US/China, Reboot?

The door to China

One of the few things Democrats recognize as a positive contribution from the Trump Administration (2017-2020) is the clear identification that China represents the country’s principal strategic threat, which the US must aggressively counter. A new Administration generally wants to appear to be changing the approach of its predecessor, trade officials of the Biden Administration claimed they were taking a markedly different approach towards China, but the underlying theme remained constant. Biden maintained most of Trump’s tariffs on the importation of Chinese goods, he continually referred to the “China threat” to justify many of his domestic industrial policy initiatives, and he imposed a series of export controls restricting Chinese companies’ access to critical semiconductors and sophisticated equipment from the US.

Biden’s aggressive stance towards China was also in response to domestic political pressures. As frequently happens in the US when the US public becomes concerned with a foreign policy issue, political pressure pushes leaders to extreme positions (two-thirds of Americans view China as a threat): both Republicans and Democrats are vulnerable to attack by opponents as not being tough enough on China, so opposition to China has become a unifying theme in US politics and China-bashing has become a favorite sport of US politicians from both Parties.

In his first State of the Union speech shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2021, Biden presented his vision that the world was divided into two competing camps in a global battle between democracy or autocracy, with China jointly with Russia leading the group of autocratic countries. Such a black and white approach to international relations echoes George W Bush’s address to Congress in September 2001 when he divided the world into two groups, those supporting the US or supporting international terrorism: “you are either with us or against us”. In the view of this author, such a view of the complex, multi-polar world of 2023 is both overly simplistic and dangerous. Overly simplistic in that it no longer corresponds to a world where although it is true that today there may be only two dominating great powers, the US and China, there are many other important powers that are not singularly attached to one side or the other: India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa come to mind as obvious examples of countries that will trace their individual paths without necessarily aligning themselves with the “democratic” or “autocratic” camp. The concept is also dangerous as dividing the world into two rival camps lends itself in the long run to the risk of armed conflict between the two dominant powers.

Part of the Biden Administration strategy towards China has also been to actively build a matrix of relationships to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, with the US as the dominant partner in each set. These include: the “Quad” Alliance with the US, Japan, India and Australia; AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom (to provide Australia with US nuclear submarines); ASEAN, regrouping 10 Southern Asian nations; and much stronger military cooperation with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and as well as India (India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be honored with a state visit to Washington this week).

Chinese leaders were, in my view, not mistaken to interpret US policy as seeking to prevent China from winning the competitive rivalry in many new technology areas, threatening China’s continued economic development and blocking it from assuming what they view as its rightful destiny as a great power. It is interesting to note that China’s leaders view the US as China’s principal threat, in a near mirror-image reflection of their US counterparts. In parallel with increasingly aggressive rhetoric from both sides contributing to a more fragmented, confrontational and dangerous world, communications channels between the two countries have steadily declined over recent years.

Henry Kissinger, for decades a major influence in US foreign policy and now 100 years old, emphasized the danger in a recent interview “on the current trajectory of relations, a military conflict is probable” between the US and China. He went on to express his hope that the current trajectory would be changed, that a more active exchange could be developed to reach a reasonably balanced relationship between the two great powers. Is that possible? Are leaders of the two countries ready to reopen channels of constructive communication? We can certainly hope so.

Biden’s plan to have Secretary of State Antony Blinken visit China in February 2023, the highest level American official to visit the country in 5 years, represented a first small positive US initiative to normalize relations, but a Chinese surveillance balloon floating across the US poisoned the atmosphere, the US shot down the balloon amidst talks of a new Cold War between the countries, and Blinken’s trip was postponed.

It finally took place this week, Blinken met for more than 10 hours with leading Chinese officials including a 35 minute encounter with President Xi Jinping, and both parties described it in positive terms: In their joint appearance, Blinken spoke of “constructive” and “substantive” conversations, Xi said “the two side agreed to follow through the common understanding President Biden and I had reached in Bali”. In a subsequent interview, Blinken recognized that inverting the deterioration in US-China ties was “not the product of one visit, even as intense and in some ways productive as this was”, but the two days of meetings represented an “important start”.

We can accept that Blinken’s trip was successful in changing the tone of the dialogue between the two countries, we can hope that leaders from both countries will continue on the path to more open communication and exchange, but it is obvious that there remain complex issues representing core interests of each side with no obvious solutions. These will continue to separate the two countries and will require considerable flexibility on both sides to avoid serious clashes over them. In the need for flexibility, the Biden Administration has the disadvantage of facing a presidential election, with extreme partisan domestic political pressures exerting powerful influences on foreign policy decisions and actions.

More fundamentally, I believe the basic, most difficult question is whether the US will be able to accept, and adapt to, the inevitable rise of China as a great power, able to compete in many areas on equal terms, or possibly even ahead, with the United States.

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