Biden and China: An Opportunity for a Reset
How Biden handles this relationship is critical to his presidency. Hopefully, he will take a pragmatic approach.
Since U.S. President Joe Biden’s election in November, a slew of commentaries has discussed the state of China-U.S. relations, with various authors offering thoughts on what they think should or will be the future trajectory.
Given the contentious state of current American political dialogue, it should probably come as little surprise that there is a decided mix of American views on China and the bilateral relationship.
They range from the coldest of cold warriors exhorting economic decoupling and military confrontation to former policymakers calling for a return to more cordial and nuanced relations experienced for much of the first two decades of the 21st century. These views are shaped as much by experiences (or a lack thereof) in and with China as by partisan, ideological, and/or economic interests.
So why care about my opinion on what I think could or should happen? After all, I’m just a relatively boring and obscure political science professor that happens to teach and conduct research on the Chinese government and its politics.
I’m not a heavyweight diplomat or a national policy professional. But I do care about the state of relations between the two nations. And I’m realistic enough to recognize that China is neither a fire-breathing behemoth nor a cute, cuddly panda bear.
It’s actually a vibrant country experiencing both the successes and, yes, shortfalls found in any great nation. Perhaps that’s enough to read a bit further.
During my course on Chinese Foreign Policy last fall, one topic that I raised with the class in both a discussion as well as on an examination essay question that I think works well in pondering the current state and future trend: How would you characterize the current state of the U.S.-China relationships?
This question elicited some of the most passionate and interesting discussions. Many students were concerned about the prospects for a “cold war” turning into an actual war, resulting in massive casualties and destruction on a global scale. They worried about how the Trump administration’s across-the-board confrontational approach to China not only posed a threat to the global economy and geopolitical stability, but how it diminished American foreign policy objectives and America’s standing in the world. However, they often also offered a measure of optimism about the future of China-U.S. relations. With this question and my students’ responses in mind, let me offer a few comments.
So, how can we characterize the current state of China-U.S. relations? The short answer: It’s not good. Thanks to the harsh rhetoric of the past four years, we stand at a key moment in bilateral relations.
Will Biden take advantage of the opportunity to stabilize and press for improved engagement in China-U.S. relations? Will he continue to support a standoffish and decidedly chilly relationship between the two countries?
How Biden handles this relationship is critical to his presidency. Hopefully, he will take a pragmatic approach. Assuming that he does, he will likely recognize that while there is a natural level of competition, there is also a need to engage in wide-ranging cooperation on a host of issues that not only impact bilateral relations, but the whole world.
It was encouraging that Biden recently spoke with his Chinese counterpart by phone for nearly two hours. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Biden’s immediate predecessor doing that. The two leaders have pledged to find common ground where they can. It helps that the two leaders know each other, which is why they were able to discuss issues that have been a source of contention between China and the U.S. as well as issues that can serve as venues for potential cooperation.
The call was the first step in what will likely be a long process to stabilize China-U.S. relations and to slowly improve bilateral engagement in a wide range of policy areas. Will one phone call change the trajectory of this relationship? Of course not. But it’s a welcome start given the past four years of Trump’s increasingly antagonistic language and actions toward China.
Biden has stated that he’s prepared for “extreme competition” with China but not “conflict” and that his approach would be different from that of Trump. That’s all well and fine, but the reality is that he does face pressure to be “tough on China.”
As a result, there is probabe cause for some concern – at least in the short term. Biden will likely take a slow approach in making many changes to the trade and tariff measures undertaken by the Trump administration against China. That said, I think he will tone down some of the rhetoric and move to a more civil tone as he looks for ways to find common ground.
Respect and an inclination to agree to disagree will help. Unlike his predecessor, I think Biden will show some willingness to engage with China on key issues such as intellectual property and trade restrictions and eventually de-emphasize Trump’s punitive tariffs.
However, the potential for this encouraging development should be also tempered by statements and actions of Biden and his “China Team” as well as bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for a more aggressive policy toward China that links trade with human rights issues and U.S. strategic interests.
Biden appears to value stable relations with China far more than Trump did. Pursuing stability and understanding that a mature bilateral relationship recognizes that while we have different political systems and differences of opinion on a host of issues, it doesn’t mean that we can’t respect each other and cooperate on areas of mutual interest or concern. After 42 years of normalized relations, one would think that it shouldn’t be incredibly difficult to figure this out.
Ultimately, fostering cooperation and ending chaos is a good thing for both nations and the world. A good start would be the restoration of the Chinese Consulate in Houston and the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. A U.S. return to multilateralism and a commitment to global governance would benefit American workers and the economy.
Stop acting like every Chinese academic and student working or studying in the U.S. is a spy and end racially-biased initiatives that target Chinese nationals. Encourage cooperation on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Once the pandemic dissipates, encourage sustained cultural, educational, scientific, and trade exchanges and visits – particularly from areas other than the greater Washington DC area or the greater Beijing area.
Mutual sub-national and regional collaboration brings tangible economic benefits in the form of jobs and investments. Hopefully, with a more amenable environment, China-U.S. relations will improve, and we will see enhanced regional cooperation and a swift return of people-to-people exchanges.
The last four years saw an attempt by a U.S. president to fashion a zero-sum rivalry with China that ultimately backfired on the U.S. Blaming China for a host of American domestic ills by pursuing punitive trade initiatives, banning popular apps, and calling for regime change in China won’t solve America’s problems with income and racial inequality or crumbling infrastructure.
As I noted to my students at the end of our class: The trajectory of China-U.S. relations will determine whether the 21st century will be judged as a bright or dismal one. It’s entirely up to us. The advent of a new U.S. presidential administration is an opportunity to renew and strengthen the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Fostering a better relationship will require patience and effort on the part of both nations. But it can and must be done.
The author is a Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.