How America’s Hawks Beat China’s Wolf Warriors

In 2022, Washington had the advantage in an increasingly bitter relationship.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A collage of US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping alongside military and trade issues of foreign policy
A collage of US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping alongside military and trade issues of foreign policy
Eleanor Shakespeare illustrations for Foreign Policy

2022

Chinese-U.S. relations have been bad for years and are getting worse. This year had some of the hottest competition yet—but perhaps surprisingly, much of the energy was on Washington’s side. In 2021, Beijing hoped that U.S. President Joe Biden would drop Trump-era policies targeting China; over the last year, it’s become evident that not only is that not going to happen but that taking on Chinese power is at the top of Biden’s foreign-policy agenda.

Chinese-U.S. relations have been bad for years and are getting worse. This year had some of the hottest competition yet—but perhaps surprisingly, much of the energy was on Washington’s side. In 2021, Beijing hoped that U.S. President Joe Biden would drop Trump-era policies targeting China; over the last year, it’s become evident that not only is that not going to happen but that taking on Chinese power is at the top of Biden’s foreign-policy agenda.

Some components of that, such as the Build Back Better World initiative, haven’t taken off. But the technological and trade piece has been far more successful. The first stage of a concerted effort to hamstring the Chinese tech sector was the semiconductor sanctions imposed by Washington in October. The U.S. military remains strongly focused on China and continues to retool for a potential fight in the Pacific. It’s a process that some see as coming too late and others argue is a slippery slope to an unnecessary war.

China’s anti-U.S. agenda, meanwhile, has played second fiddle to its domestic crises this year. It’s been hard to focus on taking on a global superpower while trying to control COVID-19 and domestic unrest at home—or crush party opposition to Chinese President Xi Jinping in the run-up to October’s 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. That’s allowed the United States to take the initiative and strengthen relationships with partners equally unnerved by China’s stances.

Washington hawks got an unexpected boost from Moscow. Few people would have expected Kyiv to be so hotly discussed between Beijing and Washington this year. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wrongfooted China, leaving it implicitly stuck on the wrong side of a losing—and globally unpopular—war. Although China has remained technically neutral, Chinese state media and online censors have taken a strongly pro-Russian line, and Xi sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as a key ally and has personally driven policy to help him. Destruction inflicted on Russia’s military by Ukrainian forces armed with a small number of outdated U.S. weaponry has also reinvigorated confidence at the U.S. Defense Department—even against more challenging foes like China.

One event that proved far less dramatic than anticipated was U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. After weeks of warnings, each side went through their motions, with China upping intrusions into Taiwanese airspace and the United States promising a commitment to protect the island’s democracy. But the end of working groups that China imposed as punishment lasted only until Xi and Biden’s meeting in November, when most of these groups resumed.

That didn’t stop a small Taiwan panic from sweeping over Washington, with repeated claims that an invasion might be imminent. It seemed a long shot for a country struggling with containing COVID-19 at home—and for a generally risk-averse party. But Taiwan has taken on an even more prominent role as a flash point between the two powers, with Taipei building strong alliances on both sides of the aisle in Washington.

Here’s five of Foreign Policy’s best pieces on the relationship between the world’s two largest powers in 2022.


1. What Exactly Is America’s China Policy?

by Andrew J. Nathan, April 14

There’s a strong belief in Washington that China is the dominant threat of the 2020s. Even the war in Ukraine didn’t distract from a sharp focus on checking Chinese power. But as veteran China analyst Andrew J. Nathan points out, it can be hard to know exactly what China’s ambitions are and just what the appropriate reaction is. “[A]nalysts often turn to the writings of ranking Chinese academics, on the perhaps flawed assumption that they know—or even have influence on—what Xi is thinking,” Nathan writes. “But these writings offer no more help because they, too, are abstract and vague.”

That can leave the United States prone to projecting onto China rather than trying to realistically tackle a challenger. Nathan sees the Chinese threat as ultimately limited compared to some others. “China’s ambitions to take over Taiwan, weaken the U.S. alliance system in Asia, and lead in the 21st-century economy are profound challenges to Washington’s interests,” he adds. “But unlike Russia with its war on Ukraine, China—even under Xi—has managed its push for great-power status in a way that seems designed to avoid triggering a military or political crisis.”


