Since U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in California last November, Beijing and Washington have maintained communication channels across a range of issues, from defense to counternarcotics. Some analysts welcome the stabilization in China-U.S. relations, while others argue that the Biden administration’s “engagement” policy is undermining U.S. interests.
Rather than a return to “strategic engagement” – combining high-level diplomacy with economic integration – Washington’s strategy is better thought of as “engagement lite.” The administration is prioritizing competition, even as it leverages communication to reduce the chances of conflict and achieve a limited set of objectives. U.S. officials have made clear that they are not seeking “breakthroughs” with China. Rather, they are leveraging communication to enhance deterrence, manage perceptions in Beijing, facilitate agreements favorable to Washington, and improve the United States’ image as a responsible actor in the eyes of the international community.
Before the Biden administration entered office, key foreign policy advisers devised a formula to restore America’s competitive edge, while ensuring that competition would not escalate. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2019, Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell – today Biden’s national security advisor and deputy secretary of state nominee, respectively – suggested that Washington should aim for “a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.” Such coexistence would give the United States time to invest in its capabilities, while managing differences with China over the long run.
As recently as last spring, Beijing refused to accept this framework, arguing that Washington “should stop claiming it wants to maintain communication while damaging the political foundations of bilateral relations.”
Recently, however, China changed its tune. Beijing’s internal challenges, from high-level corruption to slowing economic growth, may explain the tactical shift, as well as the United States’ frequent overtures to Beijing. In San Francisco, Xi Jinping struck a conciliatory tone, and the entire Chinese party–state quickly followed suit.
At the same time as Chinese officials begin to accept the Biden administration’s framework – that competition requires communication – some in Washington have cast doubt on the logic of diplomacy. Does dialogue signal weakness and provoke aggression? Can irreconcilable national interests be communicated away? Is the United States giving away too much and getting too little?
But diplomacy is only likely to signal weakness if the United States is actually weak. For this reason, the Biden administration has prioritized strengthening alliances, investing in the U.S. economy, and imposing export controls on advanced technology. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo summarized this approach by stating that U.S. national security as “not negotiable,” even while noting that “progress” has been made in dialogue with Beijing.
Effective communication has ensured that the United States’ competitive actions are well telegraphed, so Beijing does not respond with escalatory behavior. This has allowed Washington to defend its interests, but also minimize the risk of overreaction. Last October, the administration warned Beijing that it was planning to tighten export restrictions on advanced chips, and China responded with minor restrictions on mineral exports.
At the same time as the administration prioritizes competition, it has used communication to secure agreements favorable to the United States. The meeting between Biden and Xi in San Francisco resulted in a commitment by Beijing to stem the flow of fentanyl precursor exports to the United States in exchange for lifting sanctions on China’s Institute of Forensic Science. If there is evidence that Beijing is not following through on its commitments, Washington can readily reimpose sanctions.
Direct communication has also played a role in crisis management and prevention. Since Biden and Xi met last November, U.S. officials have reported a notable decline in the number of China’s unsafe intercepts of U.S. naval ships and aircraft.
Critics contend that defense channels such as the Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) may not reduce the chances of conflict because the two countries’ civilian leaders would be relied on to de-escalate in the event of a major crisis. Such was the case following the 2003 EP-3 incident, when a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, requiring executive-level intervention.
However, in addition to de-escalating crises, military-to-military channels can also prevent crises by clarifying each side’s intentions and resolve. U.S. intentions are particularly susceptible to misperception amid a shrinking echo chamber in the Chinese bureaucracy. Without clarity, Beijing could misperceive a routine reconnaissance mission or freedom of navigation operation as an offensive operation. Similar information problems almost sparked a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1983, when the Soviet leadership misperceived NATO’s Able Archer exercise as a surprise attack due to faulty intelligence.
There is also a risk that conflict results from real, rather than perceived, intentions. For this reason, investments in U.S. military capabilities should be the priority of any China policy. But a strong defense can only go so far. During the Korean War, U.S. military capabilities were far superior to those of the newly established People’s Republic of China, yet Washington still failed to deter Mao Zedong due to his misguided belief that a unified Korea under U.S. control would facilitate an incursion into the Chinese mainland. In order to deter effectively, material capabilities must be paired with clarity about one’s intentions and resolve.
Direct communication can also enhance deterrence when used to deliver threats and assurances. U.S. officials can establish redlines – the thresholds of acceptable Chinese behavior beyond which Washington would feel forced to respond – as well as assurances that the United States will not take advantage of any potential restraint on the Chinese side. The Biden administration’s threats against providing lethal aid to Moscow, for example, appear to have deterred government-led sanctions evasion by China, according to U.S. Treasury Department officials. On the other hand, reassurances that the United States does not want to fully decouple from China have deterred Beijing from precipitating economic decoupling on its own terms.
Finally, diplomatic efforts can help improve the United States’ image as a responsible actor in the international community. Over the last year, U.S. allies and partners sent a clear “demand signal” to de-escalate bilateral relations. At times, it was uncertain whether the United States or China was responsible for ratcheting up tensions. Washington’s willingness to send overtures to Beijing, while risking appearing like an “ardent suitor,” can reassure the international community that the Biden administration is more interested in conflict prevention than appearing tough. If China ignores U.S. overtures, it will only make Beijing appear as belligerent in the eyes of the international community.
There are valid reasons to be skeptical of diplomacy. In the past, Beijing leveraged engagement to make hollow commitments and buy time. But the main problem with engagement was not that Washington was willing to talk to Beijing; it was that the United States neglected to protect its competitiveness. When backed by investments in military capabilities, economic resilience, and international partnerships, “engagement lite” can help put the bilateral relationship on more favorable terms for the United States.