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Foreign Policy

Stability Expected. Here’s Why.

Jan 24, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

After Joe Biden took office, the United States basically stuck with the China policy it inherited from Donald Trump — strategic competition — but some adjustments have been made as to ways and means.

The current U.S. policy is new wine in old bottles, resulting in a more complex strategic game between the two countries as cooperation and competition are intertwined. Looking ahead, the final outcome of relations is uncertain. It turns on the policy interactions between the two sides in the next stage.

The Biden administration adjusted America’s China policy based on two considerations. One is to facilitate U.S. domestic strength. Biden put forward his foreign policy for the middle class” concept, which has become an important starting point for the U.S. as it reshapes its approach.

Although foreign policy is an extension of domestic affairs, the Biden administration believes that the strength of the U.S. will depend on the approaches it takes to compete with China. Biden launched a series of domestic initiatives, including the American Rescue Plan and Build Back Better, expecting to improve the overall competitiveness of the country by investing in the economy and the middle class.

Another consideration is to maintain America’s global hegemony. Faced with changes in the international landscape, Biden further adjusted U.S. foreign strategy by speeding up its pivot to the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. not only hastily withdrew troops from Afghanistan but continuously sharpened confrontational measures with China in the Indo-Pacific.

Specifically, Biden aims to compete with China in the following three aspects:

• Unite old allies and establish new alliances.

 Biden significantly boosted efforts to win over Europe, as well as allies and partners in th Indo-Pacific region, including selecting Europe as his first destination for an overseas visit to repair transatlantic relations damaged by the Trump shockwaves, activating the QUAD and organizing the new AUKUS alignment.

• Promote values-oriented diplomacy.

The Biden administration has made defending “democracy” and “human rights”  a priority, with particular emphasis on highlighting Western values in its relations with China. The U.S. has put constant pressure on China on issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet and interfered in China’s internal affairs. The U.S. also held the Summit for Democracy in December in an attempt to form an ideological alliance that would isolate and suppress China by dividing the world through values.

• Undermine China’s interests on specific issues.

On science and technology, Biden has stressed the need to unite allies, set industry standards and attract Europe and Japan to establish a small and exclusive circle of technology research and development. On Taiwan-related issues, the Biden administration has repeatedly challenged China’s bottom line, strengthened U.S.-Taiwan military relations and promoted the internationalization of the Taiwan question. 

Looking ahead, the China-U.S. relationship will continue to be under pressure from the United States. Most important, the Biden administration has a limited amount of domestic space in which to adjust its China policy. Biden’s approval rate has fallen with the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. The Democratic Party suffered setbacks in the 2020 election and may lose its narrow majority in Congress in this year’s midterms. In addition, high inflation and a supply chain crisis put Biden under greater domestic pressure. All in all, it will be more difficult to implement a flexible China policy.

It is also not easy to reverse the U.S. global strategic focus. Biden followed Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy and strengthened the strategic competition with China, successively launching the Build Back Better World, or B3W, initiative and the Indo-Pacific economic framework. The B3W claims to assist low and middle income countries in infrastructure construction, but it’s really a hedge against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Indo-Pacific economic framework aims to revive America’s former leading position in regional economy and trade.

What’s more, one of the features of the U.S. strategy is to “seek the enemy.” The U.S. believes that without external enemies or threats, it will be difficult to reach domestic consensus and unite alliances. During the Ccold War, the perception of the Soviet Union as an enemy enabled the U.S. to establish its alliance system. Now, facing problems of domestic political polarization and waning international leadership, the U.S. is actively looking for a new enemy. China and Russia, which are different from the U.S. in many ways, naturally become the target.

Still, we should not lose faith in the future. Stable China-U.S. relations can still be expected. First of all, the two sides have realized the importance of managing bilateral relations. In the video meeting of two leaders in November, China proposed that the two countries should adhere to the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, which have played an important historical role in guiding relations. Some tangible results emerged after the meeting.

Second, China and the U.S. have common interests and needs for cooperation. In the context of the pandemic, economic and trade volume between China and the U.S. grew even in the face of difficulties. According to the latest data of the General Administration of Customs of China, the total value of China-U.S. trade in the first 11 months of 2021 was 4.41 trillion yuan ($695.5 billion), an increase of 21.1 percent. In the future, economic and trade relations between the two countries will still be a stabilizer in China-U.S. relations. The two countries also have consensus on global issues, such as dealing with the pandemic, climate change, energy security and nuclear proliferation.

Last but not least, other countries don’t want a new cold war. The Biden administration attempted to impose an all-around China containment approach, win over ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region and bring in the European Union, NATO and other forces outside the region, which was not welcomed. Economic globalization closely links industrial chains. Rational countries are unwilling to choose sides between China and the U.S., and regional countries reluctant to get involved in the great power competition refuse to become a tool of the U.S. in its strategic competition.

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