Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Recalibrating China-U.S. Relations

Feb 08, 2021
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, and China Forum Expert.

Since he officially assumed office on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden has issued a dozen executive orders covering topics from COVID-19 to the economy, from the environment to race and immigration. Judging from the priority list published by the White House, the new administration is keenly aware of the severe crises in the country.

Unlike the Trump administration, it doesn’t attribute America’s troubles arbitrarily to such factors as trade deficits or single-mindedly search for scapegoats from the outside. In general, the honesty the Biden administration has displayed has created favorable conditions for recalibrating China-U.S. relations.

Judging from his inaugural speech, the 78-year-old 46th president will devote most of his energy to resolving internal crises and rebuilding the “soul” of America. And none too soon: As renowned Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama said, over the past four years of decay under the Trump presidency, U.S. politics had become “rotten to the core.”

Biden knows that more than 74 million Americans voted for Trump in November. That’s a huge number. The assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 has revealed that many of those Americans believe conspiracy theories and Trump’s unsupported claims of a “stolen election.” For them, like it or not, Biden is an illegitimate president.

Besides the four historic crises — the pandemic, economy, climate change and racial injustice — Biden’s speech touched on the internal threat posed by political radicalism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism. He called for an end to the malicious wrangling between the two parties, between rural and urban regions and between conservatives and liberals, calling for unity in preserving U.S. democratic institutions.

The reality, however, is that U.S. is sharply divided into a "blue America" and a "red America,” — and arguably worse, even a “Trump America.” The Biden administration will not only face pressure from the Republican Party but will also have to find ways to deal with contradictions between different factions of the Democratic Party.

Biden knows clearly that the key to healing America lies in responding more forcefully to the needs and wants of society’s middle and lower strata. He embodied the image of a people’s president by saying he understands that his fellow Americans are filled with fear about the future, and he knows their concerns about jobs, medical care, housing loans and children’s education. Such remarks seemed designed to mitigate U.S. voters’ negative impressions of the political elite and win the sympathy and support of the middle and lower classes.

Obviously Democratic politicians have done a lot of some in-depth soul searching after losing to Trump in 2016 and have reached a consensus that efforts must be made to mitigate the injuries inflicted by economic globalization on middle- and lower-class Americans.

As Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to the U.S. president, has emphasized, America will embrace a “new economic philosophy” — indicating that the Biden administration may be less interested in free trade, and more preoccupied with “protecting” the American people.

In addition to the influence of the progressives in the Democratic Party, there are more than 100 leftist economists offering policy advice for the Biden team. Biden himself has proposed a “foreign policy for the middle class.” Like Trump, he advocates “fair trade,” saying that “economic security is national security.” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain indicated recently that Biden will sign a “Buy America” executive order. Some of Biden’s policy measures seem similar to Trump’s, so the world may see a slightly different version of “America first.”

One thing is of critical importance in observing the Biden administration’s foreign policy moves, especially those regarding China. Biden will strive to demolish the divide between domestic and foreign policy, and a “domestic affairs-led” orientation will become increasingly prominent.

In an interview with Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, Sullivan emphasized that to Biden and his policy team, interaction between domestic and foreign policies are not an abstract concept but a strategy. Biden has established a domestic policy committee in the White House, and chosen Susan Rice as its head. Rice served as Barack Obama’s national security adviser, and is regarded as an expert in the fields of foreign policy and national security.

The domestic orientation has been obvious in the climate change field. Biden has said coping with climate change means "tremendous opportunities" for the U.S. By promoting a “clean energy revolution,” the U.S. may upgrade national competitiveness in such areas as clean energy and create millions of “high-quality, middle-class” jobs, which man in turn generate votes. So he is aiming for a clean-energy economy by 2050.

Biden has partially adopted people like Democratic Party congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “Green New Deal” concept. He promised to invest $2 trillion in clean energy, turn the U.S. into a “clean energy superpower” and encourage American companies to export clean energy technologies globally. Thus, climate change will no longer be a topic for diplomats alone. Biden will integrate climate change with U.S. foreign policy, national security strategy and trade in an all-around manner. 

For China, coping with U.S. internal politics and the Biden government’s domestic affairs-led orientation will be challenging.

Following up, the second impeachment of Trump and his supporters’ refusal to give up — foreshadowing a possible Trump comeback — will deal a heavy blow to U.S. democratic institutions. The resulting political chaos will inevitably have spillover effects on China-U.S. relations. Against the backdrop of the polarization of U.S. politics, the Biden administration’s space for adjusting its China policies may shrink, and its reactions to Chinese measures and moves may become more strident.

Of course, we should not neglect the opportunities for improved China-U.S. relations brought by the Biden administration’s preoccupation with domestic affairs. As Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, with regard to the four policy priorities President Biden has identified, the two countries have extensive room for cooperation in at least three areas — containing the pandemic, economic recovery and climate change.

 The Chinese side has put forward a series of proposals for cooperation, but the Biden administration seems to be reluctant. China is making an all-out effort to formulate a new pattern for national development. It has 1.4 billion people, of whom 400 million are middle-class. Aggregate imports in the next 10 years are expected to surpass $22 trillion. China-U.S. trade ties could, and should, return to the track of mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.

To sum up, China-U.S. relations are not a zero-sum game in which one wins and the other loses. Neither side’s success should come be at the price of the other’s failure. The two countries should make efforts to find common interests in their respective domestic agendas, and seek convergence in their domestic priorities, so as to push bilateral ties back onto a healthy track of progress.

You might also like
Back to Top