The prevailing wisdom suggests that the rise of China is the primary cause of the downturn in the U.S.-China relationship.
I would argue, however, that the recent shift in the United States’ China policy has come about as a result of not only China’s growing national power, but also changes in the way that China’s leaders have chosen to use their country’s newfound capabilities.
In other words, changes in China’s foreign and domestic policy have been a primary contributing factor to the reassessment of Washington’s China policy.
This explanation contrasts with the primary narrative told by Chinese officials, who often attribute the downturn in the relationship solely to what they see as the U.S.’s attempt to contain or stifle China’s rise.
These opposing narratives prevent the two sides from engaging in substantive diplomacy, leading them to blame the other side for the current impasse.
Narrative in China: Changes in U.S. policy
Chinese scholars and officials tend to attribute the downturn in the relationship to the concept of the “Thucydides trap,” the idea that U.S.-China tensions are the inevitable result of the changing balance of power in the international system.
As such, U.S. policies toward China, from tariffs and export controls to sanctions and alliances, are perceived as efforts to stifle China’s rise.
This view neglects the fact that changes in China’s own actions and behaviour have contributed to Washington’s reevaluation of the U.S.-China relationship.
Rather than self-reflect on how China’s actions have contributed to a deterioration of the relationship, Chinese officials tend to place the full burden on the United States to return to the status quo ante.
Narrative in the U.S.: Changes in China
In the U.S., American officials tend to see China as a country whose politics, economy, and foreign policy have evolved in substantial and concerning ways over the past decade.
There has been a centralization of power in the hands of Xi Jinping and a revitalization of party ideology in the media, society, culture, politics, and the economy.
China’s economy has grown more centralized and statist, prioritising self-sufficiency and “internal circulation” at the expense of international trade and commerce.
China’s foreign policy, likewise, has become more assertive across a number of domains, evidenced by expansive sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas, skirmishes along the Sino-India border, grey-zone tactics toward Taiwan, and a buildup of nuclear arms and hypersonic weapons systems.
For many in the international community, China’s coarse diplomacy has personified its more aggressive posture on the global stage.
All of this is to say that the U.S. and China have very different narratives of the downturn in the bilateral relationship and this is affecting how the two sides are framing their current policies and priorities with the other side.
How the United States is Responding to a Changing China
The Biden administration came into office accepting a similar framework to the Trump administration in terms of identifying the challenges posed by changes in China’s foreign and domestic policy.
But unlike the Trump administration, whose policies were often ad hoc, unilateral, and gratuitously reckless, the Biden administration intended to craft a more strategic and more effective approach to competing with China.
To do so, the Biden administration devised a China policy based on three key pillars:
Outreach to allies and partners
Diplomacy to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict
Unlike prior administrations, the current administration has little expectation that its policies will push China to converge with the economic and political system of the United States.
Instead, Biden is more focused on defending and shaping the international rules-based order to conform to the interests and values of the U.S. and its allies, regardless of whether China chooses to participate as a constructive member of the international community.
The administration is still in its early stages, and its China policy continues to evolve as it pushes forward an ambitious domestic agenda, completes interagency policy reviews, and nominates key officials to senior positions.
Domestic politics in both capitals are also making it more difficult to get out of the situation we’re in.
As the U.S. enters a phase of intense political polarization, China has become an issue that both sides of the aisle can use for their political gain.
There is some evidence that Biden may want to move in a more pragmatic direction on China, but he has been constrained by politics, as hardline elements on the right pressure him to maintain many Trump-era policies.
As we approach the midterms, I would suspect that the GOP party will continue to try to cast the Biden administration as weak on China and the administration, therefore, will be unlikely to make major changes to its policy before the elections.
The Way Forward: Cooperation, Problem-Solving, and Peaceful Competition
Competition does not preclude cooperation:
Although there are many issues where the U.S. and China do not see eye-to-eye, there are also many issues of common interest.
It would benefit both two sides to make genuine efforts to cooperate on issues like climate change, global health, nonproliferation, and other transnational issues.
However, since the Biden administration entered office, this kind of cooperation has been difficult to achieve due to differences between each side’s view of the conditions necessary for cooperation.
In other words, the Chinese side tends to view cooperation as something that can be used as a bargaining chip to get better treatment from the U.S. in other areas, rather than as something that should be pursued on its own merits to address issues of global importance.
U.S. officials oppose the linkage of bilateral issues with vital transnational challenges.
These divergent approaches to cooperation have prevented the two sides from making meaningful progress on issues of common concern.
Perhaps a more effective emphasis for putting the relationship on a better footing would be for the two leaders to commit to establish a problem-solving mode for the relationship.
Rather than placing all efforts on trying to develop a robust set of cooperation between the two countries, the two leaders could start by trying to solve or mitigate some of the myriad problems in the bilateral relationship.
Problem solving and compromise does not mean the abandonment of key national interests, but it does require both sides being proactive, rolling up their sleeves, and tackling fundamental issues in the relationship.
This process could begin by addressing key irritants, such as restrictions on journalist access and reciprocal consulate closures, and then extend to broader structural issues, such as trade and economic imbalances and security flashpoints.
As the title of this conference suggests, competition between the U.S. and China need not result in war or conflict.
If managed well, competition can result in a race to the top whereby the U.S. and China compete to shore up their own domestic problems and vie to provide more impactful public goods on the world stage.
To establish a sustainable framework for the U.S.-China relationship, the two sides will need to focus on strengthening themselves, rather than hurting the other side, cooperating when it is in their mutual interest, and making genuine efforts to solve the longstanding structural issues in the relationship that benefit neither side, nor the international community.