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Don’t expect US-China relations to significantly improve in 2023

  • Xi and Biden may have managed to avoid a US-China conflict in 2022, but their meeting won’t change the long-term course of bilateral relations

  • As long as Washington sees China as a threat to be contained, its provocations are unlikely to cease

By Zhou Xiaoming

January 2, 2022

Illustration: Stephen Case

Countless people in China had a sleepless night as outgoing US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport on August 1 last year. The visit was the culmination of a series of provocations by Washington against Beijing, sending ties between the two to their lowest point in decades.

Since the beginning of 2022, Washington had relentlessly waged ferocious attacks on China.

On the political front, it put into effect the Uygur Forced Labor Prevention Act to substantiate its claims of genocide in Xinjiang while sanctioning dozens of mainland and Hong Kong officials over Beijing’s crackdown on separatists in the special administrative region.

Militarily, Washington frequently sent warships and planes through and over the South China Sea to threaten China’s security and maritime rights, while orchestrating the Quad to “counter” China in the region.

Economically, the Biden administration ramped up efforts to restructure global supply chains to isolate China. It placed hundreds of Chinese companies and individuals on its blacklists. Then, to hobble the country’s tech sector, it imposed a total export ban on semiconductor technology to the country.

What is more, Washington continued hollowing out the “one-China” principle, developing substantial relations with Taiwan through military exchanges and arms sales. President Joe Biden himself went further than previous US presidents in pledging to defend the island.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (left) speaks during a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei on August 3. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

To justify its unprovoked actions against China and win over its allies, Washington has been at pains to portray China as a bad actor that undermines rule- based international order.

Initially, China’s response was restrained and principled. Instead of tit-for-tat retaliations, it opted to concentrate on developing a strong economy and protecting the health of its citizens against Covid-19. In keeping with its commitment to maintain global supply chains, it has blacklisted fewer than a dozen American companies and individuals, and has not placed any ban on its exports to the US.

However, Pelosi’s visit was the last straw. In response to a blatant violation against its core interests, China fought back with force. It held large-scale military exercises around Taiwan and severed most of its official communications channels with Washington.

The turning point came when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali in November. The meeting put the brakes on the US-China downward spiral.

Subsequently, senior government officials from both countries have re-engaged on issues such as trade and climate change. US secretary of state Antony Blinken plans to visit China early next year.

US President Joe Biden (right) walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit on November 14. Photo: AP

This flurry of high-level interaction has raised hopes of better times ahead. People-to-people exchange may be allowed to proceed, and tariffs on Chinese imports are likely to be lifted in part. But a fundamental improvement in bilateral relations remains a remote possibility.

The Biden administration identifies China as “the most consequential geopolitical challenge” to US hegemony, and has vowed to “outcompete” (read “defeat”) China. As it views the next 10 years as the critical decade in its contest with China, it has no wish to improve bilateral ties, only to avoid conflict.

In this context, the motives behind the White House’s proposal for setting up “guardrails” seem quite suspicious. Setting “rules of the road” in “competition” without agreeing on guiding principles first amounts to putting the cart before the horse.

Moreover, the approach smacks of trickery. It is designed, commenters say, to undercut the established principles that Washington finds to its disliking, and to constrict China while giving Washington as free a hand as possible.

Meanwhile, Washington’s expressed desire to work with China on “transnational issues” like climate change is questionable. Washington is prepared to work with China only when it is in its own interest. It would not be difficult then to imagine that it intends such engagement to advance its own geopolitical goals.

By all indications, Washington may try to place financial responsibility on China far beyond its fair share and ability to deliver, so as to slow the pace of its development.

In addition, the Biden administration would seek to reassume its global leadership by bringing China into its fold. Clearly, “cooperation” in the lexicon of Washington has strong connotations of geostrategic calculus.

Going forward, Washington’s assaults on China could hardly be expected to subside. In mid-December, it placed 36 more Chinese companies on a trade blacklist, after banning sales of products by four Chinese companies on November 25.

To crown it all, the fiscal 2023 National Defence Authorisation Act passed on December 23 authorises US$10 billion in military aid for Taiwan.

In the new year, as Washington is expected to double down on decoupling with China, and its technological blockade against China looks to intensify. Many anticipate the White House’s export ban to be extended to China’s other hi-tech sectors.

So too will Washington continue to clamour about human rights as an opening to interfere in China’s internal affairs. It will continue to stir trouble in Asia through its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

More importantly, the Taiwan issue may flare up again. If the incoming House Speaker follows his predecessor’s footsteps into Taiwan, won’t we see a repeat of the August incident?

With 2022 behind us, bilateral ties this year look likely to be marked more by tensions than by rapprochement. Indeed, as long as “outcompeting China” continues to plague Washington, stable and constructive relations will remain elusive as ever.

Zhou Xiaoming is a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing and a former deputy representative of China’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva


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