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Foreign Policy

Responsible U.S. Competition

Sep 18, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently took a phone call from his U.S. counterpart, Joseph Biden — their second since Biden took office. The two leaders had extensive, candid, in-depth dialogue on China-U.S. relations and issues of mutual interest. Although uncertainties remain in bilateral relations, this phone call sent four significant signals.

First, we should not be overly pessimistic about China-U.S. relations. The timing of the call, after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and before the upcoming G20 summit, reflects that the Biden administration still perceives engagement and cooperation as an indispensable component of its China policy. The bilateral relationship has had its ups and downs, but history proves that when the two countries work together, both benefit. The world does, too.

Second, the U.S. must have the courage to overcome the challenges of domestic politics and show the political will to cooperate with China. The Chinese press releases are generally much longer than those of the U.S., whether with regard to a phone call between two presidents or a meeting of diplomats. It is said that this phone call lasted an hour and a half, but the U.S. press release was brief, which shows the caution with which the Biden administration is approaching China-U.S. relations. Biden understands there is a bipartisan consensus in America to be tough on China, but overplaying the strong side of the call might dilute the stabilizing effect of the conversation.

Third, an important consensus of the two countries is to prevent competition from veering into conflict. Biden’s remarks were in line with the “guardrails” mentioned by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during her visit to Tianjin, where she called for setting parameters for bilateral relations to manage competition and avoid conflict. It is clear that the Biden administration’s China team is reluctant to turn “extreme competition” into outright confrontation.

Fourth, after the phone call, the two sides may hold high-level dialogues to seek practical cooperation as a follow-up. However, the U.S. might not resume the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) style of the Obama administration. Instead, it is more likely the U.S. will want smaller, “case by case” talks aimed at solving a specific issue or promoting concrete cooperation, such as in trade negotiations, climate change or COVID-19, with an emphasis on being “results oriented.”

The Biden administration’s emphasis on competitive coexistence may help reverse the Trump era’s drift toward a new, full-blown cold war. But we cannot overestimate the positive factors of the Biden administration’s policy toward China, as it is not substantially different from the Trump administration in terms of its paradigm shift and specific approaches.

Whether China and the U.S. will confront each other or coexist peacefully remains an open question, and the answer depends on their strategic choices and policy interactions.

If the Biden administration insists on adopting a competitive framework for China, the U.S. should be a responsible competitor rather than a rogue one. There is a risk in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s “3C” approach to the bilateral relationship that competition and confrontation could impede or overshadow cooperation and throw the relationship off balance.

The basic rules and bottom lines of competition should not be unilaterally dictated by the U.S. version of “guardrails.” China’s “two lists” and “three bottom lines” clearly lay out China’s basic interests. Therefore, if the United States truly wants to compete responsibly, it must respect China’s interests and understand its concerns. Competition that is not based on mutual respect can easily slide into conflict.

To be a responsible competitor, the U.S. should avoid creating more chaos to the region and the world as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even Europe, America’s closest ally, believes that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is a wake-up call and that Europe should more actively seek strategic autonomy. It will be more hesitant to engage in a U.S.-led coalition for intervening in overseas affairs in the future. No country wants to take sides in any kind of confrontations between China and the U.S., especially countries in Asia, which have long benefited from positive interactions with both.

To avoid confrontation, China and the U.S. should further strengthen crisis management mechanisms and reiterate the bottom line of “no conflict, no confrontation” to ensure smooth channels of communication between the two militaries. For instance, the U.S. should consider renewing its invitation to China to participate in the RIMPAC exercise to build a good working relationship and increase professional exchanges in this regard.

The two countries should also revive cultural and people-to-people exchanges as soon as possible to build a “buffer zone” for so-called great power competition. The Biden administration has made some improvements over its predecessor in this area but continues extending new restrictions. The two lists put forward by China provide many practical measures for the U.S. to correct its course, and it’s not too difficult for the U.S. to make adjustments. It would be utterly irresponsible for the U.S. to advocate competition that harms the interests of both peoples.

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