China and the US likely to dance diplomatically without crossing each other's redlines

By Josef Gregory Mahoney
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, February 20, 2021
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Two speeches on foreign policy are being parsed for their implications for China-U.S. relations going forward. The first was delivered to the National Committee on United States-China Relations by Yang Jiechi. Known as China's top diplomat, Yang spoke directly about the past four years and what will be necessary for relations to improve as the Joe Biden administration finds its footing.

The second speech was by U.S. President Biden, delivered at the State Department, where he emphasized in contrast with his predecessor that U.S. "diplomacy is back," and the U.S. will rekindle ties with allies but will also seek cooperation with adversaries and competitors.

The Chinese position

After four years of destructive, anti-diplomatic, "misguided" policies from Washington under Donald Trump—when the White House demonized Beijing, attacked China racially and culturally, undertook a large number of actions aimed at destabilizing China politically and economically both at home and abroad, and flirted openly with "decoupling" and a "new Cold War," all of which Yang noted in brief­­—the U.S. has reached a moment where those approaches utterly failed to achieve its strategic objectives. Yang made very clear that reversing course and working together to address mounting existential crises necessitate improved relations and cooperation between China and the U.S.

Yang outlined four points for improved relations: China should be seen as it is. Key passage: "China's development is essentially about bettering the lives of its people. China is committed to the path of peaceful development, a win-win strategy of opening up, and a development that is shared by all countries, the United States included."

Normal interactions need to be restored. Key passage: "I hope that the new administration will remove the stumbling blocks to people-to-people exchanges, like harassing Chinese students, restricting Chinese media outlets, shutting down Confucius Institutes and suppressing Chinese companies. These policy measures are not only wrong but also unpopular."

Proper management of differences is called for. Key passage: "China never meddles in the internal affairs of the United States, including its elections. China never exports its development model or seeks ideological confrontation...The United States should...stop attempts to hold back China's development by meddling in China's internal affairs."

Mutually beneficial cooperation should be broadened. Specifically, he noted "promising areas of cooperation" including the global pandemic, improving the global public health system, economic recovery, as well as climate change; the need to improve cooperation in military affairs, law enforcement, drug control, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and global poverty reduction; and finally, the pressing need to cooperate on reforms of multilateral organizations to make them "more inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all."

The U.S. position

Biden's remarks were big picture oriented and relatively short on details. He mentioned China only briefly while speaking more broadly about how U.S. diplomacy is changing under his watch. He spoke at length of the need to repair alliances in order to meet "accelerating global challenges, from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation," and to do so with a "diplomacy rooted in America's most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity."

But he also acknowledged that "many of these values have come under intense pressure in recent years, even pushed to the brink in the last few weeks," indirectly referencing the difficult presidential transition, including attempts to overturn the election result and the Capitol invasion by Trump supporters. He also noted the need for the U.S. to "reclaim its credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost" in international relations.

Interestingly, the speech appears to indicate a typology, although not yet well-defined, of friends/allies, competitors and adversaries. How to differentiate the last two has drawn the most attention. During the campaign Biden referred to Russia as the U.S.' biggest adversary, and he seemed to repeat this during his most recent remarks (although a close reading shows he avoided saying this too clearly), including allegations that Russia has tried to disrupt U.S. democracy.

He was rather explicit about China being the U.S.' most "serious competitor." There is also some ambiguity here. On the one hand, this is consistent with the prevailing view in Washington that China and the U.S. are engaged in "great power competition." On the other hand, he did not describe China as an adversary the same way Trump did, and was not aggressive or overly provocative.

While he did say the U.S. would "compete from a position of strength," he also acknowledged that the U.S. needs to "cultivate strength at home," which might be interpreted as conceding that the U.S. must first get its own chaotic domestic affairs under control.

Perhaps most importantly, Biden said he was "ready to work with Beijing when it's in our interests," and mentioned "existential threats" including the pandemic and climate change as requiring global cooperation. In fact, he said he would cooperate with both competitors and adversaries, noting his agreement with Russia to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty.

Beyond this, Biden's decision to bring the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization also indicates a new willingness to cooperate multilaterally. This is a major policy change and will increase opportunities to cooperate with others, including China, in ways that might transcend bilateral tensions.

What's next?

As Yang noted, China's position has been stable and consistent, while Biden acknowledged the U.S. has been the opposite. This is why although Yang said more, little of it was new; and while Biden said less, much of it described changes.

Although a soft reset arguably is in everyone's best interests, neither side realistically expects relations to warm considerably overnight. Both realize relations are tense and even fraught on some fronts. Both indicate a willingness to cooperate. Politically, Biden cannot afford to move too quickly on relations with China given more pressing matters at home, which above all require broad political support from Democrats and Republicans, with committed China hawks found in both parties. Beijing understands that patience might be required, as the White House press secretary indicated it would be a day after Biden's speech, and will certainly embrace it as long as sovereignty isn't compromised.

The key for both sides will be to build from positives without crossing each other's redlines. In fact, neither side nor the world at large can afford increasing conflict, and both China and Biden's team know how to dance diplomatically. It's not unreasonable to be optimistic.

The author is professor of politics at East China Normal University.

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