US-China relations: prepare for ‘greater uncertainty’ in bilateral ties, observers say

Shi Jiangtao
·4-min read

With Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president just hours away, Chinese observers say Beijing and the new administration in Washington must work together if they are to manage tensions and avoid a military conflict.

While there are hopes for a return to “normalcy” in US foreign policy and its global role, Biden is widely expected to continue with his predecessor Donald Trump’s tough line on China.

They may differ on most domestic policy issues and whether the US should lead the world, but Biden and Trump are not too far apart on China, according to Pang Zhongying, an international affairs expert at the Ocean University of China.

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“In the face of the worst political turmoil in Washington in decades and the coronavirus crisis at home, the Biden administration may find it too difficult to find solutions to the many domestic problems,” Pang said.

Biden would instead look to score points by building on Trump’s China legacy and strengthening the Indo-Pacific strategy, he said.

“We are entering a period of greater uncertainty both for bilateral ties and for the US domestically,” he said. “It’s fair to say that the fate of US-China relations could be decided to a large extent by Biden’s ability to fix the domestic woes and bring a divided America together.”

Chen Wenxin, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said Beijing and Washington should draw lessons from the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union and prepare for the worst.

He pointed to some of the principles that helped Washington and Moscow avoid a hot war during their decades of geopolitical tension, including no use of nuclear weapons or military force.

“How to manage the intensifying China-US strategic competition is a matter of significance not only for themselves, but also for the whole world,” Chen wrote in an article published on Chinese news analysis site on Tuesday.

“Both China and the US need to establish a set of written or tacit rules to clearly define what their bottom lines and red lines are … and strengthen crisis management mechanisms. [These efforts] may largely help prevent a head-on collision between the two countries – or a war resulting from the escalation of conflicts.”

Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen was among those who indicated a tough stance on China during Senate confirmation hearings. Photo: dpa
Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen was among those who indicated a tough stance on China during Senate confirmation hearings. Photo: dpa

During Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday, Biden’s picks for top administration positions – including secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken and treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen – vowed to build a bipartisan policy to confront China over Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

From Beijing’s perspective, the hardline stance indicated by Blinken, Yellen and other cabinet nominees was an ominous sign that instead of rolling back Trump’s confrontational policies, the Biden administration appears determined to double down on China.

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Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University, also cast doubt over the new administration’s willingness to undo damage done to bilateral ties under Trump.

He said negative perceptions on both sides of the Pacific and further deterioration of the relationship could mean a rethink was needed on what the US meant to China.

“The US remains an indispensable economic, technological and business partner and a collaborator on various global and regional issues such as environmental protection and emissions reduction,” he said in an opinion piece in nationalist tabloid Global Times on Tuesday. “But we should by no means continue to admire overtly, or seek to curry favour with, the US.”

A survey by the state-controlled newspaper last month showed that 56 per cent of nearly 2,000 respondents across 16 major Chinese cities believed a new Cold War between China and the US was likely or unavoidable, while another 12 per cent thought it had already begun.

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