WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden took office promising to move quickly to restore and repair America’s relations with the rest of the world, but one major nation has yet to see any U.S. effort to improve ties: China.
From Iran to Russia, Europe to Latin America, Biden has sought to cool tensions that rose during President Donald Trump’s four years in office. Yet, there have been no overtures to China.
Although the Biden administration has halted the ferocious rhetorical attacks and near daily announcements of new sanctions on China that had become commonplace under Trump, it has yet to back down on any of Trump's actions against Beijing.
This persistent state of low-intensity hostility has profound implications. China and the United States are the world’s two largest economies and the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Their power struggle complicates global efforts to deal with climate change and recover from the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden's tough stance has its roots in the competition for global power, but it's also a result of the 2020 presidential election campaign in which Trump and his allies repeatedly sought to portray him as soft on China, particularly during the pandemic that originated there. There's also little appetite from lawmakers in either party to ease pressure on China.
Thus in their first month in office, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have reaffirmed many of the Trump administration’s most significant steps targeting China, including a determination that its crackdown on Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in western Xinjiang region constitutes a “genocide” and a flat-out rejection of nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Nor has the new administration signaled any let-up in Trump's tariffs, restrictions on Chinese diplomats, journalists and academics in the U.S. or criticism of Chinese policies toward Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It's also critical of Beijing's attempts to further its increasing global influence through telecommunications technology, social media and educational and cultural exchanges.
Biden's nominee to head the CIA, William Burns, was explicit about his concerns over many of these issues at his confirmation hearing Wednesday. And, the newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, made a point of highlighting her unease with the state of affairs and pledged to combat Chinese attempts to exert undue pressure on other countries at the U.N.
The backdrop is clear: The United States is convinced that it and China are engaged in a duel for global dominance. And neither is prepared to back down.
China has sounded at times hopeful that Biden will reverse what foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said were Trump administration actions that “caused immeasurable damage to the relationship between the two countries.”
Those remarks followed a speech in which China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, demanded that Biden’s administration lift restrictions on trade and people-to-people contacts and cease what Beijing considers unwarranted interference in the areas of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Wang urged the U.S. to “stop smearing” the reputation of China’s ruling Communist Party. “We hope that the U.S. policy makers will keep pace with the times, see clearly the trend of the world, abandon biases, give up unwarranted suspicions and move to bring the China policy back to reason to ensure a healthy, steady development of China-U.S. relations,” he said.
But the anti-China rhetoric hasn't eased. Top Biden administration officials have vowed to use American power to contain what many Democrats and Republicans see as growing Chinese threats to U.S. interests and values in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
They have all repeatedly referred to China as a strategic rival or foe, not a partner or potential friend, and have also evinced their belief that America must “outcompete” China.
“Outcompeting China will be key to our national security in the decades ahead,” Burns said at his confirmation hearing. “China is a formidable authoritarian adversary, methodically strengthening its capabilities to steal intellectual property, repress its own people, bully its neighbors, expand its global reach, and build influence in American society.”
“It is hard for me to see a more significant threat or challenge for the United States as far out as I can see into the 21st century than that one. It is the biggest geopolitical test that we face,” he said.
At least some Asia hands in the United States see Biden as moving slowly toward potential reengagement with China in part because he wants to shore up his domestic position and make clear the U.S. is not a victim of Chinese predation.
“They are restraining themselves from the normal syndrome of a new administration running into problem-solving with China,” said Danny Russel, who was assistant secretary of state for Asia during the Obama administration and is now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Russel said Biden is "sending out messages that have the effect of showing he’s not soft on China, that he’s not a patsy for China, that he isn’t so desperate for a breakthrough on climate change that he’s going to trade away our national security interests.”
Chinese academics see little difference in Biden’s approach.
“Continuity takes precedent over adjustment and change,” said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at elite Nanjing University.
Biden will have to deal with a China that is far more powerful and influential than under past U.S. administrations, said Yu Wanli, a professor of international relations at Beijing Language and Culture University.
“There has been huge deviation between what they believe China is and what China really is,” Yu said. “Their China polices are based on illusions, which must result in some bad consequences. It takes time for them to come back to reality.”
Apart from its support for Taiwan, the U.S. views China’s policies in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and elsewhere as matters of human rights, whereas China sees them as questions of sovereignty, Yu said. “Frictions will still exist, and the pattern will still be the same.”