U.S.-China Relations Hit a Nadir in 2021

Relations between the world’s two largest economic powers are at historic lows.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A large screen displays video of U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping as people walk by during the evening CCTV news broadcast outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 16.
A large screen displays video of U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping as people walk by during the evening CCTV news broadcast outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 16.
A large screen displays video of U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping as people walk by during the evening CCTV news broadcast outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 16. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

2021

Relations between the world’s two largest economic powers, the United States and China, are at lows not seen since the aftermath of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s human rights abuses, especially in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, border aggressiveness, and “wolf warrior” diplomacy, combined with the Trump administration’s legacy and the ongoing pandemic, have left bilateral relations at a nadir.

If China hoped for a reset from the Biden administration, it hasn’t been forthcoming. Although President Joe Biden’s language is more tempered than former President Donald Trump’s was, the United States has pushed forward the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, continued to sanction Chinese firms, announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and pushed for further investigation into COVID-19’s possible (though unlikely) origins in a Chinese lab. Tensions over Taiwan have also come to the fore, with China’s language and actions increasingly aggressive and the United States signaling a willingness to defend the island.

Here are five Foreign Policy stories from 2021 that help explain how—and why—U.S.-China relations degraded over the course of the year.

Relations between the world’s two largest economic powers, the United States and China, are at lows not seen since the aftermath of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s human rights abuses, especially in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, border aggressiveness, and “wolf warrior” diplomacy, combined with the Trump administration’s legacy and the ongoing pandemic, have left bilateral relations at a nadir.

If China hoped for a reset from the Biden administration, it hasn’t been forthcoming. Although President Joe Biden’s language is more tempered than former President Donald Trump’s was, the United States has pushed forward the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, continued to sanction Chinese firms, announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and pushed for further investigation into COVID-19’s possible (though unlikely) origins in a Chinese lab. Tensions over Taiwan have also come to the fore, with China’s language and actions increasingly aggressive and the United States signaling a willingness to defend the island.

Here are five Foreign Policy stories from 2021 that help explain how—and why—U.S.-China relations degraded over the course of the year.


1. The U.S.-China Clash Is About Ideology After All

by Andrei Lungu, April 6

Analysis of U.S.-China conflict has often focused on China’s growing economic strength and the United States’ role as the keystone of the global order. But Andrei Lungu, president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific, argues not to forget the ideological elements of the clash between the world’s largest capitalist democracy and its largest communist dictatorship.

“Think about what a real geopolitical conflict looks like: China and India. … China could go democratic tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter as long as the active border dispute remains, China is Pakistan’s best friend, and Chinese military vessels remain increasingly active in the Indian Ocean,” Lungu writes.

But when it comes to the United States, Beijing’s biggest worries are ideological. For instance, Lungu points to an 2013 internal Chinese Communist Party document, the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” which he says “spelled out the greatest threats for [China]: universal values, constitutional democracy, civil society, neoliberalism, and the denial of the country’s socialist nature.”

Lungu also notes, “The ideological factor is prominent in Washington and the West as well,” where China “is seen not just as any other country but through the prism of its authoritarian government and the threat this poses to the liberal order and democracy.”

“Just because it looks different than the Cold War doesn’t mean ideology is dead,” Lungu cautions. “Ideology is in the driver’s seat. Buckle up.”


2. China Is Radically Expanding Its Nuclear Missile Silos

by Jeffrey Lewis, June 30

China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.
China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.

China’s DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

One of Washington’s biggest worries this year has been China’s dramatic expansion of its nuclear-missile systems, as revealed through satellite imagery. China looks to have grown its arsenal by as many as another 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or more. That would still leave it with a far smaller nuclear stockpile than the United States or Russia has, but it’s still disturbing—especially given that there have been hints that China might abandon its “no-first-use” approach that minimizes the possibility of nuclear escalation.

Yet this development demands more diplomacy, not further confrontation, argues nuclear arms expert Jeffrey Lewis, however tough a sell that might be in Washington. He points to an instructive historical parallel: “The lesson of the Cuban missile crisis was a counterintuitive and initially unpopular idea: arms control. We didn’t like the Soviets, and we certainly didn’t trust them. But we also shared one very important interest: We did not want to die in a nuclear war and needed each other’s help to avoid that.”


3. Will Europe Ever Really Confront China?

by Stephen M. Walt, Oct. 15

Though Washington is more determined than ever to step up to Beijing, some long-term U.S. allies aren’t so certain. In Europe, the prospect of losing access to Chinese markets and becoming entangled in diplomatic conflicts doesn’t appeal to many leaders, especially the Germans. Washington has been trying to persuade them to its side, but that’s likely a false hope, argues Foreign Policy columnist Stephen M. Walt.

“The Biden administration (and especially Biden himself) appears to believe that shared democratic values can bind Europe and the United States together in a grand anti-Chinese coalition,” Walt writes. But “hopes such as these are likely to be disappointed: Why would Europe make a serious military effort to defend or promote democracy on the other side of the world, when the EU cannot even figure out how to respond to the erosion of democracy in Hungary and Poland and the active suppression of democracy in Belarus?”


4. A Dangerous Decade of Chinese Power is Here

by Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, Oct. 18

China’s demographic and economic woes may catch up with it in the future—and the Chinese Communist Party knows it has only a short time to make the greatest use of its power, argue experts Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins.

That makes deterring China a major priority for the United States if it wants to keep the global order intact, especially against an assertive leader like Chinese President Xi Jinping who wants to shore up his political legacy. “While Xi is under pressure to act, the external risks are magnified because so far, he has suffered few consequences from taking actions on issues his predecessors would likely never have gambled on,” they write.

Their advice for how the United States should respond is stark: “Washington must thus prepare the U.S. electorate and its institutional and physical infrastructure as well as that of allies and partners abroad for the likelihood that tensions will periodically ratchet up to uncomfortable levels—and that actual conflict is a concrete possibility.”


5. The U.S. Is Getting Taiwan Ready to Fight on the Beaches

by Jack Detsch and Zinya Salfiti, Nov. 8

No issue is thornier in U.S.-China relations than Taiwan, which Beijing believes it has a right to rule and the United States has long provided defensive aid to. This year, the presence of U.S. troops in small numbers on the island involved in training Taiwanese forces was highlighted by both Western and Chinese media. But as Jack Detsch and Zinya Salfiti of Foreign Policy note, U.S. troops have been present for decades, preparing the Taiwanese military to help fight off, or at least delay, a Chinese invasion through a “porcupine” strategy.

As Detsch and Salfiti report, “The Taiwanese have been pushing the Americans, through informal diplomatic channels—as well as public statements about U.S. troops on the island—to take the relationship further and faster, fearing that China is quickly moving to rewrite the geopolitical rulebook in the region.” And while some have argued that Taiwan can resist invasion by itself, others point to the dilapidated state of the Taiwanese military as evidence to the contrary.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.