Image Courtesy: School of Foreign Service
Several academic researchers, scholars, and experts have observed that both China and the USA in the 21st century are in a race to become global leaders. This bid can also be justified in Samuel Huntington’s findings that the wars in the 21st century will be based on culture and civilizations. As both nation-states embark on becoming global leader, they both feel that their civilization is legitimate and should be followed universally. The previous Trump administration undertook a hardline approach towards China to deter it from becoming a global leader. This is evident through his tough stance on economic issues amongst many more. With the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, the world had to face newer challenges that required innovative approaches. The elections of the US were a major event in the international arena, which happened during the pandemic. It is often observed that a new regime would bring new changes. The incumbent Biden administration is aware of China’s dream of becoming a global hegemon, but being a liberal, they might have a moderate approach towards China, leading to a healthy competition.
This article analyses the relation between two major superpowers, China and the US. It discusses the various reasons for the decline in the US-China ties during the Trump administration including an in-depth analysis of China and the Biden administration’s policies and failure to reconcile US-China ties. Though many scholars expected the Biden administration to have a cooperative approach that will help improve ties but by observing the recent events, it can be concluded that the differences are here to stay for a long time.
This exposition aims at answering the following, what will be the foreign policy shifts in China and the US with the coming of the Biden administration? Whether it will lead to a healthy alliance, or would it escalate the tensions?
With the Biden administration coming to power, scholars in the field predict a different stance. As highlighted in this paper, the areas of focus are regional rivalry, economic ties, pandemic, climate change, and alliance building. The Biden administration has made it clear that its approach would focus on building cooperation along with competition. All these areas are important in determining China and the US future ties. As argued in the paper, the regional rivalry can be mitigated by determining the focus on whether to work on trade or military and security areas. To have economic relations, the Biden administration should have a “constructive and punitive approach”. This administration emphasizes the need to have a multilateral approach in dealing with pandemics like the one ongoing of COVID-19. The paper argues that climate change is the major area among others and should be dealt with with cooperation rather than coercion and competition by having the upper hand (Matt Ferchen,2021).
March 2021witnessed a significant meet in Alaska of the diplomatic envoys of both the nation-states. The starting point of the meet was to take back the Trump-era policies. Beijing aimed at having continuous “dialogue”. The newspaper article states that China is making its image to be equal to the US now. This is a significant shift in China’s dealing with foreign policy as it did not in the past tried to question the US’s image as a global leader. Mr Xi Jinping is now oriented to rework the relations as “China’s time has arrived”. Mr Yang, president Xi’s top foreign policy aide, believed that Taiwan would be a bone of contention between both nations, which can escalate to war between the two nation-states (Lingling Wei and Bob Davis, 2021).
The article argues that in Alaska meet, both the nations worked on the betterment of the ties by taking steps to ease visa restrictions, and media interaction should be a medium of communication between both nation-states. These measures will enhance people to people ties, and diplomats can gain insight into people’s mindset. The author of this article is of the view that China should allow US envoys to visit China frequently to get a clear picture of locals which will help in enhancing the relations leading to the adoption of cooperative measures rather than coercive measures. The United States should focus on the expectations of citizens of China with regards to China-US ties from different sectors, and this should act as the guiding light. This will help in the creation of realistic foreign policy agendas (Mu Chunshan, 2021).
The Chinese foreign policy aims to establish and legitimize single-party rule in China. To fulfil this goal, they have three main institutions, namely, the Ministry of foreign affairs, the United Front Work Department (UFWD) and the International Liaison Department (ILD), which work to support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There is a debate among scholars whether the US and China are in a new cold war, but it is clear that they are long-term competitors. The article argues that the ILD and UFWD are the central bodies that are never highlighted in the international arena and to deal with China’s dream of becoming a global leader, the USA should start focusing on their objectives and working as it will be in the US’s interest (Connor Fiddler, 2021).
President Xi Jinping views China as moving closer to the centre stage of the world. To achieve its goal of being a global leader, it is focusing on reducing its dependence on America and, at the same time, increasing the world’s dependence on China. It is trying to increase its influence overseas. The growth of China economically and strategically has affected people’s lives in the US and the world. Travel restrictions due to pandemic have created a communication gap between China and the world because informal exchange between Chinese officials and observation groups are denied. This information is usually the source for policy making and to have an insight into China’s strategic direction. The humanitarian and financial losses in the US due to the spread of COVID-19 led president trump to shift his branding of China from friend to enemy when Trump called COVID-19 a “Chinese virus”. Both the sides retaliated by consulate closer and sanctions. China, like America, implemented laws and regulations for export, policy-related visa sanctions, national security investment screening and administrative regulations. Chinese officials are of the view that America’s power in the international arena is on the decline. This perception among the Americans has led to its hostile behaviour towards China. In an interview, Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi said that the misconception of US policymakers who view China as their biggest threat has led to the US attempt to suppress China and start a new cold war. This has harmed both countries, while China’s policy towards the US is stable and constant. Chinese officials believe that American strategy towards China will not differ from the Trump era, although Biden has a professional and nuanced approach. Beijing is preparing for a long-term struggle with the United States and has concluded that its national plans cannot be based on stable relations with the US. President Xi has emphasized that they can achieve growth and development through self-reliance and development of the domestic market and internal circulation without thinking about the hostility in the outside world (Ryan Hass, 2021).
