The virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden on Nov. 16 marked a positive step toward stabilizing bilateral relations, which have been ice-cold since Donald Trump's administration launched trade and tech assaults on China.
While Xi told Biden that China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace and pursue win-win cooperation, Biden stressed the need for "guardrails" to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict and "to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change."
What Biden said reflects a new consensus among U.S. elites that defines the United States' relationship with China as a "cooperative rivalry."
Joseph S. Nye Jr., who coined the term "soft power" in 1989 and is a professor at Harvard University and a former senior defense official, wrote in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Nov. 2: "For better and worse, we are locked in a 'cooperative rivalry' with China that requires a strategy that can accomplish those two contradictory things — compete and cooperate — at the same time."
Nye opposes a new Cold War with China or a "decoupling," saying the two countries are deeply interdependent economically. "The United States had more than half a trillion dollars in trade with China in 2020," he wrote. Also, the social fabrics of the United States and China are deeply intertwined.
The fact that Trump's heavy-handed approach on China yielded little gains for the United States has given currency to the "cooperative rivalry" approach, which is also a "Carrot and Stick" policy: to cooperate with China where the United States would gain from cooperation, such as climate change and trade, and to compete with, or even confront, China where the "vital national interest" of the United States rests, such as technological supremacy, security and global influence.
To compete with China, the Biden administration has abandoned Trump's policy of going alone and is instead forging various alliances, such as the AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., announced on Sept. 15. Under the pact, the U.S. and the U.K. will help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
"Pessimists look at China's population size and economic growth rates and believe they will prevail. But if we treat our allies as assets, the combined military strength and economic wealth of Western-aligned democracies — the United States, Europe, Japan — will far exceed that of China well into this century," said Nye, offering his rationale for uniting allies to compete with China.
The U.S. elites want to take advantage of the cooperation with China in certain areas. "Prioritize the issues where the United States can realistically make progress with China: trade and investment, climate change measures and limits on dangerous weapons," Susan Thornton, a former acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, wrote in an article published in The New York Times on Oct. 21.
Washington wants to be more cooperative in certain fields in exchange for Chinese concessions. "The Biden administration has said that the era of engagement with China is over — that it seeks to 'prevail in strategic competition.' The administration is building coalitions to deter and contain China militarily and issues frequent public critiques of Chinese actions. So unless something changes and more compelling incentives appear, I do not expect China to alter its behavior," Thornton wrote.
Like other U.S. elites, Thornton urged the Biden administration to pressure China on "human rights" and Taiwan as leverage. "But we need to recognize that our ability to get China to move on these issues is negligible … That's why Mr. Biden must not squander the leverage the United States can achieve," Thornton observed. For the Biden administration, issues concerning Chinese sovereignty serve as valuable bargaining chips. This is why it has repeatedly used the Taiwan question to irk China even though the U.S. president has reaffirmed the one-China policy, saying the United States does not support "Taiwan independence."
Apparently, the U.S. elites have overestimated their own wisdom. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has warned the Biden administration not to expect climate negotiations to remain an oasis in a desert of overall relations. Washington should not expect to benefit in both ways: reaping benefits in cooperating with China in certain areas while suppressing China in others.
Stifling tech exports to China will only motivate the Asian giant to develop its own indigenous innovations. Forming "exclusive cliques" to counter China will eventually force Beijing to work with U.S. rivals and enemies. Playing the Taiwan card will only prompt Beijing to take a tougher stance and step up military preparedness.
The U.S. elites have been obsessed with great power competition thinking, while China talks more on the future of humanity, its goal to reach carbon neutrality and international responsibilities.
The contrast was stark at the opening of the Xi-Biden virtual meeting. Biden told Xi that both of them need to "ensure the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended." In response, Xi said, "Humanity is a 'global village.' We face multiple challenges. As the world's two largest economies and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation … shoulder our share of international responsibilities."
(The author is a deputy editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily.)