Is Biden Missing a Chance to Engage China?

Appalled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine debacle, Beijing could be open to a new U.S. approach.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

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No one has to be more dismayed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incompetence on the global stage than Chinese President Xi Jinping, his once-devoted partner. Publicly, Xi is sticking by Putin, and Chinese state outlets are still mostly following the Kremlin line, blaming the United States for provoking Russia’s Ukraine invasion almost three months ago. But in quiet ways, Xi’s government is distancing itself from the Kremlin by withholding military aid and suspending some economic and scientific cooperation.

And Xi is now facing serious pressures of his own that highlight how essential it is for China to remain part of the international system Putin is bloodily divorcing himself from—a system that has made China enormously wealthy over the past few decades. China’s economy is suffering under a draconian COVID-19 lockdown, spurring street protests, supply shortages from “de-coupling” with the West, and structural issues that could slash its once-stellar economic growth to a ruinous (by Chinese standards) 2 to 3 percent per year on average from now until 2050, according to the Lowy Institute. The U.S. economy could grow faster than China’s this year for the first time since 1976, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg.

This means that if Xi “doesn’t radically change course,” former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “China would cease being the world’s growth engine.” That in turn could be politically disastrous for Xi; he and the Chinese Communist Party have managed to keep control by delivering fast growth and promising to overtake the United States.

No one has to be more dismayed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incompetence on the global stage than Chinese President Xi Jinping, his once-devoted partner. Publicly, Xi is sticking by Putin, and Chinese state outlets are still mostly following the Kremlin line, blaming the United States for provoking Russia’s Ukraine invasion almost three months ago. But in quiet ways, Xi’s government is distancing itself from the Kremlin by withholding military aid and suspending some economic and scientific cooperation.

And Xi is now facing serious pressures of his own that highlight how essential it is for China to remain part of the international system Putin is bloodily divorcing himself from—a system that has made China enormously wealthy over the past few decades. China’s economy is suffering under a draconian COVID-19 lockdown, spurring street protests, supply shortages from “de-coupling” with the West, and structural issues that could slash its once-stellar economic growth to a ruinous (by Chinese standards) 2 to 3 percent per year on average from now until 2050, according to the Lowy Institute. The U.S. economy could grow faster than China’s this year for the first time since 1976, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg.

This means that if Xi “doesn’t radically change course,” former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “China would cease being the world’s growth engine.” That in turn could be politically disastrous for Xi; he and the Chinese Communist Party have managed to keep control by delivering fast growth and promising to overtake the United States.

But rather than try to court China—which, given Beijing’s hostility and intransigence, would in any event be a huge and politically hazardous task—U.S. President Joe Biden is in East Asia meeting with allies to send Beijing a message about U.S. leadership and renewed engagement in the region. In recent days, Biden met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts and unveiled his new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a vaguely defined attempt to revive trade relations in East Asia by pledging cooperation on supply chains, tax reform, and climate and digital technology—all without surrendering any U.S. market access.

On Tuesday, Biden will meet with leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Japan, India, and Australia—in an effort to isolate and confront China as it vies for greater influence in the region. The trip is meant to signal that Washington possesses as many allies in Asia as it does in Europe and that Beijing cannot do to Taiwan what Putin has attempted in Ukraine. Responding to questions in Tokyo on Monday, Biden stepped up his confrontational approach, saying his commitment to protecting Taiwan is “even stronger” since Russia’s invasion and that he would be willing to use force to repel a Chinese military assault on the island. (U.S. policy on defense commitments to Taiwan is deliberately ambiguous.) Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded that Beijing “firmly opposed” Biden’s remarks, saying “the Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair.”

The hard-line message of strength to Beijing is a continuation of Biden’s basic approach since he was inaugurated. But some strategists wonder if an opportunity is arising for a fresh approach to China—one that gives a fence-sitting Beijing an opportunity to further distance itself, in a face-saving way, from Russia’s horrific shambles in Ukraine. No one believes a dramatic change of course is likely or feasible in the immediate future, especially with both Biden and Xi so vested politically in selling the U.S.-China confrontation at home. Biden faces a recalcitrant Congress replete with China hawks ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November while Xi cannot afford to look soft as he prepares to secure a historic third term as Chinese president at the 20th National Party Congress of the ruling Communist Party, also this fall.

Nonetheless, “this is a moment when each side should be interested in exploring whether there’s a different direction to take,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat well versed in China policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The domestic political costs for both sides are high, but the potential gains are historic.”

Winston Lord, a longtime China hand who served as then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s top aide during Washington’s historic opening to China 50 years ago, said while Xi no doubt still “feels a bond with his fellow semi-tyrant,” circumstances have changed dramatically since Putin and Xi jointly declared a “no-limits” strategic partnership at their Beijing summit in February a few weeks before the Ukraine invasion.

The Biden administration should “point out the heavy price of being in lockstep with such a weak and incompetent partner, which is violating Chinese norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Lord said. “In the longer run, I believe this [China-Russia] partnership will wither because it is so uneven in power; is fraught with historical, racial, and border tensions; is complicated by some conflicting regional competition; and is dwarfed by the economic stakes with the U.S., Europe, and democratic Asia.”

Although the real views of Xi and China’s leadership are unknown, there are hints that some key Chinese officials may be raising similar questions about the Russia relationship. Putin’s military setbacks in Ukraine have demonstrated that “the so-called revival or revitalization of Russia under Putin’s leadership is false; it simply does not exist,” said Gao Yusheng, China’s former ambassador to Ukraine, this month at a closed-door event hosted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank, according to a report by China’s Phoenix News.

