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Xi Shouldn’t Miss His Moment With Biden

Xi Shouldn’t Miss His Moment With Biden

Wednesday, 7 July, 2021 - 05:15

Five months into his presidency, US President Joe Biden is in no rush to change the substance of his predecessor’s China policy. He has maintained high tariffs on more than $300 billion of Chinese imports, expanded sanctions on Chinese technology companies and gone further than former President Donald Trump by reviving dormant trade and investment talks with Taiwan despite Chinese opposition.

To Chinese President Xi Jinping, who on Thursday warned “foreign forces” that they would “crack their heads and spill blood” on a “Great Wall of steel” if they tried to bully China — Biden probably seems no better than Trump. The two are “beasts from the same hill” (yiqiu zhihe), as a Chinese proverb says. In fact, Biden might be an even more formidable foe: Unlike Trump, who alienated allies with insults, threats and tariffs, Biden has repaired America’s alliances and succeeded in forming a relatively united front against China. He commands far higher confidence than Xi in advanced economies.

The Chinese leader, however, would be foolish to write off Biden as a partner. While both sides would benefit from more stable and predictable ties, China has more to gain from re-engagement. Economically, the resumption of high-level talks could put brakes on the economic decoupling process initiated by Trump’s trade war. Dialogue may also defuse the increasingly dangerous test of wills between China and the US over Taiwan. As the weaker adversary, Beijing will surely lose a confrontation with the US if a crisis erupted today.

Most importantly, despite his tough policies, Biden remains the best prospect China has for repairing relations with the US What Chinese leaders need to understand is that, for the foreseeable future, strong bipartisan antipathy toward Beijing and broad anti-China sentiments in American society will sustain hardline policies toward China, no matter which party occupies the White House. At the same time, there are critical differences between Biden’s China policy and that of Trump and his potential Republican successors.

While Biden sees the US-China contest primarily as a test of which system — democracy or autocracy — works better, Republican leaders view America’s “strategic competition” with China as a no-holds-barred struggle for geopolitical supremacy. The central element of Biden’s China strategy is his effort to rebuild American strength. This requires addressing inequality, poor infrastructure, racism and the erosion of democracy at home. Chinese leaders cannot begrudge him the attempt or block his efforts directly.

Republicans, on the other hand, are convinced that the surest way to win another cold war is to undermine Chinese strength through economic decoupling, diplomatic confrontation, increased military spending and escalating security pressures. Some of this competition will continue regardless of who is in power. Under Biden, however, it is likely to assume a less militarized, hence less dangerous, form.

Biden and his fellow Democrats fully understand the perils of a new cold war. An arms race with China would derail his agenda of rebuilding America. Enormous resources would be sucked into defense spending (restoring the Pentagon’s budget to that of the Reagan era would mean doubling current spending from about 3% to 6% of GDP). The additional $750 billion required annually could fund many social programs Democrats have been championing for years. A new cold war will also likely boost far-right forces at home and fuel xenophobia.

Unlike Republican hawks who see no room for cooperation with China on any issue, including climate change, Biden believes working with China is not only possible but vital in dealing with global issues, including pandemics and nuclear non-proliferation. Such cooperation can act as ballast to calm tensions and steady ties.

That’s why China should welcome any invitation from the Biden administration to engage in high-level talks. Many bilateral issues require immediate consultation and negotiation to avoid a further deterioration in relations. On the trade front, the Phase One agreement is going to expire in six months. Either a short-term extension or new negotiations will be needed to avert needless escalation.

Several pandemic-related issues, such as easing travel restrictions and seeking mutually acceptable protocols for conducting an objective, non-politicized investigation of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, also await resolution.

And the top priority for China is to restore strategic stability. With the militaries of the two countries busy planning for war, Biden and Xi must make sure that such a conflict never breaks out. This will require Beijing and Washington to reach basic understandings and agreements on how to avoid a direct clash in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

China’s first attempt to engage the Biden administration at a high-level meeting in Alaska in mid-March failed miserably. This is Xi’s second chance. Successful re-engagement with the Biden administration will help identify areas where tensions need to be managed and those where small steps toward cooperation can start. If China resumes dialogue and takes proactive steps to address US concerns, Xi can at least hope to establish a more stable relationship than will be possible under any conceivable Republican alternative. He would be foolish to miss the opportunity.


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