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Foreign Policy

Strategic Breakthrough Within Reach

Dec 21, 2020
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

It is widely expected that once Joe Biden takes office as president of the United States he will usher in a reset of U.S.-China relations and any further escalation of tensions between the world’s two largest economies will be averted.

Biden and his core foreign policy advisers believe that while China is not the biggest threat confronting the U.S., it is the most consequential in the long run. As such, the U.S. should not engage in any form of new cold war. Although Biden will continue to see U.S.-China relations through the lens of great power competition, his goal will be to make the U.S. run faster, and engage in positive-sum competition.

While it is true that under Biden, the tenor of U.S. China policy will moderate somewhat from the maximum pressure and confrontational tone of the Trump administration, there should be no illusion that the current “red alert” state will unwind automatically with Biden in the White House. Unrealistically high expectations will be counterproductive for U.S.-China relations going forward. The Biden administration has its job cut out when it comes to recalibrating this key relationship.

First of all, Biden will have to deal with the Obama legacy and the Trump legacy simultaneously, meaning that he will make sure not to be perceived as going soft on China that he will selectively inherit some of Trump’s rationale and approach. As the Trump administration draws to an end, its team is running on all cylinders to concoct a Trump legacy. The State Department, led by Mike Pompeo, released a report called the Elements of the China Challenge primarily to harden the narratives and constrain the incoming administration. Even if Biden inclines to remove any single pressure-inducing measure, he may make himself vulnerable to backlash if he is perceived as being soft on China.

Second, Biden will face pressure from within the Democratic Party. For example, Jake Sullivan, his designated national security adviser, along with a cohort of new-generation Democratic political high flyers, has hard-line views on China — views that are on the same page as Republicans, whose attitude toward the CPC is even more ideologically driven. Progressive Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, do not view China favorably, having been saying that its trade practices are unfair and have harmed U.S. workers and the middle class. The “progressive” foreign policy championed by such people puts a premium on the geopolitical implications of international economic policies, and is wary that China or other powers may weaponize their economic heft.

Third, as Biden will be occupied with his top priorities of pandemic control and associated economic challenges, he will have limited capacity and political wherewithal to pursue a policy agenda with China. Biden will also face pressure from Congress if the Republicans retain their Senate majority Democrats lose some of their previous political leverage in the House. Both chambers share substantial common ground when it comes to taking a hard-line policy toward China.

This is borne out by the China-related content of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021. In a report released in October by House Republicans’ China Task Force, more than 400 proposals were laid out to crack down on China. While the group is made up of Republicans only, the report did consult and reflect some Democratic views.

The Trump administration has pushed U.S.-China relations into dire straits. As Dr. Henry Kissinger cautioned, the risk of war should not be underestimated. How the Biden administration crafts and implements its China policy not only bears on relations over the next four years but also on whether the two powers can achieve “competitive coexistence” in the decades to come.

Over the next few years, the shared challenge for Chinese and U.S. leaders is twofold — first that they need to properly handle short-term risks and confrontation; second, they need to work out a framework and a set of rules for managing strategic competition between the two countries for coming decades.   

Given the magnitude of the challenge, combined with the difficulties Biden will encounter in carrying out his office, both sides need to work on realistic goals and a road map for resetting bilateral ties. They must put in the time, energy and political capital needed. Proposed steps include the following: 

• Repair U.S.-China relations by reversing the extreme approaches pursued by Trump. Severing cultural and people-to-people exchanges will fundamentally harm ties, as any cultural decoupling will only serve to aggravate the current rift. China and the U.S. can take measures in tandem to create conditions for bilateral talks, starting with reopening consulates, lifting visa restrictions and ending bans or expulsions of resident journalists.

• Restart bilateral dialogues and strengthen their ability to efficiently handle specific issues. Apart from continuing the economic and trade negotiations, strategic dialogues on the diplomatic track should be reconstituted after their hiatus sparked by the Trump administration.

The U.S. hopes to pursue a results-oriented relationship with China, but for that to happen, the U.S. must make compromises as well, not just unilaterally making demands of China. Both sides need to improve the quality and professionalism of bilateral dialogues, which is a shared challenge for officials in both countries.

• Push forward pragmatic bilateral cooperation. This should be carried out in light of the domestic political and economic agendas of the respective countries. China has taken proactive steps in market access and IPR protection. And it is favorable toward the ideas of joining the CPTPP.

Both sides should also work out specific plans for cooperation in enforcing the Paris Agreement, developing clean energy, maintaining global financial stability and advancing nonproliferation. Furthermore, infrastructure, data use and protection, anti-money laundering and counterterrorism also present room for U.S.-China cooperation.

• Strengthen crisis management mechanisms and avoid military confrontation. This is crucial in the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea and other areas. Communication between China’s Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff should be enhanced, with multilevel crisis communication channels.

• Create processes to improve crisis response. In particular, enhance the crisis control consciousness and ability of front-line military personnel. Under the Obama administration, a consultation mechanism for Asia-Pacific affairs was set up between China and the U.S. Similar arrangements should be organized to avoid miscalculations, otherwise they face a scenario in which the two countries will slide into conflict as a result of some “third party factor.”

It’s true that there is no evidence indicating that U.S.-China relations will turn for the better simply because Biden takes over the presidency. But the opposite is true as well, as there is no reason that we should let slip the opportunity to ease the tensions and strive for a reset.

Both sides must work with a sense of urgency and resort to unconventional solutions when necessary to achieve a strategic breakthrough. It is worth mentioning that China should not underestimate its ability to steer and shape Sino-U.S. relations, and take positive measures to salvage them.

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