with the U.S. presidential election — is another important consideration. China-related issues are not the primary focus during the primary election process, as American voters are more concerned about the economy and society, while in the diplomatic arena they are more focused on intense crises and conflicts, such as Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine.

But there are signs that public opinion — and some partisan political opinion — in the United States is now linking China to domestic politics and the economy. This includes hyping up allegations of Chinese interference in elections, pushing for crackdowns on Chinese-made internet-connected vehicles and port cranes, as well as legislation targeting TikTok, all of which may present China in different negative forms to the American public.

Third, it is worth considering how to establish a more sustainable strategic framework between China and the United States. The framing of China relations as a matter of strategic competition began with Donald Trump and has been continued by President Joe Biden, which demonstrates that competition is the keyword in the bipartisan consensus. Any difference lies only in some Republicans’ dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s approach to competition with China. They believe it emphasizes engagement too much and competition too little, and that there’s too much rhetoric and too few actual competitive measures.

Either way, this implies that the space for the U.S. to rethink its “competition” strategy toward China is shrinking, and more debates are shifting toward specific modes of competition. While the often-repeated emphasis by the U.S. that competition does not necessarily lead to conflict may not be entirely wrong, one cannot deny the possibility that conflict may be one outcome of competition.

Even if the likelihood of such an outcome is one in a hundred or a thousand, it is still something that neither China nor the U.S. — nor the world — can afford. If that’s the case, defining the relationship between China and the U.S. primarily as one of competition is extremely dangerous and not advisable.

In the longer-term perspective, the outcome of the U.S. presidential election will have far-reaching implications for the next stage of China-U.S. relations. China has no intention to intervene in U.S. elections, and regardless of who is elected as the next U.S. president, China hopes that China-U.S. relations can continue to move forward steadily. However, the opportunities and challenges faced may vary.

If the Democratic Party continues to govern, it will further strengthen the framework of strategic competition with China and enhance relations with allies. The current Biden administration has put forward the “invest, align, compete” framework to guide its competitive strategy toward China, emphasizing investment in the U.S., aligning with allies to engage in competition with China and simultaneously delineating limited areas for cooperation.

If Biden is re-elected, there will be strong continuity in his administration’s policy toward China, with its main goal being to lay the groundwork for out-competing China. On one hand, the Biden administration may continue to promote precise de-risking or decoupling policies in the economic, trade and technology fields; strengthen export controls and investment reviews concerning China; accelerate the adjustment of supply chain alliance strategies; and continue to expand the “small yard” and erect more “high fences” in the technological domain. On the other hand, without the pressure of another election, the Biden administration’s motivation for communication and cooperation with China may still exist, and the dialogue mechanisms between the two countries would be expected to continue and to expand.

If Trump and the Republican Party win the election, there will be no substantial change in the strategic direction of U.S. competition with China, but adjustments may occur in the competitive strategy, with changes in some specific areas of competition. Overall, Trump’s second term would likely resemble the situation in 2020 rather than when he first took office in 2017.

For instance, in the economic and trade domain, China may face a more direct punch. During his campaign so far, Trump has already indicated plans to impose tariffs of up to 60 percent on all Chinese products, and he has shown a willingness to disregard any retaliatory measures from China, such as increased tariffs on American products.

In the realm of military security, the policy outlook for Trump’s second term is far less clear than in the economic and trade domains. Trump leans toward a limited form of isolationism in security affairs, meaning he’s reluctant to shoulder excessive responsibility for allies and tends to view security relationships from the perspective of economic costs and benefits.

This has led to a dual trend where economic policies become securitized while security policies become economized. In this scenario, the individuals who ultimately join Trump’s cabinet team, particularly those assuming key positions — such as national security adviser, secretary of defense and secretary of state — will heavily shape his security policy on China.

What’s more concerning is that during Trump’s second term, existing dialogue mechanisms between China and the U.S. may face challenges. Trump and his team may continue to prioritize issues such as fentanyl that have significant impact on domestic politics in the U.S., but they may not prioritize global governance issues such as climate change. Some existing dialogue mechanisms and communication channels between the two countries may be at risk of being frozen, prompting both sides to seek more consensus and points of cooperation in other areas.

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