Bilateral relations between the US and China appear to be heading nowhere but down, but China’s leaders seem not to have given up on their broad-based push for a more cooperative relationship — yet.
Late last year, when it became apparent that Joe Biden would succeed Donald Trump as US president, China’s leaders set in motion a plan to salvage relations with their greatest rival. In December, through public remarks from Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), they offered the incoming administration a deal: If it would work to return the bilateral relationship to the “right track,” Beijing would cooperate on three of Biden’s four highest policy priorities — stopping climate change, rebuilding the economy and fighting COVID-19.
Cooperation on Biden’s fourth top priority, racial equity, presumably would have shed unwanted light on Beijing’s ongoing atrocities against its Uighur population.
In subsequent public communications, Chinese officials made this olive branch the core of its Washington-related propaganda, name-checking Biden’s policy priorities at various levels ad infinitum.
The fact that Biden’s administration has yet to show any inclination to accept this bargain poses a significant problem for China’s leaders. Straining under the US’ still-substantial tariffs on China’s exports, criticism of Beijing’s repression at home and aggression toward Taiwan, demands for transparency about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to balance militarily against China — all of which pose risks to either their domestic legitimacy or their country’s security — China’s leaders need leverage over Washington if they are to improve their country’s international situation.
Conversely, should such leverage fail to materialize, Beijing could decide that its pursuit of a more cooperative relationship with Washington is hopeless, pushing it — not to mention the international community — further along the path to the first period of long-lasting estrangement between two superpowers since the Cold War.
While there are many uncertainties concerning Beijing’s willingness or otherwise to pivot from seeking cooperation to embracing confrontation, its messaging on a variety of controversies with the Biden administration offers clues to its outlook and mindset. Under scrutiny, these signals reveal two major points: Beijing is still attempting to use offers of cooperation to secure US concessions and its efforts to date have failed.
Since January, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, authoritative state media commentators and diplomatic officials have primarily relied on the issue of climate change to roll back the US’ hardline policies toward China. The reason for this is simple: While the Biden administration has shown little desire to cooperate with Beijing on economic, multilateral military balancing, human rights or pandemic-related issues, it has made a concerted and public effort to secure China’s cooperation on climate change and climate change alone.
Regardless of whether Beijing believes that US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is willing to negotiate away Washington’s position on unrelated issues in return for China’s cooperation on climate policy, that it holds few other cards gives it a powerful incentive to try.
Consequently, since Biden’s inauguration, Chinese messengers have communicated with varying degrees of bluntness that Beijing will not give Kerry the cooperation he seeks on climate issues unless the Biden administration alters its China policy in other areas.
During Kerry’s trip to China this month, officials made this point perhaps more openly than at any point before, with Wang flatly telling Kerry that bilateral cooperation on climate change cannot be dealt with independently from the broader situation in US-China relations. Had the Chinese government given up on climate change as a bargaining chip, it is unlikely that it would have hammered this message — for other top officials conveyed similar points to Kerry on his latest trip — more than seven months after he first publicly denied that any quid pro quo for China’s cooperation on climate change was on the table.
Since January, Beijing has also sought cooperation, and perhaps leverage, on other issues, but this search has tended to feature less prominently in its public messaging than climate change. Maybe surprisingly, given the US’ attitude toward the relevant subjects, Chinese officials continue to name-check the possibility of cooperation with Washington on the economy and the pandemic. While the latter offer can perhaps now be dismissed as little more than an effort to silence US criticism of Beijing’s lack of cooperation in investigating the origins of COVID-19, if it ever amounted to more, the reference to economic recovery invokes the tariff issue and the much broader prospect of the “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies, a process that Beijing has strongly criticized.
Chinese officials have repeatedly exhorted the US business community to lobby Washington to change its China policy, suggesting a belief that this issue can be leveraged in the same way as climate change, but there has been little indication that the Biden administration is inclined to make a significant change in direction.
A recent report from the Wall Street Journal indicates that the White House might reduce limited tariffs while adding others.
