Then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Joe Biden at a luncheon in a file photo. Image: AFP/Getty Images

The “official working visit” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House last Thursday has been most conspicuous for its subdued tone regarding the most fateful topic of her discussion with President Joe Biden: China.  

Merkel’s guarded remarks about China at their joint press conference came as no surprise, but what took the breath away was that Biden trod softly on that topic. 

Merkel is a highly experienced stateswoman with a superb mastery of the use of parentheses in her articulation of policies and strategies.

She agreed with Biden that the relationship with China is among the many priorities in foreign policy today; that “wherever human rights are not guaranteed, we will make our voices heard and make clear that we don’t agree with this,” but Germany is “also for territorial integrity of all countries of the world.” 

Merkel disclosed that they “talked about the many facets of cooperation and also of competition with China, be it in the economic area, be it on climate protection, be it in the military sector and on security” – making it clear that China cannot be branded in one-dimensional terms as an adversary. 

Merkel said “there is a lot of common understanding [between Germany and the US] that China, in many areas, is our competitor,” and that trade with China “needs to rest on the assumption that we have a level playing field.” But then she pointed out that “the driving force” behind the EU-China Agreement on trade that was negotiated last December, much to the displeasure of the Biden administration, was about fair trade practices. 

In fact, Merkel flagged that the December agreement with China also commits Beijing to “abide by the core labor norms” of the International Labor Organization (ILO) – an indirect reference to US pressure to boycott China for alleged forced-labor practices in Xinjiang.  

Merkel is “convinced of our need to be technological leaders … in many, many areas” but then, “Obviously, it’s legitimate for China wishing to do this as well, but, for example, we will cooperate in many technological state-of-the-art technologies – for example, chips.” Merkel added:

“And then there are interests, obviously – sometimes divergent interests, but sometimes common interests. But we also have, obviously, areas where American companies compete with European companies, and we have to accept that. But I think, basically, the rules as to how we deal with China ought to rest on our shared values.” 

The heart of the matter is that Biden may be coming closer to Merkel’s thinking on China. More likely, Biden himself is in a reflective mood after the extended interaction last month, in formal and informal settings, in Europe with Western leaders, including Merkel, where China was most of the time the proverbial elephant in the room. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joe Biden take the stage for a joint news conference in the White House on July 15. Photo: AFP / Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

As a matter of fact, in the on-the-record press call on June 17 from the White House by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, there was ample hinting of new stirrings in the United States’ China policies. Sullivan let it be known that Biden “will look for opportunities to engage with President Xi [Jinping] going forward.” 

Sullivan added that “soon enough, we will sit down to work out the right modality for the two presidents to engage.” As he put it, Biden is very much committed “to ensure that we have that kind of direct communication that we found valuable with President Putin yesterday.… It’s now just a question of when and how.” 

Evidently, Sullivan has been on the ball since then. We now hear that US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to meet with Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng in the Chinese port city of Tianjin this week.

Reporting this, the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented, “Although the White House has branded China a key potential adversary, Biden believes that face-to-face contact will clarify on which issues the sides would find common ground and where it would not.” 

Again, on July 6, there were some definitive signals that the US approach to China might have begun shifting. This was discernible in an hour-long presentation by Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the India-Pacific and deputy assistant to the president – better known as Biden’s “Asia czar.”

Campbell was addressing the Asia Society, the influential New York-headquartered organization that has historically illuminated the Sino-American pathways and enhanced mutual understanding. 

Campbell has a reputation for hawkish views and, therefore, his mellowed tone regarding the future trajectory of the US policy merit attention. Evidently, six months into the Biden presidency, after a lot of congratulations internally as well as with America’s allies, Campbell was speaking in the backdrop of discussions underway for a meeting between Biden and Xi. 

Biden’s ‘Asia czar’ Kurt Campbell in a file photo. Image: AFP

One passage from Campbell’s presentation is reproduced below if only to give a flavor of what is afoot. In response to a pointed Churchillian query from the president of the Asia Society, Kevin Rudd, a well-known expert on China and a former diplomat and Australian prime minister, as to whether a cold war with China can be prevented at all, Campbell said: 

“I don’t like the framing of the cold war very much. I’ve appreciated the work you’ve done on this. I am fearful that that framing obscures more than it illuminates. And I think it hardens us to fall back on patterns and thinking that is in no way helpful really, fundamentally to meet some of the challenges presented by China.…

“I believe the defining characteristic of the period ahead will be around competition and also at the same time finding areas where the United States can – it’s not necessarily cooperation, it can be just alignment of policies. The challenge ahead will be to present China with some opportunities.…”

The quote above should give a hint of a highly nuanced China policy being finessed in the White House. Rudd at one point began speculating whether it might not be a good idea for Australia to press the “pause” button on anti-China rhetoric for some time so that an opportunity becomes available for the relationship to be mended.

Equally, on Taiwan, Campbell flatly ruled out any hollowing out of the “one-China policy.” He said forcefully that while the US supports “a strong unofficial relationship” with Taiwan, there is no question of encouraging Taiwan’s independence. He admitted that it can be a delicate dangerous balance but felt it must be maintained. 

Clearly, just as hints of a thaw in US-Russia relations might have appeared lately, a transitional period seems to lie ahead in the Biden administration’s policy toward China as well. Campbell confirmed the likelihood of a meeting between Biden and Xi “in the not too distant future.”  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.