Trans-Pacific View

China-US Relations After the Biden-Xi Summit: Beyond Stabilization

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

China-US Relations After the Biden-Xi Summit: Beyond Stabilization

We have staunched the bleeding in China-U.S. relations. Now can the patient be revived?

China-US Relations After the Biden-Xi Summit: Beyond Stabilization

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California, Nov. 15, 2023.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

While the relationship between the United States and China has been through many ups and downs since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972, the turn toward outright confrontation over the past few years has threatened the interests of both countries and the world. By all accounts, the meeting between Presidents Joseph Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco has, for the time being, served to halt this downward spiral. 

But can we do better than simply staunching the bleeding? Can a healthier relationship between Washington and Beijing be revived? 

It may seem a long shot given the hawkish moods in each country and the very real conflicting interests between a long-time global leader and a rising challenger. But the alternative path – leading to a massive arms race, military brinkmanship, and painful economic disruption – is not one we should lightly accept. Moreover, critical global problems cannot be successfully addressed without cooperation between the world’s two most powerful states. To move beyond the minimal goal of stabilizing a seriously degraded big power relationship, the United States needs to develop a strategy of cooperation, alongside the competitive strategies so often touted by the Biden administration.

The administration’s recent diplomatic blitz to re-engage with China is partly motivated by a realization of such costs. But it also arises from a sense that efforts during the early years of the Biden presidency to strengthen U.S. alliances and military posture in the region, along with a strong U.S. economic recovery combined with China’s sputtering economic performance, have strengthened Washington’s hand in dealing with China. The timing for re-engagement is ripe.

But how to move beyond the plucking of a few low-hanging fruit? Here are five principles that should guide Washington’s efforts to steer China-U.S. relations back to a healthier and more sustainable balance between competition and cooperation.

Avoid Overemphasizing the Ideological Aspects of China-U.S. Competition

Biden has repeatedly underlined the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism as a key organizing framework for U.S. foreign policy. This framing has reinforced Beijing’s fear that the United States aims to challenge the legitimacy of its communist system of government and spur popular opposition to its rule. 

This, for instance, is how Xi Jinping interpreted the Hong Kong democracy protests of 2019, which China’s media frequently attributed to foreign subversion. Biden’s repeated references to Xi as a “dictator” are interpreted in a similar vein. 

The U.S. message must be that, while we hold dear our own commitment to democracy and reserve the right to speak out against major human rights abuses, such as those against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the United States does not seek to undermine the internal authority of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather, Washington’s interest lies in influencing the external policies of China where they impact U.S. interests and those of our allies. 

An overly ideological approach only sparks Beijing’s paranoia while also making it more difficult to rally non-democratic states to our own side when their support is needed.  

Right-size the U.S. Estimation of China’s Strengths and Weaknesses 

A few years ago, many Americans held an exaggerated sense of China’s strength, with many despairing that the United States was doomed to fall behind. More recently, an opposite narrative has taken hold. China’s slowing growth, massive debt, and aging population are viewed as weaknesses meaning that we have already witnessed “peak China,” with inexorable decline to follow. 

Both are exaggerations. China is a formidable great power and a far stronger challenger to U.S. power than the Soviet Union ever was. But the United States has strengths in technology, accumulated wealth, geographic position, alliance relationships, military assets, and soft power that China is unlikely to surpass. 

Exaggerating China’s strengths leads to panicked reactions, such as mutually costly efforts to kneecap China’s economic development. The opposite assessment can lead either to complacency or to dangerously assertive bullying. A measured evaluation of the China challenge will motivate the United States to take steps to enhance its own political and economic well-being from a position of self-confidence.

Strengthen a Vibrant Multilateral Order That Includes China 

The biggest factor working in the United States’ favor is the strength of the multilateral institutions – such as the United Nations, World Bank, and World Trade Organization – that the U.S. itself helped to create. These organizations enhance collaboration, provide collective goods, maintain order, and strengthen the international rule of law. The most important thing that the U.S. can do in its relationship with China is to both strengthen these institutions and make sure China is included. 

The Biden administration, unlike the Trump administration and much of the Republican Party, has championed the first part of this formulation but not the second. Biden has attempted to repair the damage done by the Trump administration’s hostility toward multilateral institutions. But he has given preference to institutions that exclude China and to ad hoc groupings aimed against China. 

Yet China’s engagement with international institutions, even when it challenges U.S. dominance, gives Beijing a stake in the status quo and brings the weight of the international community to bear on restraining Chinese behavior. Although the theory that engagement with China would lead to its democratic transformation proved erroneous, the institutionalist argument for engagement has stronger support. 

China, for example, is now seeking to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a project that the United States initiated and then abandoned. Were it to join, China would be required to meet high level trade standards and reform many of the practices that are the sources of complaints by foreign investors and trade partners. The U.S. should not only welcome China’s entry to the CPTPP, but negotiate its own reentry to the agreement. 

Rethink the “Sticks Over Carrots” Approach 

U.S. policy toward China in recent years has been all sticks and no carrots. Worse, the United States has seldom stated what China could do to earn relief from sanctions. 

The theory behind the application of unconditional sticks is that Washington should focus on undercutting China’s capabilities, because nothing the U.S. attempts can realistically change China’s behavior. But this may actually turn reality on its head. Given time, target states can typically find ways to blunt the impact of economic sanctions or match increases in military arms. Behavior, on the other hand, is easier to influence by changing the cost/benefit calculus of the target. Either sticks or carrots may be employed for this purpose, but to be effective, both must be connected to specific demands with the prospect that sticks will be withdrawn, or carrots delivered should the demands be met. 

An example of the ineffective use of leverage are the trade tariffs that were imposed by the Trump administration and remain in place. While the tariffs are ultimately paid by American consumers, China would like the tariffs removed since their exporters are placed at a disadvantage. Imposed as a stick, the tariffs could now serve as a carrot to obtain concessions from China, yet the United States refuses to state what steps the Chinese would need to take for the tariffs to be lifted. 

Generally, the U.S. should focus less on punishing China than on employing an efficient set of incentives designed to alter Chinese behavior. 

Reassure China Where It Holds Unfounded Fears of U.S. Intentions 

When states take steps to enhance their own security, they can unwittingly set in motion security dilemmas, whereby such steps threaten the security of other states. Each state then becomes ensnared in a spiral of hostility and arms racing. The only way out of a security dilemma is to provide the rival state with signals of reassurance and restraint in hopes of gaining reciprocity from the other side. 

There are many opportunities where this idea could be applied in China-U.S. relations. For instance, the United States has responded to the increasingly lopsided military balance across the Taiwan strait by taking steps to reinforce deterrence. Beijing, however, has interpreted these moves as a creeping strategy for eventual recognition of Taiwanese independence. China then ratchets up pressures on Taiwan and the risks of war rise. Washington should seek ways to balance deterrence against a Chinese military strike on Taiwan with reassurance that the U.S. does not and will not support any unilateral Taiwanese move toward independence.  

Strategies of cooperation bring risks. The other side may not reciprocate or may take undue advantage by pocketing concessions without offering any of its own. A rival may interpret gestures of cooperation as weakness and increase demands. That is why strategies of cooperation must be carefully hedged, so that the initiator has the option of shifting back to a more confrontational approach if necessary. 

In the current atmosphere, perhaps the best that can be expected is to put a floor beneath the China-U.S. relationship. Yet it is worth considering the possibilities of a more ambitious effort to normalize the relationship, if only because the risks and costs of failing to do so are so great.