The writer is a former World Bank president and author of ‘America in the World’
In the aftermath of the recent video conference between US president Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping of China, Washington faces a dilemma: how to engage Beijing when Biden’s leading officials have declared that engagement has failed?
US political opinion ranges from fearing China’s rise to warning of Beijing’s internal weaknesses, but either way, the prevailing consensus from both parties is to do battle.
National Security Council strategists Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell sought during the run-up to the 2020 election to distance themselves from previous Clinton-Obama ties with China. And the NSC’s China expert, Rush Doshi, published a book this year preaching a doctrine of diplomatic predestination: China has had a decades-long plan to achieve global hegemony, leaving no prospect for the US to work with it.
There is, however, a problem with such thinking, highlighted by the recent statement on China from US trade representative Katherine Tai. Tai concluded that neither trade discussions nor enforcement had worked, and that Donald Trump’s failed deal had fallen short. But she offered no idea of what the administration should do next.
For ten months, the Biden team has deferred the question of China policy by pointing to efforts on the home front or taking steps to restore ties with allies. For example, the Aukus pact with Australia and the UK holds out the promise of deeper co-operation on defence technology and more allied nuclear submarines in the Pacific.
The administration has also deferred to domestic politics. After the new team used rhetorical blasts to demonstrate “toughness”, China reciprocated. Substantive exchanges withered; relations spiralled downward.
When Biden recognised the dangers of deepening antagonism, he reached out to Xi with an a la carte approach, suggesting talks about climate. Xi delayed because he faced a sensitive central committee plenum on the path to his third term. More important, Xi was signalling to Washington that Beijing wanted a comprehensive approach to Sino-American relations.
The eventual Biden-Xi meeting did not produce a peace agreement or even a ceasefire; it was more of a pause. The Chinese asserted their framework of principles, priorities, points of consensus and Taiwan.
For their part, Biden’s strategists could say what they did not want — containment, a cold war and conflict over Taiwan — but have been afraid to say what they do expect from relations. They are just reactive.
John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, has carved out one exception to the non-engagement policy: he recognised that a successful Biden climate policy depended on co-operation with China.
Biden must now decide whether to build upon his dialogue with Xi. The US and China should be exploring possible mutual interests — climate and carbon; recovery from the pandemic and future biological security; trade reciprocity and rules in a new world of industrial policies; international financial flows and resilience to inevitable shocks; growth in developing economies, including debt restructurings; mutual deterrence and security, especially in the Indo-Pacific; and the management of technology and data decoupling.
The president should complement that agenda by building US military capacities and speaking out about human rights, although the impact of his words will depend on America’s own example.
Biden’s domestic foes will attack any move away from confrontation with China, but he will have to choose between indulging their fears or achieving results. It is time for a debate over US objectives with China — other than regime change.
The US needs to recognise that the other side gets a vote, too. I suspect that the continuity in Trump-Biden policy has persuaded Beijing that the US cannot accept China’s rise. Stand-off will be the new constant.
Xi believes the east is rising and the west declining. Instead of waiting for US decoupling, China will decouple on its own terms. Therefore, Xi has become less interested in co-operative dialogue; his priority lies in avoiding miscalculations and mistakes that could lead to conflict, especially as he prepares for next year’s important Chinese Communist party congress.
Proponents of disengagement in Washington may get their wish because of China’s reactions. Biden will have to decide whether such a course best serves US interests as a world leader and makes America safer.