US-China relations are back in focus after talks last week in Anchorage, Alaska, and ahead of climate discussions today. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Top Story: US-China Relations
Sha Hua and William Mauldin, writing in the WSJ, report: “The US and China are tiptoeing toward cooperation on climate change despite recent and testy high-level talks.
Today “US climate envoy, John Kerry, will join his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, at…an annual meeting of major economies and polluters that was set up by China, the European Union, and Canada after the US moved to exit from the Paris accord in 2017. Mr. Kerry’s decision to join the event is intended to signal that the US is back at the climate table.
It comes on the heels of talks last week in Anchorage Alaska between the most senior American and Chinese foreign-affairs officials, who sniped openly over [various issues].
The Kerry-Xie interaction marks a test of the Biden administration’s China strategy, which looks to carve out cooperation on issues…while the two powers compete for global influence and the control of critical technologies.”
Here’s what both sides are saying about US-China relations, recent tensions between the two countries, and the best path forward.
On The Left
The left sees a modern version of the Cold War brewing between the US and China. They applaud the Biden administration for taking a different approach than the Trump administration, which relies more on cooperation with US allies. They also believe the US and China can work together on threats like climate change which will lower the temperature between the two countries and pave the way for a more harmonious relationship.
In The Atlantic, Thomas Wright applauds the Biden administration for deciding to forgo posturing at last week’s Alaska meeting, defining the US-China relationship as a “competition between different government systems: authoritarianism and liberal democracy.” Since “China believes that the balance of power has shifted in its favor over the past 10 years, especially during the pandemic,” their delegation approached the gathering “with the intention of delivering a public message, which they did in dramatic fashion to the audience at home.” To Wright, “Organizing the relationship around cooperation is theoretically desirable as an end goal but will be unattainable for the foreseeable future, given the unfolding reality of an assertive, repressive China and a defiant America.” He sees the biggest risk to both sides occurring if just one side miscalculates moving forward. “Getting real in Anchorage” is an “important first step toward a more stable relationship by acknowledging the true nature of their relationship.”
Rachel Esplin Odell, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, argues for cooperation where possible. She believes that the US-China relationship should not be tied to an all-or-nothing acceptance of the “world order,” a concept that is “dangerously misleading.” Instead, it is crucial to remember that this order is composed of “a series of separate and sometimes contradictory orders, governing areas from trade, to arms control, to international humanitarian law.” With that understood, Odell continues, there is room for cooperation on issues such as climate change and internet governance. Odell concludes that “If Washington desires to strengthen liberal human rights norms, it ought to adopt a more liberal diplomacy-centric approach that relies on soft power and modeling, in lieu of economic and military coercion.” She also states that the Biden administration “should avoid the both inaccurate and harmful portrayal of China as a threat to the overall world order.”
Finally, David E. Sanger observes a new but different version of the Cold War in the NYT, writing that “The scenes playing out now have echoes of the bad old days.” Sanger writes that China’s power does not arise from “their relatively small nuclear arsenal or their expanding stockpile of conventional weapons,” but instead is derived from “their expanding economic might and how they use their government-subsidized technology to wire nations…with 5G wireless networks intended to tie them ever closer to Beijing.” He goes on to state that the “goal of the Alaska meeting was to convince the Chinese that the Biden administration is determined to compete with Beijing across the board to offer competitive technology…and new industrial partnerships.”
The left applauds the Biden administration for their clear-eyed, transparent vision when observing a new era of strategic competition between the US and China.
On The Right
The right believes the Biden administration presents itself as both bumbling and weak on the world stage. They foresee US enemies using this perceived weakness to push against US interests in a dangerous manner. While conservative pundits agree that the US must act in a more assertive fashion when pushing back against China, some warn against exaggerating the China threat beyond what it truly is.
WSJ uses their Editorial page to point out that “Beijing wants a return to the policy of Obama accommodation.” While they believe that the Biden administration remains “strong in its rhetoric on all of this” thus far, “the real challenge will be how well it responds to the aggressive designs of adversaries in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran.” For example, they view the “renewed courtship of Tehran to return to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal” as a “sign of weakness.” With respect to China, the WSJ sees a country “growing in confidence that it has the strategic advantage over a declining America,” creating a “dangerous moment as the world’s rogue powers look to test the Biden Administration’s resolve.” They thereby warn the Biden Administration to take Beijing seriously.
In The Spectator, former CIA analyst Fred Fleitz criticizes the Biden administration’s diplomatic approach thus far. He also writes that “You don’t insult the other party at a joint press conference before the negotiations begin,” with respect to last week’s meeting. Fleitz admonishes US officials for raising sensitive issues “at a joint press conference” with China, which “deeply insulted them and needlessly damaged US-China relations.” Fleitz believes Secretary of State Anthony Blinken looked weak in the process, “like a deer in the headlights when the Chinese officials responded.” He contrasts this approach with that of former President Trump, who would act polite in public and then apply pressure as a tough negotiator behind the scenes. Fleitz labels the Biden policy team as “inept second and third-string Obama retreads” and warns that “America’s enemies are watching and planning how to cash in on President Biden’s weak and incompetent foreign policy.”
Meanwhile, John Fairlamb warns against a “Thucydides Trap” in The Hill, saying that “If both sides believe war is inevitable, it’s likely to happen.” He points out that “China is bordered by 14 countries, none of which could be described as allies” and faces “serious domestic issues.” Nevertheless, Fairlamb concludes that “Portrayals of China’s overwhelming force are misleading,” and so “there is no need to beat the threat drum to hype the defense budget.”
Simply put, the right is wary of a Biden administration that speaks loudly while carrying a small stick.
Flag This: US-China Relations
A Gallup Poll reflects that 45% of Americans call China “the greatest enemy of the US,” a reading “more than double the percentage who said so in 2020.” At the same time, the poll finds “Favorable views of China among US adults falling for the second straight year, putting the figure at a historically low 20%.” Within those metrics, “76% of Republicans name China as the greatest enemy, 43% of Independents and 22% of Democrats.” Hence, opinions toward China vary across the board.