The US-China relationship is a pivotal and complex bilateral relationship with far-reaching implications for the Asia-Pacific region and the world. The US has struggled to balance, cooperation and competition in its diplomatic approach to China, which has evolved from containment to engagement. The relationship has seen periods of cooperation and friction, with the US recognizing China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse.
During the Obama administration, the US introduced the “pivot to Asia” strategy, reorienting its foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region in response to China’s rising influence and territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. This strategy increased the US military presence in the region, strengthened alliances with traditional partners like Japan and South Korea, and sought to deepen engagement with emerging powers like India and Indonesia.
US diplomacy towards China is a multifaceted and continually evolving endeavor, with significant implications for global stability, economic prosperity, and international security. The delicate dance between these two global superpowers will continue to shape the course of international affairs for years to come.
China is hinting that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at a potential summit with US President Joe Biden depends on Washington creating the right environment. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco should promote cooperation rather than provoke confrontation. The Ministry of State Security urged Washington to “create better conditions” for the meeting, citing the term “democracy versus autocracy” as a signature phrase used by Biden to describe the defining struggle of our times.
As American and Chinese officials continue to lay the groundwork for a potential Biden-Xi meeting, Washington appears to be working toward such conditions, including by toning down language following months of harsh public comments between the two capitals. The overarching approach has always been to minimize rhetoric that would veer the relationship toward conflict, but there has been no “downshift in tone” in recent weeks and no strategic conversations to that effect within the administration.
Biden himself has struck a more conciliatory tone, stating his desire to responsibly manage competition and avoid conflict. In a visit to Hanoi, he repeatedly declared that his efforts to strengthen ties with countries in the region are not designed to “contain” China.
The US and China have been engaged in a heated exchange of rhetoric, with Biden describing China as a dictator and Xi as a ticking time bomb. The heated rhetoric has heightened tensions following an incident in early February when the US military shot down a Chinese balloon carrying electronic equipment. The two powers have navigated turbulent years as they engage in intense geopolitical rivalry, including in trade and technology.
Washington criticizes China for its economic coercion and military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, while Beijing criticizes Western hegemony. The APEC meeting aims to stabilize ties, but irritants persist, including Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, banned from the US in 2020. A change in attitude has been detected in conversations about U.S.-China relations with Chinese scholars, with both sides showing a more positive tone and expressions of interest in stabilizing the bilateral relationship.
China’s President Xi Jinping skipped the G20 summit in New Delhi without an official explanation, citing overwhelming unemployment among his youth and a lack of a game plan. Biden criticized Xi’s lack of clarity about the outcome of the meeting and the concessions they could gain. Beijing’s reluctance to confirm the San Francisco meeting is cited as a reason. The White House has increased bilateral engagements, including a two-day meeting with Wang in mid-September, as part of efforts to maintain open communication.
Working groups have been created by the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng to promote healthier economic competition. Beijing, which has been more restrained in its U.S. rhetoric, has expressed positive expectations for bilateral relations following Yellen’s recent visit. The White House has not provided further details but has stepped up bilateral engagements.
US-China Relations: A Looming Disaster
The U.S.-China relationship has been a subject of debate for years, with tensions escalating due to trade disputes, human rights concerns, technology competition, and differing international diplomacy approaches. These issues have raised concerns about potential disasters. The U.S. and China have been engaged in a trade war, characterized by tariffs and restrictions, which have negatively impacted global trade and economic stability. The growing competition in technology, particularly in areas like 5G, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity, has raised national security concerns.
The U.S. has expressed concerns about China’s human rights practices, particularly in relation to the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, and restrictions on political dissent. The status of Taiwan remains a contentious issue, with the U.S. supporting Taiwan’s autonomy and security, while China considers it part of its territory. Additionally, territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve multiple countries. The U.S. and China are competing for global influence, with differing approaches to international institutions and alliances.
US-China Competition: Assessing the Impact on Bilateral Relations
The US-China competition has significantly impacted their bilateral relations, affecting economic, political, military, and technological domains. This competition has led to strained diplomatic relations, trade tensions, and security concerns. The closure of consulates, sanctions, and harsh rhetoric have eroded trust and cooperation. Trade disputes, tariffs, and sanctions have disrupted economic ties, negatively impacting businesses, supply chains, and global markets.
The race for dominance in emerging technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing has created security concerns and restricted technology exports. Increased military activities in the Indo-Pacific region have raised concerns about accidental conflicts and miscalculations, undermining regional stability. Human rights issues, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet, have also led to confrontations, resulting in a significant negative impact on relations.
The U.S.-China competition has had a significant impact on bilateral relations, with both countries maintaining economic interdependence and fostering diplomatic solutions to disputes. This has led to discussions about reforming international institutions like the United Nations, IMF, and World Bank to reflect changing global power dynamics. Technological innovation has accelerated in both countries, with each striving to outdo the other, potentially leading to significant advancements.
The U.S. has strengthened its alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, providing a counterbalance to China’s influence. Both countries have recognized the importance of addressing climate change, setting ambitious goals and cooperating on environmental issues. The future of U.S.-China relations depends on their ability to manage and balance these competing dynamics while addressing shared global challenges. Effective diplomacy and communication are crucial in preventing competition from escalating into conflict.
A Diplomatic Reset Under Biden
The Biden administration aimed to improve US-China relations, focusing on global issues like climate change and non-proliferation. Diplomatic channels were reopened, and both nations agreed to cooperate on climate goals during the Leaders’ Summit on Climate in April 2021.
However, the 2016 election of Donald Trump led to a confrontational approach, launching a trade war, imposing sanctions on Chinese tech companies, and criticizing China’s human rights abuses. The relationship with both countries engaging in a war of words.
The Quad Alliance and Regional Dynamics
The US-China diplomatic landscape has seen the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising the US, Japan, India, and Australia, as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region, emphasizing a shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Challenges and Complexities
The US-China relationship faces challenges such as trade tensions, cybersecurity concerns, human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the sensitive and potentially volatile issue of Taiwan, despite the Biden administration’s diplomatic overtures.
The Future of US-China Relations
The US’s future in China’s diplomatic relationship is uncertain due to its complex interplay of cooperation, competition, and confrontation, influenced by domestic politics, economic interdependence, and global crises like the pandemic and climate change.