If there were any illusions that the new American administration would bring about a thaw in U.S.-China relations, those expectations were dashed in the first icy interchange between the two countries’ lead diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska. Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened the discussion with criticism of China’s “might makes right” style of foreign policy, while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan trumped up the Biden administration’s early successes in distributing vaccines, passing a stimulus package, and convening U.S. allies.
The Chinese delegation shot back at the United States’ over its checkered human rights record and its shaky claims to global leadership. Embarking on a 16-minute tirade, China’s most senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, denounced the United States’ “use of force… to topple other regimes” and lambasted America’s “deep-seated” racial issues. Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a set of remarks within the two-minute allotted time window, imploring the United States to reverse its “suppression” of China’s economy and “abandon [its] hegemonic practice.”
This encounter made clear that neither China nor the United States is willing to take seriously the concerns of the other side. The U.S. delegation failed to indicate an intent to ease up on tariffs and export controls and the Chinese delegation signalled little remorse for its governance practices in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Underlying this standoff is the view in both Beijing and Washington that the other side initiated the rift in bilateral ties and, therefore, it is the other side’s responsibility to change its behavior and conform to the “international order.” More fundamentally, both sides believe they have leverage to wait for the other side to make concessions.
The Biden administration, for its part, has repeatedly claimed that it will engage China “from a position of strength.” In practice, this has manifested in a policy of “strategic patience” toward Beijing. Leaders in China, likewise, feel increasingly confident in their ability to stand up to the United States, having weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and withstood the U.S.-launched trade war. Director Yang flatly declared: “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
In 2020, China emerged from COVID-19 as the only major country with positive growth. At the same time, China surpassed the U.S. to become Europe’s largest trading partner and attracted a greater share of FDI inflows than any other country. Despite U.S. tariffs, China’s exports have continued to grow. These trends reinforce Beijing’s perception that “the East is rising and the West is declining” (东升西降). As a result, Xi Jinping’s administration feels scant urgency to send an olive branch to Washington.
On the other side of the Pacific, the Biden administration feels its own sense of renewed self-confidence. The administration has cast out the chaos of the Trump years, put a damper on COVID-19, and even landed a rover on Mars. More consequential for the U.S.-China relationship, the administration has begun convening allies on all sides of China’s borders.
In the lead-up to the inauguration, a number of Sinologists-turned-NSC members wrote articles explaining that the Trump administration’s failures had reinforced China’s view of the U.S. as a power in “terminal decline.” Trump’s withdrawal from global leadership was thought to have emboldened Beijing to take assertive actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and even coerce its neighbors like India and Australia. In response, the Biden campaign pledged to “restore American leadership,” not only by recovering America’s image at home, but by rebuilding its alliances abroad. Rather than “slow China down,” NSA Sullivan declared, the new administration would try to “run faster.”
The problem is: what makes for a good campaign tagline does not necessarily make for good diplomacy. While it is true that Trump’s unilateralism undermined American leverage, that does not mean goading Chinese leaders into feeling encircled is a more effective strategy. Wang Yi’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the heels of the Alaska summit demonstrates the predictable blowback from Biden’s bloc-building. More fundamentally, the American delegation’s claim that it opposes a “might makes right” foreign policy rings hollow when it premises its bilateral dialogues on perceived relative strength. This mode of engagement is more likely to spark nationalist pushback in China, rather than convince Chinese leaders to fold under pressure.
None of this is to say that perceptions of mutual strength are unimportant. Rather, the point is that perceptions are shaped more by the realities on the ground than by rhetorical flourishes. Increasingly, the realities depict that neither the United States nor China have a claim to speak for the “international order.”
When it comes to the two largest tests facing the international community—climate change and COVID-19—neither China nor the U.S., respectively, is worthy of a passing grade. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan upended expectations of a “carbon cap” by targeting a more conservative reduction in “carbon intensity.” The Biden administration, for its part, has pursued a strategy of “America first” with respect to COVID-19, announcing that every American will receive a vaccine before sending any overseas.
The more that the U.S. and China treat dialogue as a chance to stage a wrestling match, the less likely they will be to channel their joint strength to wrestle with the world’s toughest challenges. Perhaps in the future, the two sides can leave the self-aggrandizement on the sidelines and, instead, take on common problems from a position of collective strength.