China-US tensions: meet us halfway to build trust and ease conflict, former Chinese vice-premier urges Biden

Sarah Zheng
·5-min read

A former Chinese vice-premier urged the newly inaugurated United States President Joe Biden to “meet China halfway” to rebuild trust and restart dialogue to ease the “unprecedented predicament” of strained relations between the major powers.

Zeng Peiyan, who served as vice-premier from 2003 to 2008 before becoming a top economic policy adviser in Beijing, said in virtual remarks at the Hong Kong forum “US-China Relations: The Way Forward” on Tuesday that the two sides needed to work to abolish trade tariffs, remove restrictions on people-to-people exchanges and cooperate on global leadership for issues such as pandemic control and climate change.

“It was completely wrong to approach and manage Sino-US relations with such cold war mentality and ideological bias,” he said. “I hope that the US can take the opportunity to change its mentality and behaviour and meet China halfway so that we can engage rather than confront each other. To do that, first we need to build mutual trust by restarting and improving the multilateral engagement mechanisms between China and the US.”

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Zeng spoke at the event co-hosted by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, a Beijing-based think tank that he chairs. He argued that the US’ strategic doubts and anxieties about the threat of a rising China had contributed to plunging relations in recent years.

He said it was not inevitable for the two countries to fall into the Thucydides Trap, or the idea that war is a likely outcome when an emerging power threatens an existing major power.

“Different social systems do not mean that China and the US will inevitably head towards confrontation,” Zeng said. “China has no intention of changing the US, let alone replacing it, and the US is unlikely to change China as it sees fit.”

Joe Biden to work with allies to stop China’s ‘economic abuses’

Zeng’s comments are a clear response to the hawkish approach to China from former US president Donald Trump’s administration over the past four years, notably from former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who said “free nations of the world” needed to triumph over the ruling Chinese Communist Party or be changed by China.

Analysts forecast that Biden’s administration was likely to tone down some of the harsher rhetoric on China, but would seek to work with US allies and partners to grapple with the challenge of a more assertive China. But while Beijing is eager to reset relations with the new US government, observers have warned that the bipartisan political consensus in Washington has hardened against China, making a return to the China policy of former US president Barack Obama’s era unlikely.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said Biden would take a “multilateral approach to engaging with China”, including on evaluating the current tariffs on Chinese goods.

“The president is committed to stopping China’s economic abuses on many fronts, and the most effective way to do that is through working in concert with our allies and partners to do exactly that,” she said.

US President Joe Biden is expected to tone down the anti-China rhetoric of the Trump era but without appearing “soft on China”, analysts predict. Photo: AFP
US President Joe Biden is expected to tone down the anti-China rhetoric of the Trump era but without appearing “soft on China”, analysts predict. Photo: AFP

As the Biden administration is seeking to repair relations with US allies, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum at Davos in a virtual address on Monday that attempts to “isolate, intimidate, decouple and sanction” others would “only push the world into division, even confrontation”.

In a pre-recorded message at the start of Tuesday’s forum, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she hoped Biden’s government would improve the “sharply deteriorated” relations between Beijing and Washington to the benefit of Hong Kong.

She also urged the new US administration to view the national security law – imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in June last year in response to months of pro-democracy protests – fairly. Lam described Trump administration sanctions against her over the national security law as “totally unjustified” and praised the national security law for having “restored stability” to the city. Lam has admitted she no longer has a bank account because of the sanctions.

“I hope the new US administration will view the national security law in Hong Kong in a fair manner,” she said. “Meanwhile, I and my 11 senior colleagues who have been sanctioned will not be intimidated. We will continue to steadfastly, dutifully and lawfully carry out our duties to safeguard our country’s national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”

But Carla Hills, a former US trade representative under George H.W. Bush’s administration, told the panel differences between the countries on issues such as Beijing’s actions on Hong Kong and the South China Sea would not be easy to resolve. While Biden’s administration would seek cooperation with China on areas such as climate and world health, she said there would be competition where it was inevitable and confrontation when there was a crossing of red lines.

“We will not see a swift removal of tariffs on China,” she said. “The political climate in the United States regarding China, both in Congress and with the American public, has darkened over the past year. He and his team will not want to appear soft on China.”

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