Other potential areas of US-China cooperation that Beijing has raised — counterterrorism, disaster relief, regional “hotspot” issues and so on — are scarcely more promising as potential sources of leverage.
More worrying for China than how narrow the path to a less antagonistic relationship with Washington now appears is its failure to make any progress to date. Beijing’s efforts to exploit Kerry’s determination to secure its cooperation on climate policy might have come to a head this month, but they are certainly not new, and seven months into the Biden administration, Beijing has nothing to show for it.
Perhaps, as if cooking the proverbial frog, the Chinese government plans to slowly bring Washington to a boil, knowing that its efforts cannot yield gains overnight. If this is true, the next few months will likely be crucial, for China can scarcely push Kerry harder than it is and the absence of results would likely prompt a rethink. If not — and the latest push is more a last gasp or an outburst of frustration with past failures — such a rethink might already be under way. It is not difficult to imagine such reflection casting serious doubt on the utility of continuing to solicit cooperation from an administration that has exhibited little interest in it.
In discussing this potential outcome, it is important to note a few caveats:
First, while the Biden administration is indeed keeping the door closed on a number of issues that Beijing hopes to engage on, at least for the time being, the refusal to negotiate has not all been one way. On military-to-military communication, where the US does hope to engage with Beijing, it has been the Chinese side, not the Biden administration, that has avoided meaningful contact.
Certainly, Beijing is not so set on a reset of bilateral relations in certain areas — a return to the “right track” — that it is willing to seek cooperation on issues where it feels both sides’ interests are diametrically opposed.
Second, even if Beijing were to sour on its policy of pushing for a return of bilateral relations to the “right track,” it could prove difficult to abandon in toto.
Perhaps Beijing can tolerate a certain amount of economic punishment from the US, given that bilateral trade remains robust and the Chinese economy has plenty of gas left in the tank when the pandemic is not interfering with growth — if official statistics are to be believed — but there is little reason to believe that it is not sincere in its ongoing public push for the elimination of US tariffs and the prevention of economic “decoupling.”
On these issues, particularly as the Chinese economy’s growth slows, and the US remains one of China’s largest trading partners and sources of investment, Beijing will have to weigh the potentially heavy costs of abandoning its policy of soliciting more cooperative relations.
A final consideration on this point is also important. While a decision in Beijing to stop pushing for collaborative relations writ large would indeed move the world closer to the sort of polarization that characterized the Cold War, as far as the ideological — if not the political or economic — sphere is concerned, such polarization is already under way.
Anti-Americanism has long been rampant in Beijing’s domestic and foreign propaganda, even since the end of the Cold War, not least because it views the prospect of Beijing having a positive view of the US political system as a threat to its legitimacy, but the last year and a half has seen such messaging escalate.
Desperate to protect its domestic image after the disastrous first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Beijing seized on critical remarks from US politicians to launch a propaganda broadside on COVID-19 that has continued largely uninterrupted. Large numbers of Chinese believe that the COVID-19 pandemic began in the US rather than China; that SARS-CoV-2 was created by US scientists in either Maryland or North Carolina; that the virus originated in the US white-tailed deer; or any number of other theories that fan anti-Americanism to shield the public image of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Additionally, other controversies continue to be leveraged to convince the Chinese public that China’s authoritarian system is superior to US democracy, which is depicted as a toxic sludge of violence, racism, plutocracy and bureaucratic ineptitude. Perhaps more importantly, perceptions of the Chinese government are now negative in the US in return.
In contrast to much of the post-Cold War era, the CCP now features prominently in the foreign policy consciousness of the US public and government, and the current negative perceptions of Beijing’s conduct at both levels appear to have no end in sight.
All of these considerations will likely play a role in Beijing’s reflections on its pursuit to date of a fundamental softening of the Biden administration’s line on China, and some could serve to constrain its freedom of action if it chooses to move from seeking cooperation to embracing the reality of confrontation.
Nevertheless, should Beijing make such a determination, both countries and the international community could find the 21st century rapidly becoming a more uncertain, unstable and hazardous period than it once appeared.
Connor Swank is an analyst at the Center for Advanced China Research.
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