Recent efforts by the Biden administration to engage with Beijing have been little short of a disaster. A visit by deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman in July was met with two Chinese lists of demands for US policy changes. John Kerry, Biden’s climate change envoy, traveled to Beijing a month later and received a clear message that the cooperation he sought on global warming was not going to happen due to US hostility. Washington’s hope of a leadership summit between Biden and president Xi Jinping appears improbable, though they may hold a virtual meeting before the end of the year. It is almost certain that Xi will not attend the G20 Summit in Rome in person, and there is almost no discussion in China that he will travel to Glasgow for the COP26 climate meeting.
Many in China have described the current state of US-China relations as a stalemate. They say Biden has adopted a path no more confrontational or cooperative than his predecessor, while maintaining the focus on competition. The real wrench in the works stems from the two completely different approaches to how the superpowers want to engage.
Biden’s approach is to deal with the different issues with China separately, or “compartmentalized.” The pursuit of competition, cooperation and confrontation with Beijing are being run in parallel. This approach fundamentally conflicts with the Chinese view that discussions should be interconnected across all areas, ie, through “issue linkage.” Without addressing this fundamental conflict, Washington’s desire for a relationship based on “responsible competition” may not transpire.
Biden’s strategy of compartmentalizing different areas of US-China relations has been clear since he took office. Secretary of state Antony Blinken described the approach as “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.”
Following this logic, the US seeks to compete vigorously with China in all areas and actively counter Chinese security threats, especially on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Yet the policy does not preclude cooperation. From climate change to regional challenges, including North Korea, Iran, Myanmar and Afghanistan, the US sees cooperation as feasible and desirable for both countries.
Thus, if the US and China can compete in their comprehensive national power but still cooperate in areas of common interest, it would help shape a healthier bilateral relationship and serve the US well, goes the thinking in Washington.
For the Chinese, the evidence from the last eight months show that this compartmentalized approach does not work. In their view, Kerry might repeatedly visit China to seek climate change cooperation, but it does not stop the US from continuing tariffs on Chinese products imposed by the Trump administration. Similarly, Biden can have a phone call with Xi where he discusses “the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.” But this does not stop his administration from engaging in “anti-China” moves immediately after. The day after a phone conversation between the two in September, it was reported that the US was considering allowing Taipei to include “Taiwan” in the official name of its Washington office. The move infuriated Beijing, which views the democratically ruled island as its own territory. Then, a week after that call, the US said it would provide nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia.
This approach creates confusion in Beijing. Chinese analysts have been grappling with what they perceive as an inconsistent and conflicting approach. For the Chinese, the competitive nature of bilateral relations is not only toxic but has determined that the two countries will seek all possibilities to gain advantages in bilateral issues. That means their diverging interests overwhelm most, if not all, converging interests. It also means Beijing perceives any cooperation with the Biden administration as “favors,” with no return on investment.
For Beijing, the solution for managing relations with the US has always been issue linkage. Chinese cooperation on issues from domestic market access to foreign conflict resolution was leveraged against the US to extract compromises in areas China deemed critical, such as Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and human rights. The quid pro quo was so prevalent over four decades that Beijing understood it could always bargain. For China, a bilateral give-and-take is the default state of US-China relations. When the Biden administration introduced a framework that compartmentalized these issues, the Chinese reaction was to shut down.
The implication of this clash is two-fold. First, for China the overall nature of the relationship has soured on a strategic level. Therefore, so goes the thinking, any cooperation on a tactical level is only going to benefit the Americans. Even when such cooperation is in China’s interest, China would not give the US the satisfaction.
This Chinese perception is evident most recently in its handling of the climate change issue and Afghanistan. Although Beijing recognizes the need for action on global warming and agreed to stop building new coal-fired power plants overseas, it used the UN framework to announce it rather than a bilateral US-China setting. Doing the latter would have given Biden a win. On Afghanistan, China could have answered the US call for cooperation on stability and humanitarian assistance. Instead, Beijing deliberately avoided it and chose unilateral engagement with the Taliban.
The second implication is that the compartmentalized approach removes Chinese interest in tactical cooperation that could benefit China. The bar for cooperation has been raised extremely high.
Neither the US nor China can force each other to accept its approach. As such, the stalemate will continue. If China is unwilling to cooperate, the US might have to abandon the strategy eventually. That will push competition and confrontation to the front line, and it may not be the healthy and responsible competition anyone had envisioned.
Yun Sun is director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.