China has accepted the USA as its strategic competitor. In 2017 President Xi Jinping, after his first term, emerged as the core leader of the country with not much opposition within his party. China aims to develop advanced technology independent of the US. China was developing at a fast pace with technological advancement, growing military and political self-confidence. The rise in military intervention in Taiwan and the South- China Sea led to the realization in Washington that China was moving fast towards its goal of becoming a world leader, especially with the development of 5G technology and expansive territorial policy. Trump launched a trade war imposing sanctions against Chinese companies and imposed a ban on the export of advanced technology. It also warned about the national security risk due to the use of Chinese technology. This was done to slow down China’s progress and technological growth over western countries. China is now moving towards self-reliance with the development of advanced technology, especially in the semiconductor industry.
Trump administration had even questioned the legitimacy of the Communist Chinese regime and often referred to coronavirus as “Chinese virus”. This has led to an increase in bilateral tensions. The Trump administration had challenged the ‘One China policy’ and had extended support to Taiwan in terms of weapon sales and governmental connections with its president. The support of the Biden administration for Taiwan has further deepened the divide in US-China relations. The rise of China and its alliance with Russia has created a challenge to the liberal democratic values as promoted by the US. Washington also realizes that its functional coalition in the Indo-pacific region cannot be taken forward without including like-minded partners. Therefore, the US needs to review its policies for better ties with China.
In March 2021, the first meet of the diplomatic envoys of China and the USA met in Alaska with the aim of a China-USA meltdown. The issues to be discussed were administration of trade tariffs, technological spying, 5G telecommunication, sanctions imposed by the US on China, Chinese maritime activities in the South China Sea, Chinese aggression in Xinjiang and Hongkong and Chinese aggression against partners and allies of the US in particular Australia, Japan and India. China and the US rebuked each other in the first high-level talks after Biden took over as President of the US. Their relationship has turned bitter, and the US has pledged interventions on issues such as ‘genocide’ of Uyghur Muslim’s in Xinjiang and bring up the controversial issues of Hongkong and Taiwan. The US said these Chinese activities are causing instability in the region.
On the other hand, China accused Washington of using its dominant financial position and strong military power to suppress other nation-states. It also accused the USA of violating human rights by slaughtering Black Americans. It seems that China and the USA have entered a new “cold war”. The verbal spat between China and the USA in front of world media was undiplomatic. The US team was blunt while criticizing Chinese policies to which China refused to compromise. China regarded them as issues of national sovereignty and security and did not want external interference.
President Joe Biden has not taken any proactive measures to improve relations with China that had hit an all-time low during the Trump administration, as was predicted by many scholars. The Alaska meeting was evidence of the same where, on the one hand, the meet was aimed at melting down the tensions and moving towards cooperation but on the contrary, what it mainly saw was accusation and coercive stance with fewer cooperative efforts being made by both nation-states. The meeting provoked both the nation-states and further escalated the tensions rather than moving towards a healthy alliance. Chinese counterparts were adamant on their stance; they wanted to have constructive dialogues but were not ready to listen or to accept the criticism and said that it was their “internal matter”, and the USA should not interfere. According to the research conducted, both the nation-states are working with a competitive framework where they are not moving towards cooperation but have a negative impact, leading to a hostile environment that might lead to conflict between these two superpowers. Suppose they start cooperating on issues of climate change, handling of the pandemic, economic issues etc. In that case, this will be beneficial for all and lead to a healthy alliance as cooperation can lead to betterment. The hardliner approach will only ignite the existing problems and might even lead to the emergence of new issues. Though the analysts have been debating that with the coming of the Biden administration, things would de-escalate between China and the USA but observing the current scenario, the only prediction which can be made is that it will escalate the tensions further. With the coming of Biden, everyone was expecting some shifts in foreign policy handling by both China as well as the US; on the other hand, what the research concludes is that neither China nor the USA is in the mood for cooperation. Both the nations are unwilling to cooperate and come to a healthy alliance as they are in a race of global power. The main problem is the power-hunger which is in sync with the realist school of thought, making both nations compete with each other by adopting a hardliner approach.
With the Biden administration coming to power, key actors in the field believed that President Joe Biden being a liberal, would take a more nuanced approach towards China. However, the meeting in Alaska witnessed a direct verbal attack. China thinks that it is now equal to the USA and hence wants to be self-reliant and become the leader, this shift in the foreign policy approach towards the US is evident from the fact that it has a hardline approach towards the US. To gain its objective of being a global leader, China would do anything; this is in sync with the realist school of international relations, which states that nations are power-driven. On the other hand, the US has not shown signs of cooperation. When both nation-states are power-driven and do not trust each other’s intentions, it is highly unlikely to cooperate on important issues. All this indicates a further escalation of the tensions between major superpowers China and the US. Chinese foreign policy stated that it would want to have a “constructive dialogue” with the US. Though China aims to have reconciliation, its actions are not in sync with its aims. The Chinese foreign policy aimed towards building relations with the US, but what happened in Alaska meet shows that China was not ready to negotiate on its terms. Some concessions were just made for namesake. In reality, both Chinese and United States foreign policy works only to become a global leader. Their foreign policies do not work towards de-escalation, and it appears that their differences are here to stay for a long-time.
(Vartika Sharma is a third-year undergraduate student of global affairs at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat & Research Intern at the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are personal.)