Following fierce interaction throughout 2022, relations between China and the United States have taken on a more complicated character. The 118th U.S. Congress convened, and China concluded its annual Two Sessions meetings, completing leadership changes in its state institutions and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Recent interactions between the two countries indicate the rift is widening — especially in how they identify one another and how they should interact.
For some time, Washington’s China policy has been largely dominated by the so-called bipartisan consensus and administration-Congress consensus — hawkish stances on China — and also by the appeal to “outcompete” China, behind which the 118th Congress plays a crucial role. Lately the negative role of Congress in bilateral ties has reached its highest point since the establishment of Sino-U.S. diplomatic relations in 1979. A number of subversive bills have been put forward on major sensitive issues, and some of them have passed. The GOP-led House is more extreme than its Democrat-led predecessor. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the newly established Select Committee on China, even claimed that China-U.S. relations have come down to “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century — and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”
On the Taiwan question, Congress is rapidly bringing in more tools to “support Taiwan while countering the Chinese mainland” and storing more plans to sanction China in case of a presumed “Taiwan emergency.” It even introduced the Taiwan Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, which has a sense of military confrontation. After former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s provocative visit to Taiwan set off a new crisis in bilateral ties, her successor, Kevin McCarthy, exacerbated the situation with talk of another visit. He met recently with Tsai Ing-wen in California. The recent Taiwan trip of Michael McCaul, the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made things worse. What’s more, the House even required the State Department to lift its restrictions governing how U.S. officials meet with Taiwan’s leadership.
Congress has also been trying to widen U.S. decoupling from China from the key high-tech sector to other areas. From the introduction in the Senate of the China Trade Relations Act of 2023 — which would withdraw normal trade relations treatment from China — to the House’s unanimous passage of a bill to remove China’s “developing country” designation and the congressional hearing on TikTok amid calls to tighten scrutiny on investments by U.S. firms in Chinese tech, Congress has shown that its hawkish faction is seeking to reverse China-U.S. economic and trade ties. While these bills may not pass ultimately, their influence has sprawled from the federal government to local bodies and the wider population. For instance, Texas and South Carolina recently passed bills to ban Chinese citizens and entities from purchasing land.
As the actual practitioner behind Washington’s China policy, the U.S. executive branch has more sophisticated calculations while pressing ahead with its agenda to outcompete China. On one hand, it held a new meeting of Quad foreign ministers, published the AUKUS security partnership plan, launched the second negotiating round for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and convened the second Summit for Democracy, all of which reflect the U.S. strategy of increasing competition with China — a strategy that features a strengthened network of allies and partners, values-oriented diplomacy and anchors in the Indo-Pacific region. On the other hand, divergences have appeared between the White House and the new Congress in how fast the rivalry with China should proceed. The White House has emphasized preventing the competition from spiraling out of control and avoiding direct conflict. For example, the White House and the Pentagon intended to play down the “balloon incident,” whereas Congress kept hyping it. Meanwhile, the U.S. executive branch tends to focus on decoupling in some key fields, not the sort of widespread and subversive decoupling advocated by Congress.
After the 2023 Two Sessions, China reaffirmed its commitment to opening-up to the rest of the world and the U.S., while continuing to object to an American policy dominated by the goal to outcompete China. At a news conference, Chinese Premier Li Qiang emphasized that China will deepen reform and opening-up. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang underlined the hope that the U.S. will honor its commitments and work with China to explore the right way to get along with each other to the benefit of both countries and the entire world. At the 2023 China Development Forum soon after, U.S. corporate leaders expressed hopes to deepen cooperation with China for its rosy development prospects. They conveyed an attitude completely different from that of Washington. Meeting with foreign business delegates, Premier Li reaffirmed that China will only open itself wider to the world, to which senior executives of Apple, Boston Consulting Group and other companies reacted positively.
During the forum, Han Zheng, Chinese vice president, met with executives of several multinational corporations, including the U.S.-based Abbott Laboratories. Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, met with the president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Qin Gang had group meetings with U.S.-friendly organizations and individuals from the business community. Zheng Shanjie, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, and Wang Wentao, minister of commerce, met with top executives of Apple and other multinationals. These activities reflected not just that business communities from the U.S.-led Western world are reluctant to decouple, or that they have confidence in doing business and making investments in China, but also that the new Chinese government is willing — and taking real action — to continue opening up.
While the American business community is interacting with China, the U.S. executive branch is gradually pressing ahead with the agenda to “engage” China. Rick Waters, the China coordinator and deputy assistant secretary of state, recently made low-profile visits to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing，and he talked with Chinese experts and scholars. During his stay in China, officials of the Department of North American and Ocean ian Affairs of China’s Foreign Ministry spoke with him at the U.S. side’s request. The White House, as well as the Pentagon and State, Treasury and Commerce departments also expressed a desire to keep communication with China open and even make trips there.
What should also be noted is that at the Boao Forum for Asia, international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund underlined that the world should unite to tackle global issues and oppose economic fragmentation. Leaders of Spain, Singapore and the European Union also sent signals that they don’t want to decouple from China. The Hainan Free Trade Port is currently accelerating its independent customs operations, indicating that China is steadily expanding its institutional opening-up.
We can see from recent interactions between China and the U.S. that bilateral ties can hardly gain substantive improvement because of Washington’s cognitive bias against China. Nonetheless, a strategic competition-dominated China policy framework held by the U.S. executive and legislative branches may not gain the agreement of all American stakeholders who have interests with China. Hence the U.S. will face obstacles and challenges in implementing its policy measures.
As with the American business community, calls for Washington to rethink its China policy also arise in American media, academia and the international community. The New York Times even published an editorial questioning the U.S. government’s China policy. The increasing strategic competition with China will also encounter more questions not only from within the U.S. but also from other Western countries and the wider international community.
In the next step, the U.S. government will confront several critical issues in its China policy. As China is intensely interacting with a variety of U.S. communities and allies, to what degree will the U.S. gain identification, support and following in its strategic competition with China — and decoupling — so as not to end up self-constrained or isolated? Further, with Congress playing an increasingly negative role in China-U.S. relations and the 2024 presidential election approaching, the hazards of Washington’s China policy will probably ferment. The Biden administration has long been calling for responsible competition and preventing competition with China from tipping into outright conflict. To stop bilateral ties from falling further or even being derailed, the U.S., especially the White House, needs to seek more balance between dealing with Congress and engaging China.