The US-China Relationship: Why It Collapsed, How it Can Be FixedRoundup
tags: China, international relations, Taiwan
Jake Werner is a historian of modern China and a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
After five years of plummeting relations between the US and China, Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden met at the G20 summit in Bali last week. It was their first in-person meeting since Biden took office nearly two years ago. The aim, according to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, was to “build a floor for the relationship and ensure that there are rules of the road that bound our competition.” Early indications are hopeful: the Xi-Biden meeting reportedly went well, and both sides seem genuinely interested in reducing the acrimony that now dominates. But the “guardrails” that the Biden administration has promoted to prevent open conflict are no match for the forces pushing the two countries into confrontation. A more ambitious agenda—in which the two countries work together to reform the global system—is needed to resolve the structural drivers of conflict.
The obstacles to such cooperation are daunting. Nationalism and militarism are growing in both countries, and a perception of zero-sum conflict prevails among political elites in both. But a global reform agenda fits the stated aspirations of both sides. If undertaken, it would simultaneously build trust and reduce pressures toward confrontation. Most importantly, it is desperately needed to overcome the truly existential dangers—climate change, pandemic disease, global inequality—now facing all people regardless of their nationality.
Less than 10 years ago, when President Barack Obama held his first meeting with newly inaugurated President Xi, the possibilities for great power cooperation looked bright. Despite long-running points of friction over Taiwan, trade, and human rights, the two presidents were keenly aware of the terrible dangers that historically have accompanied a rising power’s challenge of a jealous global hegemon. They took steps to reduce tensions and build a foundation for cooperation—measures that bore fruit over the next couple years. In 2014, for example, the United States and China worked together closely to resolve the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and concluded a major bilateral agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the single most important step on the path to the Paris Agreement.
Today, these examples of great-power cooperation feel like something out of a dream. Instead, each side launches tendentious broadsides against the other, scapegoating them for domestic problems. US leaders say that China is undermining the international order’s support for democracy and human rights; Chinese leaders say the US wants to keep developing countries subordinated forever. The United States has launched a limited but extremely provocative form of economic warfare against China, seeking to destroy its most prominent multinational company, Huawei, and cut off all Chinese tech companies from essential inputs of advanced semiconductors. The two countries are engaged in an escalating tit-for-tat exchange of provocative military and diplomatic moves around Taiwan, and there is a growing sense in both capitals that a war over Taiwan may be inevitable.
What’s behind these escalating and increasingly dangerous measures is that political elites in both countries now perceive the success and prosperity of the other as a major threat. Beginning from the assumption that the US and China are locked in zero-sum or even existential struggle, they are increasingly viewing every aspect of foreign policy as a way to frustrate the others’ projects. As long as this is the lens through which policy-makers see the relationship, arguments for balanced approaches on specific issues will appear as weakness while escalatory steps of all sorts will appear as prudent measures to signal resolve and guard against aggression. Attention, resources, and creativity will be channeled toward countering the other rather than addressing shared problems.
How has it come to this? One popular explanation is divisive leaders, whether the culprit is said to be a dictatorial Xi Jinping, driven by Marxist ideology and personal ambition to threaten freedom and American power worldwide, or an erratic Donald Trump, obsessed with the US trade deficit and using anti-Chinese racism to distract from his mishandling of the Covid pandemic. However, the developments that Trump and Xi intensified were already well underway before they took power.