Washington and Beijing have been taking steps to resume normal diplomatic engagement, which had been largely suspended for several months after the “spy balloon” incident in February. A potential meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November is widely viewed as the next opportunity to restore some positive momentum to the relationship. To that end, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently met with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, and Secretary of State Blinken met with Chinese vice president Han Zheng on the margins of the UN General Assembly.
However, frankly, it is getting increasingly difficult to anticipate any scenario for substantial rapprochement between the United States and China in the near term, if not the foreseeable future. This is because of the structural and historical forces driving their strategic rivalry, the adversarial dynamic of their interactions, and the domestic politics on both sides that thwart mutual understanding and accommodation. These drivers keep pushing both sides—despite their rhetoric about getting bilateral relations back on track—to exchange harsh rhetoric and pursue antagonistic and retributive policies toward each other, fueling competitive tensions and hindering progress toward détente.
The historical context is fundamental. The United States spent most of the past seventy-five years as the preeminent power in the world and got used to taking that position for granted and taking advantage of it. But the end of the Cold War, coinciding as it did with China’s economic rise, began an incremental realignment of the balance of global power and influence that was accelerated by 9/11 and the Global Financial Crisis. The United States has resisted and even sought to deny its relative decline due to these developments. Washington continues to claim global preeminence—especially relative to China’s accumulation of wealth, power, and influence. The Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy states, “The United States remains the world’s leading power.”
For its part, China has been the primary beneficiary of the historical shifts in the balance of power since the Cold War (even though it remains behind the United States in absolute terms by most development metrics). Beijing’s foreign policy for the past generation has aimed to claim what the Chinese see as their rightful place in the world and promote the “reform of global governance” toward a “community of common destiny” that more accurately reflects the twenty-first-century balance of power. This is the agenda for Xi Jinping’s signature “Global Security Initiative,” “Global Development Initiative,” and “Global Civilization Initiative.” Contrary to much commentary, this agenda does not intend to establish Chinese global hegemony—only to maximize China’s international influence and legitimacy and bring global attention to its interests and security. However, it is also intended to move the world beyond U.S. global hegemony. As China’s former top diplomat famously said during the Biden Administration’s first high-level exchange with senior Chinese officials, “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
This is essentially the basis for the strategic rivalry and “intense competition” between China and the United States, thus, the backdrop for U.S.-China diplomatic interaction. The Brookings Institution recently hosted an insightful seminar addressing whether this rivalry constitutes a “new cold war.” That depends on how one defines the term and assesses the relevance of the example of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War and whether we view China and the United States as “existential” threats to each other (accurately or otherwise). My own view is that it doesn’t matter whether we call it a “cold war” or not because the strategic rivalry will persist and probably intensify regardless of the semantics.
This dynamic is further exacerbated by domestic insecurities in both China and the United States, which are reinforcing and even inflating perceptions of the threat from the other side. In America, political polarization and dysfunction, racial and ethnic tensions, and the erosion of economic competitiveness have increased a sense of national vulnerability that has fueled the exaggeration of the China threat. In China itself, the economic slowdown and accompanying risk of domestic unrest have heightened Communist Party leaders’ fears of regime instability and foreign subversion—especially from the United States. Both Washington and Beijing now talk increasingly about the growing risks to “national security,” and are expanding their definition of it and their requirements for maintaining it. It is now routine for both sides to perceive and characterize the other as an “existential” threat.
Given these mindsets and mutual suspicions, it is not surprising that both Washington and Beijing are so automatically antagonistic and even adversarial in their approaches and responses to each other. This was amply reflected during the “spy balloon” episode, during which both sides presumed the worst about each other’s actions and intentions and reacted accordingly—at the expense of mutual understanding and de-escalation.
It continues to characterize and hinder most efforts at resuming constructive bilateral ties. Both sides now routinely blame each other exclusively for the poor state of the relationship. Wang Yi, during his meeting with Blinken in Beijing in June, reiterated Beijing’s view that “the root cause” of U.S.-China tensions is “U.S. misperceptions toward China, which have led to misguided China policies” in Washington. Similarly, the United States generally holds Beijing wholly accountable because of its authoritarianism and its coercive and predatory international behavior. Each side accuses the other of harboring hostile intentions, partly by exaggerating its strategic ambitions. Both sides also accuse each other of not being seriously interested in constructive engagement—perhaps as an excuse for not pursuing the kind of accommodative policies that rapprochement would probably require.
All of this is further reinforced by the paradox that both Washington and Beijing appear to calculate that they have the hard power upper hand and the moral high ground in the relationship. This is because both sides overestimate their relative leverage and underestimate the other side’s. Washington, confident in its relative strengths and its global influence, sees no need to make substantial concessions to Beijing. However, Beijing, weighing its own emerging strengths, relative U.S. vulnerabilities, and the hedging of much of the rest of the world, is not inclined to cede ground. Hence, a contest of wills.
Both sides thus appear inclined to disregard each other’s strategic perspectives. In Beijing’s view, Washington has shown little readiness to acknowledge any legitimate Chinese interests and concerns or to show any empathy for Chinese views of the bilateral relationship. For example, American observers routinely deride Xi Jinping’s statement earlier this year that the United States seeks to “suppress, encircle, and contain” China—without examining how Beijing might get that impression from a wide range of Washington’s actions. These would include export and investment restrictions clearly aimed at hindering China’s economic development; several United States-led multilateral initiatives in the Indo-Pacific (such as the “Quad,” “AUKUS,” and the recent Trilateral summit at Camp David) aimed at pressuring China across its periphery; and explicit calls by many in Washington for “containment” of China.
Also, from Beijing’s perspective, Washington appears disinclined to acknowledge that bilateral tensions are in any way attributable to American actions. An emerging theme in Washington is that the United States moved toward strategic competition with China only because Beijing had become more aggressive and expansive in its ambitions under Xi’s leadership. In a recent interview, scholar David McCourt—who examined the community of American China experts and their impact on U.S. policy over the past decade—deduced that Washington shifted from engagement to competition because of an assessment that changes in China necessitated a different American response. He concluded that the United States is unlikely to return to engagement because “the Chinese seem to have no real interest in changing any of the major actions and things that they are doing that prompted the shift to strategic competition in the first place.” This overlooks both the extent to which Chinese policy shifts responded to American policies and that Washington seems to have no real interest in changing any of its relevant policies or actions.
Beijing, of course, makes it hard to be sympathetic to its perspective. It similarly shows little empathy for the views of the United States and denies any culpability for bilateral tensions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) acts and reacts in ruthless and offensive ways that both reinforce other countries’ resistance to Beijing’s agenda and undermine their willingness to engage with it. Indeed, Chinese leaders often appear either oblivious or indifferent to how China is perceived internationally. Like Washington’s rejection of the idea that it is engaged in encirclement or containment of China, Beijing appears dismissive of the reputation it has earned with its coercive international behavior, mercantilist trade practices, heavy-handed influence operations, acquiescence to atrocious behavior by other autocratic regimes, and brutal human rights practices at home. The CCP may calculate that it needs to act offensively in pursuit of its interests and security in a hostile international environment or that China has sufficient economic clout that it can afford to alienate other countries. However, its behavior is nonetheless counterproductive to Beijing’s efforts to win global hearts and minds in its pursuit of a “community of common destiny.”