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Foreign Policy

Responding to America’s Dual China Strategy

Oct 18, 2021
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Since the normalization of China-U.S. relations, the dual character of America’s China strategy has been prominent and manifest to varying degrees in the diplomatic practices of successive U.S. administrations. Since the Trump administration adopted the “strategic rivalry” approach, the duality of suppression (or containment) combined with engagement has evolved. It demonstrates more suppression and competition and significantly less engagement.

In its eight months in office, the administration of Joe Biden — while inheriting the strategic rivalry line of thinking from Donald Trump — has been trying out more meticulous manipulation in the development of renewed relations with China. This has led to new features in America’s dual China strategy.

The duality now features unprecedented strategic attention to crisis management without any relaxation in containment or suppression of China. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has attached great importance to crisis management, mostly for tactical reasons. The objective was to prevent and manage major crises, accidents or other incidents that could embarrass the U.S. For example, after the aircraft collision in 2001 and the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009, the U.S. began to act to manage contingencies and mitigate crises.

The country also often sought to promote crisis prevention and management mechanisms in advance on certain hot issues, such as the DPRK nuclear issue and regional arms control, to avoid potential crises or impact on the China-U.S. relationship.

By contrast, the Biden administration’s emphasis on crisis management is clearly strategic. From its perspective, crisis management is not only an important tactic to prevent a crisis with China but is also central to shaping the development track of relations amid strategic competition.

On this basis, the U.S. wants to be in a position to constrain China’s policy options and strengths to free itself to engage in all-out competition and suppression and to dictate China’s approach to climate change, Afghanistan and other topics. The Biden administration’s wishful thinking has been evident in its diplomatic engagement with China, be it Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s statement during her visit to China to set “guardrails” and “parameters” for U.S.-China relations, or the recent White House statement to “responsibly manage the competition” through high-level phone conversations.

In those few recent high-level contacts, the U.S. expounded untiringly on crisis management, showcasing both its strategic concern over the issue and a deeper desire to unilaterally frame China-U.S. competition in its own self-interest. While the Trump administration launched the new strategic rivalry strategy, Biden’s team is hoping to make strategic crisis management the ultimate safeguard, so that competition with China will always be tilted toward America’s interests.

The strategic emphasis on crisis management reflects a deep anxiety about the relative balance of power between China and the U.S. and long-term concerns over America’s inability to dominate the course of relations. Although the balance of power has not changed qualitatively in the past few decades, the rapidly shortened distances between the two countries in many areas are a reality. The total economic aggregate of China has reached 70 percent of the U.S. aggregate, while China's military capabilities have grown to become a direct deterrent to traditional American dominance. Its front-runner position in some areas of science and technology has given rise to a crisis awareness on the part of the U.S.

These changes in power form the basic background that prompted the U.S. to launch its policy of strategic rivalry and led to a recognition in the U.S. that it may not be able to fully dominate the future course of relations. Given a more proactive and heads-up China in diplomacy, the U.S. has become fully aware of a deep-seated predicament: It is unable to influence the behavior of China.

It is against this background that the U.S. sees a need to heighten strategic competition to maintain its advantages in comprehensive national strength and hegemonic status, while at the same time advocating responsible competition management to influence China’s behavior and hedge the latter’s strategic countermeasures.

For China, it is essential to have a sober mind about the new dual nature of America’s China strategy. It must face squarely the increased complexity of its relations with the U.S., using big-picture thinking and a great sense of responsibility. And it must earnestly safeguard its own security and development interests while properly handling relations with the U.S., all of which bear on the future of the world. China therefore needs to counter unswervingly the negative factors in U.S. thinking and steer bilateral relations back to the right track of stable development as soon as possible. This also means that China needs to do its own things well and shape the evolving U.S. strategy through its own continuous development.

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