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Foreign Policy

Recalibrate China-U.S. Relations

May 12, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

U.S. President Joe Biden delivered his first address to Congress on the eve of his 100-day mark, and China was again one of the keywords. The Biden administration has openly defined the China-U.S. relationship as one of competition, stating that the U.S. is “in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.” This is in line with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s previous description of China as “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.

The first 100 days for Biden — the first chapter of his presidency — will determine the direction of all the chapters to come, as will the China policy of the U.S. While the Biden administration is in the midst of a comprehensive review of its China strategy, some features are already clear. Biden’s approach is more about competition than cooperation, and more about continuity than change. He has largely maintained his predecessor’s policies toward China, such as keeping trade tariffs, continuing to tighten controls on technology exports to China and maintaining or even expanding the numbers of so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

In approaching competition, Biden has emphasized coordination with allies, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada, which jointly imposed sanctions on China. The U.S. has also enhanced cooperation with QUAD members.

However, we should not be too pessimistic about the future of China-U.S. relations. There are still opportunities for the two countries to recalibrate the relationship. First, after the Trump shockwave, the strategic communities of both countries are reflecting on the past four years. In particular, the rational voice on China in the U.S. is reviving, and think tanks and people-to-people exchanges between the two sides are gradually resuming, showing that both sides have a strong desire to prevent the further deterioration of relations.

Second, the Biden’s foreign policy team is seasoned and its China policy will be relatively coherent and pragmatic. Jake Sullivan, Kurt Campbell and Blinken all have rich experience in policymaking related to Asia or China. Although they are not necessarily taking a friendly attitude toward China, it is expected that Biden’s China policy will be much more consistent than that of the Trump administration. This is conducive to diplomatic exchanges between the two countries.

Third, with both China and the U.S. focusing on domestic issues, there will be more room for cooperation. China has embarked on a new journey to accomplish its second centenary goal and during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, and it will pay more attention to high-quality development and open wider to the world, including the United States. In addition, it will continue to promote global economic growth, reduce the global governance deficit and maintain world peace and stability.

The Biden administration will also focus on combating COVID-19, bridging domestic ethnic conflicts, achieving economic recovery and advancing the agenda of climate change issues. Changes in the political agenda of both countries have increased their common interests, and the scope of dialogue and cooperation is expected to expand further. Therefore, China and the U.S. should not waste opportunities to recalibrate bilateral relations. The following measures can be taken as priorities:

First, although the U.S. is reluctant to call the Anchorage dialogue strategic, the two sides should re-establish relevant dialogue mechanisms as soon as possible under the following principles:

• Maintain the features of small scope and high level and strive for pragmatic and efficient dialogue;

• No preconditions for dialogue;

• Regard the dialogue itself as a positive outcome. Under the current political environment, if the two sides cannot resume all-around dialogue, they should at least take the lead in specific areas such as economy and trade, culture, security and education.

Second, economic and trade negotiations should be promoted. China and the U.S. previously agreed on a two-year arrangement that required continued interaction and communication this year.

In addition to the working-level consultations, the two sides should resume the high-level economic strategic dialogue as soon as possible to hedge the risk of decoupling. If the U.S. cancels the new tariffs imposed on China during the Trump administration, it will create a good atmosphere for bilateral economic and trade cooperation.

Third, we need to better understand each other’s domestic politics to reduce misunderstandings and misjudgments. The world is changing, and so are China and America. Diplomacy originates at home, and both countries should enhance understanding of each other’s domestic politics. 

China should respect the political and social diversity of the U.S., and recognize that the political, economic and ethnic relations in the U.S. are constantly changing and that the uncertainties in its foreign policy will persist. The U.S., on the other hand, should respect China’s development path and policy choices and correctly understand the significance of China’s new dual circulation economy, the 14th Five-Year Plan and the 2035 Vision.

The two sides should promote mutual understanding in the form of “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches — that is to say, introduce domestic situations and policies into the bilateral high-level dialogue mechanism. Also, exchanges between local governments and non-governmental actors should be encouraged.

Given the declining popularity of China among the U.S. public and the widespread misunderstandings of China’s sharp power and political influence in the U.S., the two countries should encourage more exchanges and cooperation between provinces and states, cities, enterprises and nonprofit organizations and correct the erroneous understandings of each other’s systems and policies.

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