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Assessment of Biden’s New Approach to US-China Relations

How will Xi Jinping respond to the Biden administration’s efforts to “recalibrate” relations, and what impact will this have on Australia’s geostrategic stance?

How will Xi Jinping respond to the Biden administration’s efforts to “recalibrate” relations, and what impact will this have on Australia’s geostrategic stance?

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden had a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss a number of points of contention, with the aim of reducing hostilities between the major powers.

Relations between the nations have continued to deteriorate, with the recent spike in military activity over the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, raising fears of an imminent confrontation.

According to Ben Scott, director of Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute, the meeting marked a “recalibration” of the Biden administration’s policy toward China.

Scott claims the government has shifted emphasis from “big power” competition to “strategic” competition, aimed at setting up “guard rails.”

He refers to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent speech to the Lowy Institute, in which he called for “effective and healthy” competition.

“For someone as intelligent and eloquent as Sullivan to use such obscure language indicates a really difficult policy conundrum,” he writes in a piece originally published by the AFR.

“On the one hand, the US sees China as an economic, military and even ideological threat that must be combated. On the other hand, it needs to work with China on a range of global issues, most notably climate change.

“…The more immediate goal is to prevent competition from escalating into catastrophic conflict.”

But Scott doesn’t expect Beijing to respond in kind.

He claims there is “little evidence” that China is also looking for crash barriers, while President Xi refuses President Biden’s invitation to meet in person, and agree to a virtual meeting only after Washington “showed a willingness to compromise” over the deal to release Huawei chief executive Meng Wanzhou.

“Beijing probably sees Washington’s pursuit of stability as a sign of weakness and suspects that ‘guardrails’ are just code for maintaining the US-dominated ‘status quo’,” Scott continued.

“From Beijing’s perspective, it makes perfect sense that the Biden administration would eventually realize the need to cooperate with the emerging great power.

“Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all pledged to crack down on China before getting similar realizations once they were in office.”

The Biden administration, he added, should consider carefully how it plans to compete and cooperate with President Xi’s regime, while avoiding links between cooperation on transnational affairs and bilateral relations.

At the same time, the US must advocate for “responsible competition” without showing signs of weakness.

Scott goes on to discuss the importance of US-China relations in shaping Australia’s ties to China.

“The resumption of US-China dialogue brings greater relief at the lack of talks between Australia and China. It is up to Australian diplomats to speak up as Washington balances competing objectives,” he noted.

“Australia would benefit from a US approach to China that is less confrontational than Trump’s and less accommodating than Obama’s.

“A goldilocks US policy would counter China’s security threats while opening more room for economic cooperation, including restoring Australia-China trade.”

However, the Lowy Institute analyst warns that a Biden-Xi consensus could freeze Australia from economic engagement.

“U.S. promises that Australia would not be left ‘alone in the field’ in the face of China’s economic coercion have yet to be translated into concrete action,” Scott continued.

“And Biden’s recent announcement that the US would ‘explore with partners the development of an Indo-Pacific economic framework’ is missing details.”

As such, Scott proposes that Australia support China’s “collective approach”, leveraging “minilateral” groups – including the Quad and AUKUS – and larger, multilateral groups aimed at establishing an international, rules-based order.

But efforts to maintain the existing rules-based order are no longer enough, he argues, and recent developments in US-China relations suggest that the existing order is “no longer fit for purpose”.

“This is especially true in the Indo-Pacific, where regional institution development has not kept pace with challenges,” Scott writes.

“More work is needed to build a regional order that is not meant to exclude or house China, but which promotes prosperity, limits power and is seen as legitimate.”

He claims that US membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) would be a step in the right direction.

“The fact that China now wants to join an agreement Obama once described as necessary to prevent China from writing ‘the rules of the world economy’ should prompt Washington to act,” Scott added.

“But more efforts are also needed to reconcile the existing ASEAN-based regional architecture with the new groupings such as the Quad and AUKUS.”

Join the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments below, or in contact with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected]

Assessment of Biden’s New Approach to US-China Relations

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Last updated: November 22, 2021

Published: November 23, 2021