America’s China question

Dr Imran Khalid
Tuesday, Feb 07, 2023

The last two months have witnessed three important events that may directly and indirectly influence the tone of China-US relations in 2023. One, the mid-term polls in November produced a ‘hung Congress’ – the Democrats captured the control of the Senate with only a one-vote lead, while the Republicans were barely able to win a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.

The existing power equation in the US Congress implies a kind of paralytic halt in legislative decision-making and is an acute hindrance to Biden’s domestic legislative agenda, which means he will be more focused on foreign affairs – and China – to attract his voters for his 2024 presidential ambitions.

The second event was the official announcement by former US president Donald Trump to run for the 2024 presidential contest. Being a chronic China hawk, Trump is likely to jack up his anti-China rhetoric to build the momentum for his presidential campaign in the next two years, inversely pushing President Biden to also adopt a more rigid stance vis-à-vis China so as to match Trump’s anti-China narrative.

Third, on the eve of the new year, some major changes were observed in the top tier of the Chinese foreign ministry, which have ignited a heated debate in the American media and academia about their impact on China’s policy towards the United States in the coming days. Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, was appointed China’s minister of foreign affairs on December 30, while China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng is widely expected to replace Qin Gang as the Chinese ambassador to Washington.

Being perpetually addicted to speculation and sensationalism, the American media has completely omitted a basic point: ambassadors -- and ministers for that matter -- don’t have much to do with the broader outline of the foreign policy of China, which is exclusively guided by the central command of the CCP. The personal involvement of ambassadors and ministers is essentially limited to window-dressing. Yes, the individual attributes of ambassadors and ministers definitely play a role, but it is also very limited in scope and scale. “The poet Eliot also wrote, ‘To make an end is to make a beginning’. I believe that relations between our countries will follow that path,” wrote Qin Gang, foreign minister of China at the end of his farewell article published in the Washington Post on January 4. The closing words of Qin in this article discreetly reflect the intent of Beijing to develop some sort of collaborative partnership with Washington without compromising on the confrontational stance on the key strategic issues including Taiwan and trade rivalry.

The Trump administration tried many aggressive steps -- including a trade war, geopolitical imposition, diplomatic intimidation, technological embargo and other indirect bullying moves -- to corner the Xi regime, but all these measures proved to be inadequate to achieve Washington's desired strategic objectives. When Biden entered the Oval Office in 2020, many of his close associates advised him to be “different and soft” on China so as to have some sort of damage control of four years of Trump’s excessive anti-China thrust. But nothing of the sort happened, and Biden did not listen to his colleagues and China-US relations gradually descended from a competitive but sometimes cooperative relationship to one that is brashly confrontational.

It took the Biden administration almost 18 months to divulge the basic contours of its China policy. On May 26, while addressing a session organized by the Asia Society at the campus of George Washington University, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a rather comprehensive insight into the thinking in the White House on China. The same old stuff with a little reconciliatory tone is how it was summarized in one sentence by China watchers. Certainly, it was an abridged collection of the key talking points from all the previous administrations. However, quite conspicuously, Blinken reiterated the similar approach as Trump to counter the ever-increasing technological leadership of China by strengthening American domestic infrastructure.

Exactly one month later, at the Nato summit in Madrid, the Biden administration inserted the harshest-ever language against China in the final communique: “We face systemic competition from those, including the People’s Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.” This was a clear signal about the Biden administration’s hardening stance towards China. This was followed by an extremely provocative trip to Taiwan by former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There were enough reasons to believe that her Taipei trip had full backing of President Joe Biden who ‘allowed’ her to visit Taipei despite a last-minute telephone call from Chinese President Xi Jinping to abort the trip with a warning “not to play with fire”. But she went ahead with her Taiwan yatra in an apparent attempt to bully Beijing and to expedite the cooperation between Taiwan and the US on the manufacturing of semiconductors in Arizona.

Things did not stop here, and the Biden administration released its new National Security Strategy on October 12, in which China was categorically labeled as a top adversary and a threat to the American interest. The NSS, allocating the largest word space for the chapters on China and the Indo-Pacific, further blatantly exposed the apprehensions and scepticism of the Biden administration with regard to China’s growing economic and political clout across the globe. The NSS, however, candidly accepted that it has candidly acknowledged the fact China – or the PRC as the Americans now love to mention in their official documents - is now central to the global economy.

So, there are credible indicators that the Biden administration is not likely to show any kind of mollification towards China in 2023. A Republican-controlled House will over-amplify public criticism of Chinese’ assertiveness, including by initiating a probe into the origins of Covid-19. The presidential candidates will frantically try to outcompete each other in their hawkishness on China. The Biden administration is going to enhance its efforts to shore up deterrence in the Asia-Pacific and in constraining China’s technological advances in national security-sensitive areas. Hawks are dissuading him from pursuing any positive agenda at the moment in view of the impending tough presidential race with Trump.

The inherent competitiveness of bilateral relations, which compels both sides to see their interactions through the lens of national security, will continue to inject acrimony and distrust into China-US ties. Washington is making all-out efforts to cobble together an anti-China coalition – including its close allies in the Asia-Pacific and Europe – to counterbalance Beijing in the global arena. However, this strategy is laced with many lacunas and is not likely to succeed in the near future.

It is true that many countries do endorse Washington’s antipathy to China’s policies and practices, but none of them is ready to blindly toe its lines when it comes to encircling China through economic distancing. None of the countries in the US camp, despite tightening up their curbs on exports of sensitive technologies, is in a position to cut its trading chord with China, the second largest economy of the world.

German Chancellor Scholz and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr have already demonstrated their digression from the US by visiting Beijing -- while French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni are also expected to soon embark upon their China trips. This clearly shows that even the closest strategic partners do not fully buy Washington’s China policy. American policymakers need to inject pragmatism into their policies towards China.

The writer is a freelance contributor.