Insight Talk: Biden’s Three-Handed China Policy—to Cooperate, Compete, and Contain

‘Either America first’ or ‘America’s back’ is merely ‘might makes right’ masquerading as a moral high ground that few believe anymore, including many Americans.

Editor’s Note: The high-profile China-US high-level talks in Anchorage closed with modest results as expected. But still the tough and blunt exchanges between the two powers sent many signals. What does the meeting tell us? Where are China-US relations going? Will the Biden administration’s “selective multilateralism” work? How important China’s “14th Five-Year Plan” and “2035 Vision” are? In the Insight Talk, Josef Gregory Mahoney answered these questions. Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai. The video reflects the interviewee’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.


China Focus: What is the significance of the China-US high-level meeting?

Josef Gregory Mahoney: The significance is that it’s the first face-to-face high-level meeting between Chinese and American diplomats since the start of the Biden Administration, and the first since relations took a difficult turn under Trump’s last year in office.

It represents an opportunity for both sides to express their frustrations and ambitions, hopefully clear the air, and have a clear understanding of where each side stands.

This meeting is closely watched by many in the world who want to see more cooperation or more competition between these two great powers depending on what their interests are. While we shouldn’t expect dramatic outcomes in the near term, perhaps the two sides can discuss ways to avoid escalating tensions further, cooperate on mutual interests, and create a realistic framework for managing differences going forward.

China Focus: What is Biden’s China policy? How will Sino-US relations develop?

Josef Gregory Mahoney: There are four ways we might describe Biden’s foreign policy and his approach with China. The first is the “three-handed Frankenstein:” Before Trump Chinese leaders called America’s approach “two-handed”—one hand extended in greeting, the other pulled back in a fist. Now we see three hands: one calls for cooperation, one that aims to compete, and a third that hopes to contain. This might seem logical and reasonable from the White House’s point of view, but it looks a lot like Biden is playing chicken with his domestic critics and risks a foreign policy that is imperiled by its own contradictions.

Second is “pragmatism,” the idea that realists will look to maximize their advantages as much as possible within an existing system, or at least, one that used to exist, without letting ideology beyond reasonable self-interest get in the way. But given the breakdowns and fragmentations of US power and its fractured relations in tandem with its desire to fragment and fracture its competition, and given the desires that many have to avoid escalating conflicts with China, this might not be a sincere pragmatism. Perhaps we need a new word: “fragmatism.”

Third is “beachball diplomacy:” inflate a bunch of issues, some valid and some not, into one big ball, and then play a game by trying to spike the ball over the opponent’s net. We can see this with the US inflating and exploiting China’s domestic issues as international issues, and we can see this with the US trying to reestablish itself as the broker of Japanese, Australian, and Canadian interests, among others.

Fourth is hegemony, pure and simple. Try to reestablish military and economic controls wherever possible, and play a big strategic game targeting Russia and China and others who resist. Hold everyone to standards higher than those you hold for yourself, punish them when they fall short, and pretend you’ve done the world a favor in the meantime. Demonize adversaries. Pursue regime change. This can be described as “America first” or “America’s back,” but either way it’s merely “might makes right” masquerading as a moral high ground that few believe anymore, including many Americans.

China Focus: After taking office, Biden emphasized working to strengthen multilateralism and revitalize global alliances to counter China’s growing influence. Do you think such “selective multilateralism” strategy will succeed?

Josef Gregory Mahoney: If it’s the centerpiece of Biden’s foreign policy, then no, selective multilateralism won’t work. But we should be clear. Multilateralism is frequently selective anyway. It’s often rife with competing alliances and wheeling and dealing. And this works, more or less, as long as the major players are not too heavy-handed, as long as don’t lean too hard and break down the system.

It’s clear that a number of longstanding as well as new US friends and allies are less interested in being manipulated and are resisting that kind of hegemonic engagement. For example, South Korean isn’t really interested, others aren’t either, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and India, all of whom want their own independent foreign policies that represent their own interests and that don’t expose them to more inconsistencies and flip flops from Washington and more conflict with China.

So as long as US doesn’t force people to fall into line narrowly with Washington, we should expect selective multilateralism to represent not the ideal, but the norm. That said, China can likewise compete and does. In fact, multilateralism might be an ideal that focuses on cooperation, but in reality, it’s also a system for intense competition, albeit, managed competition. And China doesn’t really mind this kind of competition, because it prefers systems and multiple players where it can make its own appeals and offer its own logic for resolving issues. It also can accept losing some battles in the international back and forth. By contrast, the US generally has either gotten its way multilaterally or resorted to unilateralism. This is what China is resisting now, and others, likewise, are concerned America might try to continue this approach.

China Focus: What is the significance of China’s “14th Five-Year Plan” and “2035 Vision”?

Josef Gregory Mahoney: Above all, these plans chart a direct course for reaching the next plateaus in national development. They’re significant because they outline the next steps forward after recently achieving the first 100 or first centenary, one hundred years after the Party’s founding–the xiaokang shehui, the moderately prosperous society goal. 2035 represents the next major milestone in China’s rejuvenation, and the mid-point from now until the Second 100/Second Centenary in 2049, one hundred years after the PRC’s founding, when China aims to become an ‘essentially strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist society.”

These plans are significant because they provide a relatively clear picture of China’s long-term development strategy, and while they have plenty of time and room for adjustment, they demonstrate Beijing’s resolve to step forward in its own national interests while avoiding distractions by outside forces, especially those who wish to stymie China’s development.