China-US relations: Beijing says ‘new window of hope’ is opening as it offers Biden administration an olive branch

Shi Jiangtao
·6-min read

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has offered an olive branch to the incoming Biden administration, saying a “new window of hope” is opening.

In a wide-ranging interview with state news agency Xinhua published on Saturday, he urged the Biden administration to adopt a sensible approach and restart engagement with China to get bilateral ties back on track despite “unprecedented difficulties”.

“China-US relations have come to a new crossroads, and a new window of hope is opening,” Wang said. “We hope that the next US administration will return to a sensible approach, resume dialogue with China, restore normalcy to the bilateral relations and restart cooperation.”

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Wang and other Chinese officials have appealed for a fresh start on several occasions after President Xi Jinping congratulated Joe Biden on his victory in late November.

Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply amid growing economic and technological decoupling; clashes over Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang; and rows over issues such as the origins of the coronavirus and US sanctions on Huawei.

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While China’s nationalist shift under Xi and its increasingly aggressive diplomatic approach are seen by many as contributing to the breakdown of bilateral ties, Wang put the blame squarely on deep-rooted bias and misperceptions about China’s rapid rise.

“What has happened proves that the US attempts to suppress China and start a new cold war has not just seriously harmed the interests of the two peoples, but also caused severe disruption to the world. Such a policy will find no support and is doomed to fail,” Wang said.

He also sought to address fears among American elites about Washington’s relative decline as the world’s dominant superpower, which showed signs of accelerating under Donald Trump, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“[The] best way to keep one’s lead is through constant self-improvement, not by blocking others’ development,” he said. “We don’t need a world where China becomes another United States. This is neither rational nor feasible. Rather, the United States should try to make itself a better country, and China will surely become its better self.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: EPA-EFE
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: EPA-EFE

Observers said the conciliatory remarks may offer some hopes for many countries torn between economic dependence on Beijing and their ties with Washington, but warned China remained downbeat about relations in the future.

Pang Zhongying, an international affairs specialist at the Ocean University of China, said: “Few people in Beijing are actually optimistic about the US-China relations under the Biden presidency, with most expecting bilateral tensions to last, if not get much worse.”

He said the message was also intended for many other countries, which may also need to reconsider their stance on the US-China rivalry once Biden takes office. “His remarks are largely reminiscent of the good old days … during the pre-Trump era that are gone for good,” Pang said.

For Beijing’s perspective, one of Trump’s biggest mistakes was his disdain for dialogue and diplomatic exchanges, which led to the demise of America’s decades-long policy of engagement with China.

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Wang suggested the two sides should still be able to resolve their differences through dialogue “as long as the United States can draw lessons from the past and work with China”.

He said: “This will allow the two major countries to establish a model of coexistence that benefits both countries and the world, and open up new development prospects in line with the trend of history.”

Wang, also put a positive spin on China’s troubled relations with its Asian neighbours, Europe and Africa.

China’s traditionally trade-driven relations with the EU have taken a drastic turn for the worse this year in the wake of the pandemic, as Beijing’s increasingly assertive diplomacy, its trade practices and repressive domestic policies faced tighter international scrutiny.

The two sides finally agreed an investment deal last month after years of negotiations – a development that prompted Wang to call for Brussels to work with China to tackle global challenges instead of “serving bloc politics”.

But Duncan Freeman, a visiting professor at the Free University of Brussels, said that while the deal helped balance China’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the US, it “does not fundamentally change either the economics or politics of the EU-China relationship”.

Wang also praised Russia, which has moved closer to China in recent years, saying there was “no ceiling to how far this cooperation can go” and said the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was a “historic breakthrough” in China’s relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident fellow in the Europe and Asia programmes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said China appeared to have been emboldened by its success at controlling the coronavirus despite feeling besieged as the rivalry with the US intensified.

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“China aims at gathering third countries behind its banner – mainly in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and various parts of Asia, whenever possible. It is trying to secure support over its foreign policy, while the West is divided, at least in Beijing’s eyes,” he said.

“The reality is that many countries are not comfortable with China’s policy – not just in the West, but outside, as various surveys have demonstrated.”

Pang also said Wang’s remarks had largely glossed over the problems and challenges Beijing faced in the post-coronavirus world. For instance, he made no mention of Japan and India, which have an increasingly tense relationship with Beijing.

“We don’t see serious self-reflection or any signs of policy adjustments, which may be necessary to counter an emerging anti-China coalition,” he said.

But he said Beijing still had cause for optimism because of the disenchantment among US allies over Trump’s unilateral and confrontational approach to China.

“Wang’s remarks, especially his insistence about China’s success in making more friends, were also meant as a warning to Washington that it too faces an imminent turning point as countries may choose to stay further away from an increasingly populist and nationalist America,” Pang said.

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