The new Biden Administration will immediately face several major issues. Among these are: coronavirus, economic problems, climate change induced weather catastrophes, racial divisions and a highly polarized domestic political situation.
After a virtual meeting on the future of Chinese-American relations involving faculty from Western Carolina University and Presbyterian College, we agreed that this issue should be at the top of the list of problems to solve. We think this because that bilateral relationship is by far the most important in the world today and for at least the next few decades. Climate change; North Korea’s nuclear program; global trade; human rights; etc. all involve China. In fact, we might say that China is the indispensable country in terms of addressing global problems, along with this country.
The U.S.-China relationship has always been complex and filled with warm connections and harsh condemnations. The U.S. is deeply involved with East Asia, and this is where China’s power is the strongest. Our allies, in particular South Korea and Japan, rely on U.S. military commitments to deter Chinese aggression. As China grows its economy, it also grows its military. That is the way great powers behave and should be expected. However, unlike the U.S., which has friendly neighbors and open oceans to protect it, China does not have the same luxury, and China will not tolerate being hemmed in for long. How will the U.S. respond?
Oftentimes, it seems as if questions for any new administration revolved around whether or not they will get tougher with China. At times, being tough on China is a winning strategy in American politics. Then-candidate Bill Clinton castigated incumbent President George Bush for his tepid condemnation of China’s behavior in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Clinton promised to take a much sterner line against China, but when he became president, Clinton behaved moderately towards China. Similarly, Donald Trump as a candidate decried China’s unfair trade policies. But as president, Trump invited President Xi Jinping to a warm dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort. While President Trump eventually turned to blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic, he had previously heaped praise on China during the pandemic’s early stages, declaring that it had acted properly.
The lesson to be drawn from these vignettes is that no matter how deeply the U.S. objects to certain Chinese behaviors, we also need to have deep positive interactions with them. As the two largest economies and trading states in the global economy, our economies are deeply intertwined. There is no happy or easy way in which our economies can be decoupled.
We acknowledge that the future of this relationship will be determined in half by China’s behavior and its overall international posture. Will China play constructive or disruptive roles in its region and on the global stage? Probably both. This means that while the U.S. needs to work with China on important issues like climate change, it also needs to present an alternative to China on the global stage. During the last four years – and arguably before – the U.S. has receded from the world stage, and China has filled the void left by the absence of American leadership. The U.S. needs to rebuild its presence in the global system and work as an effective alternative to China through engagement with the global community. A constructive way to view this situation is as a challenge. To meet this challenge the U.S. must fix some of its domestic ills and invest in the technologies of the future, such as artificial intelligence, battery electric vehicles, and renewable energy, and smarter supply chain management.
China is here to stay, and its power will only increase. And its perceptions of the U.S. in decline are troubling. Over the last 12 years the U.S. has been hit with the Great Recession of 2008 and now the coronavirus pandemic. Both of these demonstrated weaknesses in the American economic and political arenas respectively. Because we are so interconnected, China was hit by both of these as well. But they came through them in much better shape than the U.S.
This does not mean that the U.S. should be unduly confrontational, as there are many areas in which the incoming administration could work successfully with China. The Biden Administration needs to find the right balance through which cautious engagement and global cooperation with other countries helps to ensure that the rise of China remains peaceful.