Biden’s China Policy Must Incorporate Détente
The US can avoid war with China by pursuing cooperation on climate, furthering communication, and easing sanctions.
A little more than three years ago, the Trump administration announced that it was applying tariffs to Chinese imports, officially kicking off the US-China trade war. Since then, Sino-American relations have become frosty, characterized by distrust and misinformation. If both countries continue down this path, a Cold War — or even a “hot” one — is inevitable. Aggression is unsustainable.
As the Biden administration retools its China policy, it must incorporate more cooperation into its approach. At a minimum, the US and China should work together to identify areas of collaboration on global issues and make these the relationship’s foundations. Biden should also push to establish more open communications channels. But why is this pivot necessary for the US when China remains a major national security threat?
The US cannot bite the hand that feeds it. China and the US are each other’s largest trading partners. During the Cold War, the USSR was so cut off from global markets that the US could employ sanctions without worrying that Soviet economic retaliation would affect its diversified economy. Unfortunately, the US-China trade war has shown us that Chinese economic retaliation has crippling effects on American industry.
Just look at one major agricultural export: soybeans. In response to Chinese tariffs, American soybean exports fell from $12.2 billion in 2017 to $3.1 billion in 2018 — and have not fully recovered. American suppliers have also been primarily paying for the American tariffs on Chinese goods. A study in American Economic Review showed that for goods affected by a 20% American tariff, Chinese companies on average only lowered prices by 1%. It is in the US’s interest to quickly reduce or remove sanctions to generate domestic economic growth.
The US and China are both the biggest historical beneficiaries of rules enforced by the UN and other international organizations. It was primarily the US that built these institutions during the Post-WWII era, while China took advantage of international economic policies to further its reforms. The US was able to cement its superpower status by shaping the rest of the world in its image, while China lifted an unprecedented amount of people out of poverty. Given that the system works so well for them, both countries are unlikely to change it and instead see the system’s institutions as mechanisms to maintain their authority.
It should be of no surprise that both countries also contribute the most of all states to international organizations’ budgets. Although this distribution does mirror their influence in the system, the US and China have high expectations of international organizations. As supporters of international cooperation, they often work with allied countries to tackle complicated, transnational issues. They realize that some of their biggest domestic threats, like climate change and eradicating poverty, are transnational. They need the resources that only institutions like the UN can provide because of their scope to help defend against these threats.
Regular communication between great powers is also essential to calming tensions in bilateral relationships. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis proved the Cold War’s scariest moment because both countries perceived increasing threats and, in response, secretly fortified their missile stockpiles in critical locations. It was not until President Kennedy publicly acknowledged that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba on October 22nd that both sides started exchanging letters addressing this missile proliferation. Through slow formal and “back” channels, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed a week later to dismantle some of their stockpiles.
A year later, Moscow and Washington installed a hotline between both leaders to deal with future misunderstandings quickly. Like the US and USSR dynamic during the Cold War, the US and China are currently in a great power faceoff. Chinese and American leaders should contact each other ahead of taking any perceivable aggressive actions to reduce the overall possibility of conflict.
Some say that international politics is fundamentally anarchic and that even the system’s well-established institutions can’t curb states’ desires to only look out for themselves. They would also point out that conflict has been a feature of most historical great power transitions — 14 out of 16 of these shifts have resulted in war. However, both of the transitions that have occurred since the Post-War era have occurred peacefully. And despite the pandemic cutting off borders, the world is still more interconnected than ever before. US-China economic retaliation not only hurts both countries’ economies but tanks the global economy. Military conflict may not happen within either countries’ borders, but in cyberspace and territorially-contested regions like the South China Sea. Potential conflict will have wide-reaching consequences. If these countries want to gain support for their global leadership, they must show that they respect other states and the rules.
The Biden Administration faces many daunting foreign policy issues created by the previous president. However, Biden can start repairing America’s global image by ensuring that his policymaking approach looks drastically different, even when dealing with adversaries. By cooperating more with China, the US will not be “soft” on China. By cooperating more with China, the US will show that it is committed to making the globe more peaceful.