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Foreign Policy

Return Patience for Patience

Mar 03, 2021
  • An Gang

    Research Fellow, Center for International Strategy and Security, Tsinghua University

Since Joe Biden took office as president of the United States one month ago, his administration has generally been cautious and prudent in dealing with China.

After the November election, Chinese leaders and diplomats have repeatedly emphasized the consistency of China’s policy toward the U.S. and fleshed out their vision that Beijing and Washington can work together to reconstruct a strategic framework for relations. Despite some unkind words by senior officials of the Biden administration and the increased frequency of U.S. military activity around China’s offshore waters, China has responded with calm and restraint, effectively easing the tensions.

At the same time, the Biden administration has responded through foreign policy speeches, Senate hearings and media briefings with a clear focus: The U.S. is in strategic competition with China, a defining feature of the 21st century. Certain decisions made previously under Donald Trump will undoubtedly continue during the Biden administration. Yet, the U.S. has no intention to engage in a Cold War-style conflict, and the administration has declared that competition with clear boundaries will be controllable and not harmful. The U.S. should now work with China on issues of common interest, including climate change, public health and nuclear non-proliferation. If it does, it may reclaim some of its credibility and moral authority.

This is in line with current American global strategy and the philosophy of the Democratic Party. Of this China should have no doubt.

In addition, here is one more message: Biden’s team will approach relations with China with patience. Easy as this may seem, patience actually has profound overtones. On the face of it, the White House suggested that it will take time to reset its China policy. In fact, this indicates how tricky it is for America to handle the relationship.

On one hand, because of the recent political turmoil in the U.S., the Biden administration has no choice but to honor its commitment to “restore the soul of America,” which means it will not focus as much on foreign affairs as it will domestic matters. Moreover, the new administration is still strongly constrained by the Republican Party in Congress. Every push comes at a high political cost, making it impossible to completely erase Trump’s mark.

On the other hand, Trump’s abuse of radical, tough approaches toward China, such as decoupling and sanctions, has drained America’s toolkit. Contrary to being contained, however, China has become more resilient and level-headed, triggering a tremendous backlash against U.S. industries. Even though the Biden administration may be eager to heal the damage inflicted by his predecessor, China is now rising even more inexorably. Therefore, the new U.S. president is neither capable of pursing hardline measures nor able to convince Americans that soft measures may work better.

For the Biden administration, reviewing America’s China policy is a complex, comprehensive and systematic task that will continue only for the next four years. I will have implications far into the future. Washington has to find a sweet spot that conforms to U.S. interests and values and also contributes to future administrations. It is estimated that it may take more than half a year to formulate such a policy.

Like the Trump administration, the Biden team seeks a strength-based foreign strategy and recognizes that the only way to wrestle with competition and challenges from China is improving national strength and reconstructing global U.S. leadership. Further, the Biden administration is also clear that the U.S. cannot cope with the rise of China alone; it must reunite with its allies and partners.

One of the biggest priorities for Biden is collaborating with Eurasian allies and partners and building transatlantic and transpacific blocs targeting China before engaging with Beijing. Obviously, the Eurasian allies harbor strong motives for doing this, but they are increasingly aware of America’s decline and inward orientation. Since they no longer face arbitrary Trumpian pressure, they will think more about their own interests and strike a balance between China and the U.S. as much as they can. Therefore, the Biden administration might not be able to formulate a unified China policy with other countries as it expected.

“Patience” here has another two-dimensional meaning. One is that the Biden administration may not reject restarting comprehensive talks with China but will insist that it is in no hurry to engage unless the dialogue is “results-oriented.” The other is that Biden will be more inclined to exercise self-restraint when grappling with sensitive issues. Unlike his predecessor, he will bank more on diplomacy and turn to calm wisdom.

After all, this restraint is a temporary tactic. Closer attention still needs to be paid to American strategy on issues regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea, and its efforts to strike a balance between old and new. China should know fairly well how the situation is evolving. For example, saying there has been no change in the stated one-China policy of the U.S. government statement may not refer at all to the one-China policy that China expects.

Certainly, China needs to make predictions based on the adjustments it sees in America’s global strategy. As Joseph Nye argues in his new book, “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump,” Obama and Trump ushered in a period of retrenchment in American foreign policy, though in quite different ways; but they had one thing in common: The retrenchment was more about means than ends. They were trying to give America another 50 years of global leadership — also stated as “Make America great again.” But both foreign policies by the two presidents failed to achieve their goal. Now it’s time for Biden to give it a try.

While integrating the foreign policies of Obama and Trump, can Biden bring forth a strategic transformation for the U.S.? Is it possible that the U.S. has essentially started retrenching away from the global arena? Both answers are closely related to China, and will have serious implications for the future of China-U.S. relations and China’s global profile.

After the mild period of Obama’s presidency and the tumultuous period of Trump’s toward China, it seems that Washington has no choice but to take the middle way and rebuild and heal itself. Nevertheless, over several years, China has posed an increasing challenge to America’s global hegemony, and issues regarding China have become more intertwined in U.S. domestic affairs. The Biden administration must think twice before acting.

Therefore, there is no need for China to have overly high expectations that Washington will somehow drastically improve relations. Excessive optimism and pushing too hard may backfire.

Over the past few years of rivalry with the U.S., the “strategic resolve” that Chinese leaders have emphasized from time to time has played a decisive role in China’s management of relations. As the Biden administration finds its footing, there is no need for China to rush to make a difference during the transition period. Instead, it can respond to America’s patience with its own as it aims to thaw the ice.

Given the past four years of chaos between the two nations, relations do need a thaw. Although the chances of getting back to the strategic mutual trust of the early days of Obama’s presidency are slim, China can strike a balance that generally matches both nations’ strengths and their global strategic goals in the new era.

 Patience does not mean no action. The international landscape is evolving fast. Against this backdrop, China-U.S. relations cannot wait to be reviewed every 10 years or longer; it’s needed every single year. A tipping point is approaching. As one of the main variables in the equation, China is bound to feel increased pressure from all sides. It must make full use of the leeway it now enjoys to better itself, for instance by further reforming and opening up and by improving its diplomatic transformation around the world. Meanwhile, it should endeavor to reactivate the positive factors for practical cooperation in specific fields in a bid to give itself more wiggle room as China-U.S. relations warm up.

On Feb. 11, Biden and President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone. Although this call was long, details remain unknown. Yet it’s not hard to see their restraint based on the official readouts from the two sides. Both leaders laid out their principles well. In other words, the two countries tried to be sensitive to each other’s feelings while elaborating their own stances — quite a change from the “all mouth and no ears” approach of the Trump presidency. This is a good start for China-U.S. relations and will undoubtedly boost people’s expectations for the future.

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