Waiting for spring to come in China-US relations
Waiting for spring to come in China-US relations

Waiting for spring to come in China-US relations

Author: Jia Qingguo, Peking University

As the poet Shelley once hopefully wrote, “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” When it comes to the relationship between China and the US now, it seems that spring is quite far behind.

Screenshot shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden launching their virtual meeting on Tuesday, November 16, 2021 (Photo: Reuters).

In early 2021, there were modest hopes. The good news was that Joe Biden had won the US presidential election. Trump’s trade war had sent the relationship into a deep dive. His manipulation of the China issue for domestic political gain contributed to its further aggravation. His handling of the Taiwan issue towards the end of his term of office increased the risk of unintentional conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

The bite is the polar opposite of Trump. He belongs to the American political mainstream, characterized as professional, decent and cold-headed. Some felt that this was a positive sign of the relationship between China and the United States and had the prospect of a more pragmatic approach to China. The Chinese government shared this view and signaled its willingness to work with the new administration.

After the Biden administration officially took office, Yang Jiechi, in charge of China’s foreign relations, said ‘it is a task for both China and the United States to restore relations to a predictable and constructive track of development and to build a model for interaction between the two major countries, focusing on peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation’.

But many in Washington interpreted Yang’s message as an attempt to blame the United States for the problems between the two countries instead of an expression of benevolence. Upon his accession, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken defined the new administration’s approach to China as a mixture of competition, confrontation and cooperation.

It quickly became clear that the competition would continue dominate US policy towards China. Washington blasted China’s behavior on a number of issues, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, the South China Sea and human rights. Blinken marked China’s policy in Xinjiang as a ‘genocide’. The Biden administration also stepped up efforts to rally its allies to ‘push back’ on China.

Washington’s uncompromising stance attracted frustration and anger from Beijing. Many in China concluded that the Biden administration’s China policy was worse than the Trump administration’s as it sought to create an international anti-China front. An exchange between Beijing and Washington followed. At the two countries’ first high-level face-to-face meeting in Alaska on November 13, 2021, there was a heated exchange of views.

Despite some cooperation on specific issues, such as climate change, the conflict between the two sides has increased. The topic that attracted the most attention turned out to be Taiwan. The Taiwanese government’s efforts to push for independence combined with rising US support and support sparked a tougher stance from China, which included sending military aircraft to patrol near Taiwan. The vicious circle of interactions between Beijing, Taipei and Washington increased the probability of a military showdown.

Against this background, the virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden on November 16 was more about how to guard the relationship than exploring the possibility of real cooperation. Despite the summit, relations between Beijing and Washington continue to slide. The latest quarrels include an official US boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, sanctions on Xinjiang and Chinese retaliation.

Why has the relationship developed in this way?

China’s progress has heightened security concerns among US realists about China’s strategic intentions, especially in light of China’s military action to defend its proclaimed territorial sovereignty over the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The political developments in China have also disappointed American liberals, who had bet on the hope of encouraging political reforms in China through engagement.

Trump’s race-to-the-bot anti-China rhetoric gave air to frustration over China for both American realists and liberals and contributed to a political atmosphere in the United States where harshness is the right and only position when it comes to China.

Given the anti-Chinese consensus in the US Congress and the small majority that the ruling Democrats enjoy, Biden has had to remain tough on China to get something done at home. This includes the appointment of government officials, the adoption of bills to curb COVID-19 and the rebuilding of infrastructure.

How the two countries interacted with each other, which was characterized by mega-fund diplomacy for domestic consumption, undermined any goodwill left for stabilization and improvement of the relationship.

In the short term, these factors are unlikely to change. The 2022 midterm elections do not bode well for relations between China and the United States, because the Republicans who are on an even tougher policy towards China seem to be winning.

Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will be able to do so jerk a pragmatic approach to China. Ahead of the 20th Party Congress, China is unlikely to compromise either.

Stabilizing and improving China-US relations is likely to remain a distant prospect for some time yet.

Jia Qingguo is a professor and former dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.

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