The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where the U.S. and China go from here

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The low expectations for the face-to-face meeting of top U.S. and Chinese officials last week in Alaska proved justified. Proceedings kicked off Thursday with an unusual series of public back-and-forth harangues. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dubbed “Beijing a threat to ‘global stability’ and denounced its record on human rights, trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan and a range of other issues in front of throngs of reporters and video cameras,” my colleague John Hudson reported.

Blinken’s Chinese interlocutors returned fire. With an unexpectedly long response — clocking in around 17 minutes — Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi lambasted the United States for its history of invasions and “imperialism,” pointing to the perceived hypocrisy of Washington lecturing others on global order. He also invoked the United States’ domestic discontents, including the Black Lives Matter struggle, as an illustration of how America should get its own house in order before worrying about human rights elsewhere.

“A lot of it was for show, on both sides, with cameras whirring. All of the participants were playing to their domestic audiences, the Biden team included. But it was not entirely an act,” wrote David Sanger of the New York Times, adding that one could hear the “echoes” of the “bad old days” of the Cold War as both sides saw in the other both an ideological and geopolitical adversary.

During a visit to Japan earlier last week, Blinken suggested the Biden administration viewed the challenge posed by China in perhaps more nuanced terms than the aggressive confrontation espoused by its predecessor. “The relationship with China is a very complex one,” Blinken said. “It has adversarial aspects; it has competitive aspects; it has cooperative aspects.”

But so far, the Biden administration has hardly strayed from the script written by the Trump administration — and the standoff in Anchorage seemed a case in point. “What’s different is for that to be aired so publicly in the opening of a two-day diplomatic meeting,” said Sheena Greitens, a China expert at the University of Texas at Austin, to the Financial Times. “It seems to have been important for the Biden team to signal the ways in which there is continuity with the Trump administration which is … obviously a bit surprising.”

In private, the meetings were more cordial. According to Hudson, “a senior administration official said that behind closed doors, the two sides ‘immediately got down to business’ after the public spat and engaged in ‘substantive, serious and direct’ discussions.”

Their deliberations, though, were more that of two powers setting out the terms of future confrontation, rather than cooperation. The Biden administration has made clear that Beijing’s perception of America in inexorable decline is misguided and that the United States sees itself locked in intense competition with China — particularly in the realms of cyberconflict and technological innovation — for years to come.

“Both sides have many concerns,” noted a cagey news release from the Chinese embassy in Washington. “Some doubts can be eased through dialogue, while some long-existing problems can be managed through dialogue.”

Some analysts called for an easing of tensions. “A more fine-grained understanding and less Manichean rhetoric will help the United States make better strategy — avoiding Cold War-style competition, while identifying where to focus our efforts in both working with and against the Chinese government,” wrote Rachel Esplin Odell of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“What’s needed are immediate low-rent measures to reverse the downward spiral in the two countries’ relations,” wrote veteran China watcher Ian Johnson, before outlining what some of these steps could be: the revival of Fulbright and Peace Corps programs in China that were shuttered by the Trump administration, as well as easing of pressure on China’s Confucius Institutes that operate on U.S. campuses; the reversal of the U.S. decision to expel scores of Chinese journalists based in the United States; the reopening on both sides of a handful of consulates ordered shut in recent years.

“Modest moves might seem less decisive than acting tough,” Johnson added, “but they are what, in the end, makes realpolitik real.”

The big picture, though, is one defined by a growing divide. That could be true even on questions of climate policy — the main arena where Washington and Beijing may feel compelled to cooperate. “China isn’t going to do anything that isn’t explicitly in the interest of the state,” wrote FT columnist Rana Foroohar. “That leaves few areas of overlapping interest for the two countries. The biggest one is climate change. In an ideal world, American and European technologies would combine with low-cost, large-scale Chinese production to move the world away from fossil fuels.”

But that ideal world does not exist, Foroohar added, and given existing concerns over Chinese intellectual property theft and its dubious labor practices, genuine green-tech collaboration may be a nonstarter.

The more important diplomatic focus for the Biden administration is not its bilateral dealings with Beijing, but its new overtures to regional neighbors as well as European partners. Administration officials, including Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, conducted meetings last week in Seoul, Tokyo and New Delhi — conversations where the specter of China loomed large. As Beijing quashes freedoms in Hong Kong, asserts itself in the South China Sea and turns its crosshairs toward Taiwan, the Biden administration is building a more overt set of alliances to hedge against China.

The moment may be fraught, but it is also clarifying. “The meeting [in Alaska] would have been a failure if it had resulted in general declarations to cooperate while minimizing competition, a common U.S. strategy when China’s intentions were not as clear,” wrote Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. “By getting real in Anchorage, both sides have taken the important first step toward a more stable relationship by acknowledging the true nature of their relationship.”

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