Are U.S.-China tensions thawing?

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Are U.S.-China tensions thawing?

 Michael Green
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden’s Nov. 15 virtual summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, coming on the back of a bilateral statement at the Glasgow COP-26 summit pledging cooperation to reduce CO2 emissions, has raised speculation that the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations is finally over. But while the virtual summit may take some of the vitriol out of U.S.-China relations, it has not changed the fundamental structure of strategic competition that is now baked into the international system and domestic Chinese and American politics.

First, consider how little the two leaders pledged to each other in their meeting. They agreed to modest cooperation on exchanges, energy, and climate. But this was the minimum requirement both Xi and Biden needed to meet domestic and international audiences concerned about the deterioration of the relationship. As Xi prepares for an unprecedented third term as China’s leader next year, he needs to minimize external uncertainty without compromising on China’s growing list of “core” interests. For his part, Biden has important constituents on Wall Street and on the progressive left who need China for business reasons (or to combat climate change) and he wanted to signal that he could manage competition without “catastrophe” as his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan once put it. Biden also needed to reassure some nervous allies that he would not drag them into gratuitous confrontations with China, particularly after Europeans accused him of being no less unilateralist and dangerous than Trump in the wake of last month’s Australia-UK-U.S. (Aukus) announcement.

The fundamental reasons that U.S.-China political and security relations are more zero-sum than cooperative remain the same, however.

Politically, Xi Jinping is not about to abandon the most intensive anti-American social mobilization campaign since Mao. “The East is rising, and the West is declining” will remain the framing argument for Xi to advance the claim that China is the natural leader of Asia and the world’s alternative to decadent democratic capitalist approaches that Beijing claims revealed their weakness during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time Xi is positing the weaknesses of the U.S.-led system, he is portraying U.S. strategy as a dangerous threat to China and asserting that only he can resist these nefarious schemes of containment, exclusive blocs, and “small cliques.”

Biden would have to make monumental concessions to Chinese hegemonic ambitions in Asia to convince Xi to abandon that political narrative. And Biden faces his own domestic political constraints, of course. With the Democrats looking likely to lose the House and possibly the Senate in November 2022 mid-term elections and a divided Republican party agreed on China as a unifying issue, Biden has little room to look weak.

But even without these domestic political factors, there is a broad consensus in Washington that Xi’s China has emerged as the greatest strategic threat to the United States and its allies since the Soviet Union. Republicans and Democrats alike have been stunned by the scope of China’s coercion and hegemonic ambitions. On the military front, the PLA Navy has surpassed the U.S. Navy in total number of ships (though the U.S. still maintains a strong qualitative edge), China is preparing dual-use military bases from Southeast Asia to Africa, and the Chinese strategic nuclear forces are conservatively estimated to quadruple in the coming years. China’s risk tolerance has been equally alarming, with the PLA co-mingling nuclear and conventional forces in ways that make escalation control difficult while refusing even the most modest confidence-building or arms control talks.

On the economic side, the U.S.-China relationship is stabilized by constituents who want to sell into the growing China market or source consumer and other products to greater China, but most U.S. manufacturers are hedging with a new “China plus one” strategy while major U.S. technology firms like Yahoo and Linkedin have withdrawn from China completely because of Beijing’s demands to control all data. China’s blatant technology theft from U.S. firms is now widely understood as well.

Biden’s effort with Xi to fulfill Beijing’s commitments to buy more U.S. goods under the Phase One bilateral trade deal struck in the Trump administration reflects the desire by American agricultural exporters and others to maintain their market share in China. But few expect Beijing to fully live up to that deal, let alone address Phase Two issues such as China’s predatory technology policies or state-owned enterprise monopolistic behavior. The betting in Washington is that the Biden administration is just going through the motions before formally initiating a series of unilateral trade measures and a World Trade Organization case against China on IPR theft or state-owned enterprise monopolies before the U.S. mid-term elections.

Meanwhile, one important source of ballast in the U.S.-China relationship is rapidly leaking. For decades it was American scholars, NGOs and universities that pushed hardest for continued engagement with China. People-to-people exchanges thrived in the Jiang and Hu eras. Today, the picture is quite bleak. China’s new NGO law has forced most international non-profits to retreat from China while U.S. universities operating in China are being pressured to violate basic academic freedom.

With Beijing’s seizure of independent researchers in recent years, American and European experts are hesitant to travel to China after Covid restrictions are listed lest they be the next hostage in China’s tit-for-tat retaliation against U.S. efforts to stop real Chinese espionage in the United States. Set against Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, the ideological divide is clear growing despite the Biden-Xi summit.

These mounting troubles make it all the more important that Xi and Biden spent time together. Having sat by the President’s side for these summit meetings in the past, however, I suspect that the actually meeting was only half as long as advertised because of sequential translation, while at least 75 percent of the substance was taken up by delivering prepared talking points rather than actual exchange of views. We can hope that in the remaining minutes Xi and Biden listened to each other and made progress, but it seems unlikely there was much.
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