“The Russian military’s economic and financial strength, which are not commensurate with its status as a so-called military superpower, could not support a high-tech war. … The Russian army’s poverty-driven defeat was evident,” Gao said. His remarks, however, were removed from the website only a few hours later.

The real question is what the Biden administration can be doing now to recalibrate its relationship with China. Even Kissinger, the 98-year-old doyen of U.S. foreign policy who orchestrated, along with then-U.S. President Richard Nixon, the opening in 1972 that divided Moscow from Beijing, said at a Financial Times forum in Washington in early May, “I don’t think we can generate possible disagreement” between the two countries.

Nonetheless, Kissinger added, “It is unwise to take an adversarial position to two adversaries in a way that drives them together.”

As Putin geared up to launch his invasion this year, some experts warned that the United States might find itself in a long-term confrontation with China and Russia at the same time, resulting in “not one but two cold wars,” as a major study of the China-Russia relationship published by the Rand Corporation last year concluded. Until recently, Beijing and Russia were united in seeking to create a front against perceived U.S. hegemony in the world, with Russian arms accounting for a majority of China’s overall arms imports. The two countries have also angrily rejected Biden’s attempts to frame the Ukraine conflict as a test for democracies around the world to be united against autocracy. A 2019 assessment by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that Beijing and Moscow “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s” and said “the relationship is likely to strengthen … as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived U.S. unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights.”

Many of those aligned interests have not changed—in particular, the common perception that U.S. power and influence must be blunted. But Kissinger, Lord, and other China experts note that crucial U.S.-China cooperation on other major issues—such as, climate change, COVID-19, and North Korean nuclear and missile proliferation—has flagged as Beijing insists on linking those causes with demands for a de-escalation of Washington’s confrontational approach and tariff relief. They point out that during the diplomatic opening a half century ago, Washington and Beijing managed to agree to disagree on such fundamental issues as political systems and democracy. In the 1972 Shanghai Communique—which Washington still officially recognizes—the two nations agreed that neither “should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.” 

In private conversations, Chinese officials sometimes express bafflement that Biden continues to pursue a policy of confrontation with Beijing, especially since the Ukraine crisis. They point out that even Washington concedes Taiwan is part of China, whereas Ukraine is a fully sovereign country. In Biden’s remarks on Monday, despite his new belligerent message to Beijing, Biden also reaffirmed Washington’s 50-year-old “One China” policy, which recognizes this distinction. “We signed on to it, and all the attendant agreements made from there, but the idea that it can be taken by force, just taken by force, is just not appropriate,” Biden said.

Some China experts say for a start, Biden could lift some of the tariffs imposed by his predecessor, former U.S. President Donald Trump—which even Biden administration officials admit are imposing additional costs on inflation-plagued Americans while doing nothing to change China’s protectionist trade behavior. “There is no strategic case for many of them,” a senior administration official admitted this month. 

“The Trump policy is manifestly a failure,” said William Reinsch, a former U.S. Commerce Department undersecretary. “And clearly, Ukraine has changed the dynamic.”

Yet the Biden team has not seriously altered its approach to China in the last few months; if anything, it has redoubled its hawkish stance despite Biden’s occasional virtual summits with Xi and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s latest meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, this month. A brief readout from the White House said the two “focused on regional security issues and nonproliferation” as well as the Ukraine war. But the Chinese side issued a statement indicating the dialogue may have been harsher than reported, especially regarding Chinese fears that the United States is using the Biden visit to further confront Beijing over its claims to Taiwan. 

“If the U.S. side insists on playing the Taiwan card and goes further and further down the wrong road, it will certainly lead to a dangerous situation,” Yang said in the meeting. 

Since the Ukraine invasion, the Biden administration has confined most of its messaging to warning Beijing against helping Putin materially in his aggression against Ukraine—and senior U.S. officials concede they have not seen clear Chinese military and economic support for Russia. Recently, Alexander Sergeev, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, complained that China has held off from its previous “excellent cooperation.” China’s UnionPay financial services network has also suspended negotiations with Russian banks.

But there has been no effort at a high-level new initiative, despite the Biden-Xi talks. On the contrary, the United States’ China policy appears to be largely in the hands of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who accompanied Biden on his Asia trip and says she is still reviewing, nearly a year and a half into the administration, the raft of tariffs placed on Chinese exports by Trump. Biden’s long-delayed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is also intended to counter China’s efforts to dominate the region economically, but critics question whether it will significantly change the power dynamics in East Asia. (Meanwhile, Biden has made no effort to get the United States back into the latest incarnation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era trade grouping explicitly meant to bolster U.S. and allied economic heft in the region; Trump pulled out soon after taking office.)

Some veteran statesmen also question whether Biden’s top diplomatic team, Sullivan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have the chops to orchestrate a major diplomatic shift between Washington and Beijing. Both men spent most of their careers as staffers either on Capitol Hill or in the executive branch. 

“What they have in common is they’ve done the management of foreign affairs in Washington rather than statecraft itself,” said Chas Freeman Jr., a former senior U.S. diplomat and China expert. Since a contentious meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska more than a year ago, Blinken and Sullivan have not wavered from their hawkish approach to China, which remains domestically popular. It is notable, however, that the Biden team left Taiwan out of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework so as not to further alienate Beijing.

Meanwhile, Beijing continues to pursue a policy that European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell called “pro-Russia neutrality.” The former senior U.S. diplomat said there may be only a 25 percent chance that a new U.S. effort at reengagement with China would work, but “compared to the alternatives, it would be a mistake not to take advantage of the new strategic situation.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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