US ‘should get its house in order’ under Joe Biden before any reset with China

Mark Magnier
·4-min read

On the eve of a historic opportunity to reset the battered US-China relationship, the incoming Biden administration should focus on getting the American house in order and achieving quick results, according to future and past US officials and top China experts.

Panellists at an Asia Society conference on Thursday prescribed an approach of humility and confidence-building measures.

In its approach to China, the guiding principles for the US would be predictability, steadiness and clarity, according to Biden’s incoming Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell. He and other panellists said this would stand in sharp contrast to the past four years.

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Former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell has been appointed to a key role in the Biden administration’s relations with China. Photo: AFP
Former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell has been appointed to a key role in the Biden administration’s relations with China. Photo: AFP

Campbell, a former State Department official, is expected to be Biden’s key point person on China and Asia policy in the newly-created position within the National Security Council.

While some in Beijing policy circles favour improved ties with Washington, others believe the US is in structural decline and want China to push its advantage, he said.

At the same time, Beijing was cracking down on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, challenging India, seeking to intimidate Australia and trying to divide the US and Europe. “We have to sort of recognise them in our calculations as we go forward and understand that the Chinese are playing a form of hardball.”

Campbell said the initial focus in China relations would be on building consensus with allies and partners, all of which would largely come after the administration grapples with daunting domestic health, economic and social challenges.

While there was a lot of talk about rebuilding trust with Beijing, it was important not to overplay the trust factor, he added. A potentially better approach was to focus on small steps that would not fail, avoid surprises and communicate clearly on issues that had been mishandled in recent years.

Possible early confidence-building steps included reversing the tit-for-tat expulsion of journalists, easing visa restrictions and restoring closed consulates, Campbell said, adding that the priority was on irritants that could be resolved quickly and easily.

“We can‘t say we’d like you to change your whole system, and they can’t say to us, withdraw your forces from Asia,” he said. “We need to deal with the world in which we’re living.”

Dave Rank, senior adviser at the Cohen Group and former No 2 at the US embassy in Beijing, said a central difference in approach between the two giants during this wobbly transition period was that Beijing tended to view building trust as a prerequisite to achieving results, while Washington sees results as a precursor to building trust. “We don’t even agree on the nature of trust.”

Several speakers at the conference – titled “The Future of US and China: Seeking Truth Through Facts” – said one of the most important steps the US could take in redefining relations with an increasingly assertive China was to address its own problems.

How Biden’s America and China can turn page on a rocky relationship

These ranged from the deep partisan divisions that saw last week’s breach of the Capitol building – with five people killed and lawmakers threatened – to the lives and livelihoods destroyed by the pandemic, and the nation’s wobbly infrastructure, education and race relations, speakers said.

Panellists also cited the importance of a change in tone after four years of recriminations, inconsistency, name-calling and policy by tweet. They called for a greater focus on diplomacy, rather than leaks to The Washington Post.

But they also said renewed relations would ideally involve changes on the Chinese side, where diplomats were unable to provide important insights and signals for fear their colleagues would accuse them of not following the party line.

“So how to reconcile this new period in which conflict between the two of us will tear the world apart and cooperation requires us to learn a new approach to the idea of global influence,” said Henry Kissinger, chairman of Kissinger Associates and former Secretary of State.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes a new approach to the idea of global influence is required. Photo: Reuters
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes a new approach to the idea of global influence is required. Photo: Reuters

Campbell said presidential transitions were difficult at the best of times but this one was extraordinary, with some 1,000 appointees coming into the executive branch, mostly unvaccinated, amid daunting domestic concerns.

And the outgoing government had been less than helpful, enacting a series of last-minute executive orders ranging from investment bans on Chinese companies and the weakening of domestic pollution standards, to stepped up oil drilling and moves against Iran.

“This really is an attempt not just to govern beyond the grave. If these were so good, why not do them six months ago or a year ago,” Campbell said. “But doing them with four or five or six days left really suggests they’re doing this not as part of trying to ensure a legacy, but really just to stick it to the Biden administration.”

“A lot of things at the door feel more like booby traps than, you know, welcome packages.”

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