It takes two to tango - SOAS China Institute

//It takes two to tango

It takes two to tango

President Joe Biden greets and poses for a photo with Chinese President Xi Jingping ahead of their bilateral meeting, Monday, November 14, 2022, at the Mulia Resort in Bali, Indonesia. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz).

By Jonathan Fenby | 13 July 2023

Amid all the talk of decoupling or de-risking between China and the US and its allies, the Biden administration has been conducting what can only be described as an attempt at a diplomatic “re-coupling” with the People’s Republic. In the past three months, CIA Director William Burns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all been to Beijing for talks with the Chinese leadership. The aim in each case was to restore channels of communication which have deteriorated steadily in recent years, leading to a situation in which the world’s two major powers were hardly talking to one another despite the evident need for cooperation on vital mutual challenges such as global warming and future pandemics.


Washington’s purpose may be laudable, and talks are likely to continue, with climate envoy John Kerry expected to go to Beijing this summer. There is also speculation that Xi Jinping and Joe Biden may meet, either at the G20 in India in September or at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November. (The two men met at the G20 in Bali last November, but little positive came out of that encounter).


But, without a fundamental shift, there appears to be little realistic prospect of a deep and lasting improvement in relations. Domestic political and economic factors on both sides look as if they can only entrench the gulf between the two superpowers, with no prospect apparent of any early change in the need each feels to defend its position, deepening the lack of trust felt across the Pacific as Washington and Beijing seek to cast the global geo-political landscape in its interest.


The Biden administration has strengthened Trump-era sanctions on China and is reported to be preparing fresh measures on the technology front as well as encouraging domestic manufacturing, in part to replace imports from the PRC. Neither Blinken nor Yellen made any compromises on their trips to Beijing – the US treasury secretary has made evident her rejection of decoupling, but she responded to an appeal from Prime Minister Li Qiang to “meet China halfway” with a call for market reform by the PRC and criticism of Chinese “unfair practices.


Any easing on the U.S. side seems unlikely as Biden goes into a re-election battle against Republicans who can be expected to dial up the rhetoric on China at a time when suspicion of the PRC (if not outright hostility) has become one of the few issues with bipartisan support in America – hence the room for “re-coupling” from Washington must be strictly limited. But China also looks stuck in a hardline position, even if its leaders were to want to give ground in the interests of improving the relationship, which they have shown no sign of doing. A softening at this juncture would run counter to the overall direction of policy set under Xi since he assumed supreme power at the end of 2012, and to more recent trends which demand the attention of the power brokers in Zhongnanhai.


The Chinese leader has concentrated on consolidating the party-led state in China and, as part of that, on increasing the country’s “self-reliance” by reducing its dependence on foreign suppliers, particularly the United States and in advanced technologies. American and other foreign companies have, meanwhile, come under growing pressure to operate within the confines of the party state, as have private Chinese companies.


This all falls within an overall strategy based on the assumption that the U.S. and its allies are in decline, which appears to rule the roost whatever the internal problems faced by China, notably in sustaining economic growth and dealing with the adverse demography. In this context, hawks around Xi might well welcome the negative effects of de-coupling on the Western economies – as warned about by Yellen in a recent speech. Certainly, a reversion to the Deng Xiaoping policies of low-profile cooperation appears most unlikely. Any retreat from the hardline stance adopted by Xi over the past ten years would risk bringing the fundamentals of his leadership into question.


The two superpowers are thus already locked in a deep strategic rivalry where domestic, as well as global, factors make compromise increasingly difficult. Both are aiming at greater self-sufficiency, a re-ordering of supply chains and a reduction in mutual dependence under the umbrella of national security. Decoupling – or de-risking as it is now termed – already seems quite deeply entrenched politically. It may be more difficult for business, in view of the close links built up since Deng launched economic reform in the late 1970s. But the drive for better communication being pursued by the U.S. administration to manage the world’s most important relationship cannot disguise the depth of the division with the PRC, and the way it looks like being perpetuated by basic policies pursued on both sides of the Pacific.

Jonathan Fenby is a Research Associate at SOAS and has published 20 books, eight of them on China, including The Penguin History of Modern China. A journalist for four decades, he was editor of The Observer in the UK, the South China Morning Post and Reuters World Service as well as holding senior posts at The Guardian, The Independent and The Economist. He was a founding partner of the research service Trusted Sources, where he headed coverage and analysis of China. He is a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and Chevalier of both the French Légion d’honneur and L’ordre national du Mérite.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.