The mainstream view in China is that U.S. President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team will be more rational and less hostile than their predecessors, which could mean U.S. policy will be more predictable, increasing the likelihood that the two sides will move toward a more stable relationship.
It is also clear that the Biden administration regards China as a chief rival, as well as the 21st century’s greatest geopolitical test. And it’s prepared to compete vigorously. Yet Biden has said more than once that China is not an enemy — an important change from the era of Donald Trump. Biden’s personal relations with President Xi Jinping, established when he was the U.S. vice president, could also be an advantage.
Beyond the fundamental differences and disagreements over politics, economics and security, perception problems — understanding each other’s complex realities and correctly reading the counterpart’s mind — have become more prominent hurdles in communication.
The environment of strategic competition, which is made worse by a degraded political atmosphere, take “political correctness” to a new level. Toughness has become the default diplomatic posture in virtually all arenas. The recent China-U.S. meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, provides a case in point.
The opening remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were unexpected by the Chinese delegates. They were puzzled about the Americans’ intentions in arranging the meeting and became angry.
They were virtually told to their face: We want you to understand that we are approaching you from a position of strength, and traditional protocols are not important to us now, at a moment when news reporters are in the room. That seemed designed to impress China — as well as the audience at home and America’s allies — that while the Biden administration is different from Trump’s in many aspects, it’s not really different when it comes to being tough on China.
Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, then realized that Washington was putting its self-image of strength on display for the Chinese delegates as part of the American design for the meeting.
Why would the United States open the meeting in such blunt and abnormal way? Something we know is that many people in Washington are obsessed by a deep concern that behind all of China’s “wrongdoing” is the strategic judgment that the U.S. is in decline and becomes weaker as China takes advantage of it. This concern must be addressed, even though it is largely a misperception. At least in Beijing’s policymaking and academic circles, it cannot be regarded as the mainstream view of the United States.
The opening remarks in rebuttal by Yang and State Councilor Wang Yi basically reflected Chinese leaders’ thoughts, as well as the most popular views in China. Those arise mainly from confidence in China’s success and the firm belief that China is fully justified in governing its domestic affairs. China’s leaders are truly determined, more than ever before, to adhere to and defend the country's rights, even though they know the United States is still the most powerful nation in the world.
Trying to impress China the way Blinken and Sullivan did in Anchorage — as political theater — can only be counterproductive. I would rather think Washington’s misperception of China is a kind of unconsciously twisted or shifted reflection of deep concerns and anxieties about current American political and social problems — a prominent sign of the “decay of democracy,” as Francis Fukuyama put it.
The final outcome of the meeting, according to the news releases of the two sides, was pretty much what people had expected: that agreements on steps to reduce tensions and improve relations should start from easier things. Such measures are regarded as mutually beneficial.
As structural differences between the two countries will not go away in the foreseeable future and strategic competition is, a workable approach would be a reconfirmation by both sides of an important principle that has worked fairly well for many years — to agree to disagree on some basic differences. It is necessary to discuss the management of strategic competition in matters of high risk and sensitivity. This should be a priority.
Better political communication between China and the United States can only be achieved through deeper and better understanding of the differences between the two countries and the complexity any new configuration of relations. It is already being shaped. Different histories and cultures produce different national characteristics, values and priorities; hence, the different paths or models of national modernization. A fundamental long-term challenge to the two great nations will be the exploration of something both conceptual and practical to bridge — or surpass — our structural differences.