US President Joe Biden spoke with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for 90 minutes on September 10, 2021. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

Last week, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held their second phone conversation since the former assumed the US presidency, with the leaders of the world’s two largest economies speaking for 90 minutes. 

Who will blink first?

“The two leaders had a broad, strategic discussion in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values, and perspectives diverge. They agreed to engage on both sets of issues openly and straightforwardly,” the White House’s readout of the call said.

Also read: Biden Doctrine abating US tensions with China

While Washington is in the process of completing the “pivot to Asia,” Biden “underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.” Furthermore, since the US perceives China as the top challenger to its unrestrained foreign policy, Biden felt the urge to remind “both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict” and framed it as their “responsibility.”

President Xi, on his part, did not shy away from highlighting that “for some time, due to the US policy on China, the China-US relationship has run into serious difficulty” and reminded his interlocutor that “this serves neither the fundamental interests of the people of the two countries, nor the common interests of countries around the world.”

Xi added that “whether [the two countries] can handle their relationship well bears on the future of the world,” concluding that “getting the relationship right is not an option, but something we must do and must do well.”

All of this can be achieved, and cooperation between the US and China can be maintained if, as Xi believes, it is done “on the basis of respecting each other’s core concerns.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the current hegemon is much more concerned with talking down to its peer competitor than paying attention to what it says – in other words, having a proper dialogue.

“We continue to believe that setting parameters and guardrails for the competition, and maintaining open lines of communication, is really important,” CNN cited an unnamed White House senior official as saying before the call. “But these lower-level engagements have not been very fruitful, and, candidly, we’ve not been very satisfied with our interlocutors’ behavior.”

Tensions rise

Indeed, during the first phone conversation between the newly elected US president with his Chinese counterpart, which took place on February 10, Biden unilaterally laid out the parameters of their engagement. What followed were lower-level talks between US and Chinese officials, which aimed at securing the former’s demands.

In March, at a high-level meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan clashed with State Councilor and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the director of the Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Yang Jiechi.

“China urges the US side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs. This has been a longstanding issue, and it should be changed. It is time for it to change,” Wang told the US side during the summit in Alaska.

When Blinken tried to use a mafia-like technique of “persuasion” and warned that “it’s never a good bet to bet against America,” Yang shot back that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength … because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people.”

Yang added that he believes that “the American people are certainly a great people, but so are the Chinese people.”

On September 1, Foreign Minister Wang held a virtual meeting with the US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, who was in Tianjin for China-US negotiations on climate change at the latter’s request.

While Wang acknowledged that cooperation between the two countries in this policy area serves not only US and Chinese interests “but also befits all mankind,” he also insisted that it “cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-US relations.”

He urged the US to work with his country “to meet each other halfway” instead of “viewing China as a threat and rival.” In addition, Wang advised the US to “cease containing and suppressing China all over the world” and “attach importance to and actively respond to the ‘two lists’ and ‘three bottom lines’ put forward by” Beijing.

It is worth noting that these “two lists” were mentioned on July 26, during a meeting held by Wang and Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in the Chinese city of Tianjin, to which the latter, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price, traveled “from a position of strength.”

Officially recognized as the “List of US Wrongdoing that Must Stop” and the “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With,” they form a catalogue of Beijing’s demands concerning, among other things, withdrawing an extradition request regarding Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, lifting sanctions on state officials, revoking visa bans on Chinese students, refraining from export restrictions of high-tech items, and removing punitive tariffs.

Economic concerns

According to a new survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 47% of its members demand the removal of the tariffs on Chinese goods, with more than three-quarters of companies complaining that measures imposed during the US-China trade war were harming their operations. 

Despite Biden’s election victory over former president Donald Trump, some respondents to the survey believed that tensions between the US and China remained high and required immediate improvement. While around 54% called for “regularized government-to-government communication” to rebuild relations, 38% wanted a Biden-Xi summit this year.

On top of that, more than 30 US trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Semiconductor Industry Association, and the US Chamber of Commerce, last month demanded removal of the tariffs, as they believed they were harming the country’s economy.

“My own personal view is that tariffs were not put in place on China in a way that was very thoughtful,” US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told The New York Times in an interview  in July.

“Tariffs are taxes on consumers. In some cases it seems to me what we did hurt American consumers, and the type of deal that the prior administration negotiated really didn’t address in many ways the fundamental problems we have with China,” Yellen concluded.

Given the above-mentioned pressure from US businesses, which are suffering from the situation where $360 billion in punitive duties are facing Chinese imports, and Beijing is retaliating with tariffs on more than $110 billion on US products, the recent speculations about Yellen traveling to China are perfectly understandable.

Even though the US economy is visibly suffering while the White House is still reviewing its overall China policy, the damage that has been done so far and the growing political pressure on Biden to contain China’s rise may prove to be irreversible.

Surrender is not an option

Although the US side strives to separate areas where the two countries disagree and where cooperation is possible, it has to be admitted that “the relationship has become increasingly one-sided in recent months,” with Biden visibly presenting only a more polite version of Donald Trump where China is concerned, as retired ambassador Chas Freeman, who served as Richard Nixon’s translator during his 1972 trip to Beijing, argued in March.

From the beginning of his presidency, Biden has sought to put the US-China relationship in “the ideological Cold War framing” by arguing that it is a “battle between democracy and autocracy,” and therefore, using historian Naoko Shimazu’s analogy from her article “Diplomacy as Theatre” published in July 2013, setting the stage for a battle between good and evil.

Following this rationale, China is being labeled as the “biggest geopolitical test” for the previously unchallenged US reign over a unipolar world where rules were broken or followed depending on its hegemonic whims.

Although China may only pose a threat to “the West’s primacy, but not its democratic systems,” as the Lowy Institute’s Hugh White argues, the US decided to focus on rallying its partners and allies to speak in a more unified voice about Beijing’s human-rights record, its trade practices and its military’s increasingly assertive behavior – obviously not reflecting on its own misdeeds in the same areas.

“This narrative has obvious appeal to leaders seeking support at home for their hard line on China,” as White explains, which, bearing in mind increasingly unfavorable approval polls for Biden, may be the case.

Unfortunately, it looks as though the increasingly adversarial situation is getting out hand, as just recently Biden was sidelined when the House Armed Services Committee backed a $23.9 billion boost to the already vast Pentagon budget.

As former US Marine Corps Captain Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, warned in a Defense News article in February, justifying more military spending by using “the China threat” as an excuse seems to be working for China hawks and the defense industry and those who seek to maintain dominance of the “incoherent empire.”

The problem is that by urging the US on numerous occasions to “meet them halfway,” Chinese officials seek to be treated on an equal footing, which means that “China will not accept any country boasting of its superiority,” as Wang Yi told Hong Kong broadcaster Phoenix TV in July ahead of his meeting with Wendy Sherman.

With the drums of war beating louder, and the Group of Twenty summit in Rome coming up in late October, President Xi would be well advised to continue to adhere to Covid-19 protocols and not to travel outside China to avoid being exposed to hostility that might result in even greater tensions and resentment.

In the meantime, he should keep striving for peace through his skillful diplomats while carefully observing what the other side is doing and preparing for the possibility of conflict – as peaceful co-existence is only achievable when no country believes it is superior to others.

Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator, and founder of AK Consultancy. He is former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the oldest conservative think tank in the UK, Bow Group. You can follow him on Twitter @Adriel_Kasonta.