2. China’s Third Aircraft Carrier Is Aimed at a Post-U.S. Asia

by Sam Roggeveen, June 21

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lectures at Sichuan University during his visit to Chengdu, China, on Aug. 21, 2011.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lectures at Sichuan University during his visit to Chengdu, China, on Aug. 21, 2011.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden lectures at Sichuan University during his visit to Chengdu, China, on Aug. 21, 2011. Getty Images

Any future U.S.-China conflict is likely to take place mainly at sea, and analysts obsess over the relative strengths and vulnerabilities of each navy. China has gradually acquired a small number of aircraft carriers, the jewels in the crown of American naval power, but it remains significantly outweighed by the U.S. Navy.

The launch of China’s third aircraft carrier in June, as Australian analyst Sam Roggeveen notes, wasn’t chiefly aimed at the United States directly. Rather, it was an attempt to build China’s power for a hoped-for future where America is in retreat from Asia and Beijing has a freer hand to militarily coerce smaller neighbors. But, Roggeveen points out, other states can protect themselves using the same techniques China itself uses to reduce the risk of U.S. maritime power. “Just as the Chinese military made it too dangerous for the United States to operate its carriers close to China, so too can smaller powers in Asia build a maritime strategy focused on negation, with an emphasis on anti-ship missiles, submarines, naval mines, and other weapons that will inhibit free movement of China’s fleet,” he writes.


3. China Is Quietly Trying to Dethrone the Dollar

by Zongyuan Zoe Liu, Sept. 21

When Washington flexed its economic muscles over Russian sanctions, it confirmed existing Chinese fears about the power of dollar dominance. Currency has been a focus of Chinese strategy and conspiracy theories for decades, and there’s been a concerted push to take the yuan global. After the global financial crisis in 2008, there was a deep—if temporary—belief that China’s moment had come.

But now, argues Zongyuan Zoe Liu of the Council on Foreign Relations, China has realized the dollar’s strength and is concentrating on regional efforts rather than a worldwide challenge. “Small Chinese banks that do not have much exposure to the dollar-based global financial system are natural entities to practice alternative payment and settlement mechanisms,” Liu writes, discussing how China has sought to evade sanctions on Russia and test its new systems.


4. Biden Is Now All-In on Taking Out China

by Jon Bateman, Oct. 12

Semiconductors—the processing chips that power every aspect of modern electronic life—have been a core part of U.S.-China competition for years, especially since the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is a global leader in production. China’s attempt to push domestic production has mostly failed—leading to a purge in the so-called Big Fund’s leadership, which was set up as part of the project, and leaving the country still dependent on foreign suppliers. This year saw the U.S. government commit to doing everything it can to block China’s attempt to increase its share of the industry, from passing sweeping sanctions to prevent U.S. persons and firms from aiding Chinese efforts to putting Chinese chipmakers on trade blacklists.

But, argues Jon Bateman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this total economic war strategy might be a mistake. “Now the United States has gone all-in—wagering like never before and placing its cards on the table for all to see. The decisive American gamble: to openly block China’s path to become an advanced economic peer, even at significant risk to U.S. and allied interests,” Bateman writes, fearing that the reactions of others—from the Chinese government itself to the private sector and America’s allies—might not have been fully factored into Washington’s plans. (Watch him discussing the piece with FP editor in chief Ravi Agrawal here.)


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

by Scott Kennedy, Nov. 14

On the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Indonesia, Xi and Biden met for the first time in person since Biden became president. It was a surprisingly smiley meeting, with both leaders glad-handing each other and seemingly determined to put forward good news—though the two sides’ readouts were strikingly different.

A strong meeting would be a hopeful sign in a relationship that’s become dangerously stripped of anything but hostile considerations, Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues before the meeting. Zero-COVID and hostile geopolitics have taken some of the relationship’s guardrails away, especially in a Beijing increasingly locked off from the world. “The consequences of physical isolation and limited direct contact are profound. Mutual understanding is the first casualty. Reading documents and holding online meetings are no substitute for extended face-to-face interactions,” Kennedy writes, fresh after returning from the first post-pandemic trip to Beijing by a U.S. think tank expert.

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

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