As the Biden administration settles in, China is repeating its wish to have a positive, plus-sum, cooperative relationship with the new team in Washington. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian lamented this week that “the Trump administration went in a very wrong direction” and warned that “cooperation is the only right choice.” That’s not quite right. Cooperation is preferred but cooperation is only possible when there is mutual respect among parties and a shared understanding of the rules of engagement. Beijing shows neither.
Biden’s return to the White House has prompted Chinese officials to dig out their old playbook. Zhao explained, “As two major countries, China and the United States have broad common interests and shoulder special, major responsibilities in safeguarding world peace and stability and in promoting global development and prosperity.” That sounds a lot like the “new type of major country relations” that Chinese leader Xi Jinping proposed to President Obama in 2013.
That model, which seemed to endorse a condominium in which Washington and Beijing would make decisions for the region, rested on three pillars: no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect and mutually beneficial cooperation. In the abstract, it is hard to argue with those concepts. Problems arise when those principles become concrete; when, for example, “mutual respect” is applied to specific problems. In practice, this has meant that China is not to be criticized. Ever. And when Beijing expresses an interest in a dispute, that stake is to be considered paramount and accorded due deference.
A still greater offense was the challenge that “the new type of major country relations” posed to foundational principles of U.S. foreign policy, most significantly the partnerships that the U.S. had forged with regional allies. A G2 (as it was often called) seemingly subordinated those relationships to the U.S.-China relationship. That concept was repugnant to allies like Japan, and to its credit, the Obama administration never took the G2 idea seriously.
That reasoning continues to prevail. More important, though, is the Biden administration’s understanding of contemporary China. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki this week described the U.S.-China relationship as one of “serious competition” and concluded that “strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century.” The European Union agrees, calling China a “systemic rival” in a recent policy document.
The Japanese government has made clear its desire for precisely the cooperative relationship that Zhao and other Chinese officials say they want. Instead of dialogue, however, Japan must deal with daily incursions into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, disregard for international law in South China Sea territorial disputes and a military modernization program that lacks transparency — to name just three offenses. All belie Beijing’s claim to want to manage differences and find win-win solutions.
Xi told the World Economic Forum meeting earlier this week that the solution to global problems is “upholding multilateralism and building a community with a shared future for mankind.” He denounced policies that “reject, threaten or intimidate others … willfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions and create isolation or estrangement,” warning that they will produce “division and even confrontation.”
Those words rang hollow, given recent actions by China: More than a dozen Chinese fighters and bombers entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone last weekend. Sanctions were imposed on departing Trump administration officials. A law was passed that allows the Chinese Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels and board and inspect ships in waters claimed by Beijing, as well as creates a right to declare “temporary exclusion zones” to prevent ships from innocent passage through waters illegally claimed by China — which include the Senkaku Islands. Finally, Chinese diplomats released 14 grievances that aim to reverse Australian policy toward China.
Japan, Sweden, South Korea and Norway have also felt the lash of Beijing’s coercive diplomacy. China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, explained his country’s logic in the aftermath of a 2019 decision by PEN, the international writers group, to honor a Hong Kong bookseller who had been arrested by Chinese authorities: “We treat our friends with fine wine but for our enemies we have shotguns.” That would seem to undermine Xi’s call to “respect and accommodate differences, avoid meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and resolve disagreements through consultation and dialogue.”
In his first news conference as U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken acknowledged that “the relationship between the United States and China is arguably the most important relationship that we have in the world,” adding that it has “adversarial aspects … competitive ones … and it also still has cooperative ones.” But, he continued, “that fits within the larger context of our foreign policy and of many issues of concern that we have with China.”
Relations between states are complex and will inevitably include elements of cooperation and competition. The key task is reducing friction and tensions, bounding competition and maximizing gains for both sides. There will continue to be debates within the United States and among Washington and its allies and partners on the appropriate mix. If the Biden administration gets the big picture — “the larger context of its foreign policy” — right, then differences with allies will be manageable. That demands a clear-eyed assessment of China. Thus far, the Biden team seems to have just that.
The Japan Times Editorial Board