Biden’s calculated gamble with US-China relationship

In this post:

  • President Biden’s administration is proposing meetings and phone calls to ease tensions with China, aiming to appease allied nations and portray President Xi as uncooperative if he refuses.
  • The strategy has been met with skepticism by critics, who argue it makes the US appear weak, while others view it as a credible and genuine effort for engagement.

In an effort to ease tensions between the United States and China, President Joe Biden’s administration is employing a strategy involving proposals for meetings and phone calls at various levels of government, up to and including a conversation between Biden and President Xi Jinping.

This approach aims to appease anxious allied nations in Asia and Europe and portray Xi as uncooperative if he refuses the engagements.

Biden’s calculated strategy

The calculated strategy has been met with skepticism by critics who argue that it makes the US appear weak. However, others believe it demonstrates a genuine desire for engagement and presents a credible image to Europe and Asia.

Evan Medeiros, former senior director for Asia on the Obama National Security Council, described the strategy as a “smart but risky play.” He added that it could inadvertently reinforce China’s belief that the US needs them more, allowing them to dictate the US-China agenda.

In response to the US proposals, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that China and the US do maintain communication lines. However, he also noted that the US cannot emphasize the importance of communication while simultaneously suppressing and containing China.

The Biden administration’s push for engagement began in earnest as controversy over an alleged Chinese spy balloon and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the US subsided.

Since then, the US has proposed calls and meetings with China’s senior leadership, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry are also planning trips to China.

Biden’s team is seeking to establish “guardrails” around a relationship facing deeper, more systemic strains around economic competition and China’s continued partnership with another US adversary, Russia.

Beijing has rejected US attempts to frame the relationship around “competition” and “guardrails,” with Foreign Minister Qin Gang stating that the intention is to “contain and suppress China in all respects.”

China’s tepid response

China has so far responded tepidly to the US requests. It has ignored Austin’s outreach for calls and hasn’t publicly responded to his request for a meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

China hasn’t even confirmed if Commerce Minister Wang Wentao will travel to Detroit for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, where Tai has suggested bilateral talks.

It remains unclear when Biden will speak with Xi, something the US president first mentioned in February. Dennis Wilder, the Central Intelligence Agency’s former deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific, suggests that China may feel they have achieved a tactical upper hand in US-China diplomacy.

Despite the challenges, there are tentative signs that the relationship strains may be easing. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met US Ambassador Nicholas Burns in Beijing for the first time, a symbolic move that may indicate Beijing’s willingness to allow more senior-level discussions.

Representative Mike Gallagher, chair of the newly created China Select Committee, remains skeptical of the administration’s approach, arguing that it creates confusion in terms of the overall US strategy. Critics, like Gallagher, continue to complicate matters with criticism of China and trips to Taiwan.

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Ryan Salame
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