ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
Interview

Biden's China playbook: Cooperation or confrontation?

2 experts weigh in on merits and flaws of Biden-Xi summit

U.S. President Joe Biden listens as he meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 15.    © AP

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK -- The first virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Nov. 15 lasted for more than three hours and led to an acknowledgement by the leaders of the importance of "managing" competition responsibly.

Was this a necessary step to defuse tensions and to get diplomacy back on track? Or does it run counter to long-term American strategy? Nikkei asked two experts about what to take away from the meeting.

Daniel Russel, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the summit created space for diplomacy to move forward.

"Biden was successful in getting Xi Jinping to unlock the Chinese system" to engage on priority issues and "zero in on problem-solving," said Russel, who is now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank.

"One of the problems that the Biden administration had in 2021 is that they could not get any Chinese diplomats, or senior officials, to engage in a constructive way," Russel said. "It was very frustrating and also very dangerous."

No Chinese official "is going to take any risk and is going to move in dealing with an American counterpart unless they have a strong 'top cover,' a signal from the very top," he said.

Meanwhile, Matthew Kroenig, a professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a former Pentagon senior policy adviser, said the emphasis on engagement and cooperation was not reflective of the current state and that the Biden administration should not look away from the confrontational aspect of the relationship.

"If we want genuine cooperation, which we don't have now, we need to lean heavily on the confrontation piece to get the Chinese Communist Party to a place where cooperation looks more attractive," he said.

"If you actually look at the real cooperation between the United States and China, there's less and less by the day. If you look at these shared global challenges, almost all of them it's really China that's the problem. Saying we're going to cooperate with China to solve these is kind of like cooperating with burglars to stop break-ins," he said.

Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

Daniel Russel, left, and Matthew Kroenig, offered different takes on the Nov. 15 virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

<Daniel Russel>

Q: What did the Biden-Xi virtual summit achieve?

A: We have seen a tremendous amount of competition and friction in the U.S.-China relationship, building steadily over the last five years, or longer, frankly. And that friction between two major powers needs to be managed.

Normally the tool for managing that kind of friction is diplomacy. But, right now today's China is very ideological. It's a very strict environment, where no official is going to take any risk and is going to move in dealing with an American counterpart, unless they have a strong "top cover," a signal from the very top.

So, one of the problems that the Biden administration had in 2021 is that they could not get any Chinese diplomats, or senior officials, to engage in a constructive way. It was very frustrating and also very dangerous.

The significant achievement of the virtual meeting on November 15th was that it appears that Biden was successful in getting Xi Jinping to unlock the Chinese system. They clearly made some progress over the three and a half hours of video discussion, so that the door is opening now for designated officials, on both sides, to start to explore various issues, a number of issues, where the two sides can really zero in on problem-solving.

What was important was generating signals from the top of the Chinese system, which we saw instantly after the virtual summit from Xinhua, from the People's Daily, from other sources, from the Foreign Ministry statement and so on, that suddenly sent the "wolf warriors" back into their dens and allowed more normal diplomacy to begin.

I could easily imagine them having another session in the coming months. Maybe, certainly I would think, before the Lunar New Year, before the Olympics. That would be my guess.

Q: National security adviser Jake Sullivan said that Biden and Xi agreed to carry forward a discussion on strategic stability. Which kind of dialogue do you foresee?

A: The two sides have different views on what is the right kind of dialogue. The Chinese side would like to show Japan, show other countries, an image, giving the impression that everything is fine between Washington and Beijing, that the two major powers have a new relationship, kind of maybe a G-2 relationship, of win-win approaches, and that means that the United States has finally come to terms with the fact that China is a superpower. It is also meant to suggest to other countries, third countries, that they can't maybe depend on the United States so much, because the U.S. puts more value on what it can get out of China.

That's obviously not the goal for the United States.

For the United States, the kind of dialogue that makes sense is a dialogue that focuses on areas of risk, of disagreement.

Nobody in the Biden administration thinks that we're going to "solve" problems like Taiwan, or the East China Sea, or South China Sea. But, they do see an urgent need to prevent competition from spiraling into conflict, and that's why they talk about a process that can establish some guardrails that could at least set some boundaries.

Also, a dialogue that focuses on areas of possible overlap between what Washington is trying to accomplish and what Beijing is attempting to do, or is concerned about. That could include all kinds of transnational issues, like climate resilience and extreme weather. It could include health security, it could include nonproliferation, or counter-narcotics, or macroeconomic policy.

But it's important to remember that until the summit, this virtual summit, the Chinese position was if the United States wants China to cooperate on any of these global issues, first the United States has to accept China's core interests. In other words, stop taking policies and actions that China doesn't like on, say, the East China Sea, or on Taiwan.

The United States would not accept that. And so, even though they are not saying this publicly, clearly China has backed down on that score. And the United States is going to continue to insist that cooperation in global problem solving is a responsibility of China and the United States. It is not a "favor" that China is doing for the United States.

<Matthew Kroenig>

Q: What is your take on the Biden-Xi virtual summit?

A: Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this year said we're engaged in a mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation. If you actually look at the relationship, there's much more going on in that confrontation basket than in the others.

We shouldn't lie to ourselves about the true nature of the relationship. If you actually look at the real cooperation between the United States and China, there's less and less by the day. If you look at these shared global challenges, almost all of them it's really China that's the problem. Saying we're going to cooperate with China to solve these is kind of like cooperating with burglars to stop break-ins.

I'm not sure competition is the best phrase for what's going on because competition implies that participants play, and are bound by, the same, agreed-upon rules and let the best competitor win. But here, I don't think that's what's happening. China is violating a lot of these widely held international norms, cheating on World Trade Organization rules and militarily taking territory from neighbors in the South China Sea.

Q: Why do you think China is doing what it does?

A: Ultimately, China would like to do what other great powers have done historically, which is set up a new system with a new set of rules that favor Beijing and not this set of rules that the United States and its democratic allies like Japan have set up over the past 70 years.

Q: Is the U.S. strategy to encourage or force China to develop in a certain direction that is in line with international norms, or is it to prevent China's rise altogether?

A: The first step of a good strategy is to define your goals. What is it you're trying to achieve? And I think the United States hasn't clearly done that yet, for the competition with China.

I believe it should be to get China to change its behavior to be a more responsible, global power. That might not be possible with Chairman Xi. Maybe it's the next generation or two generations of Chinese leadership from now. We need to convince the next generation of Chinese leadership that Xi's approach failed. That challenging the United States and its allies is too difficult, too costly and Beijing would be better off pursuing a more cooperative approach.

To do that we need to work together with allies and partners to defend against the Chinese threat and to impose serious cost on the Chinese Communist Party when it violates widely held international standards, economically, militarily and in terms of governance.

Q: What is the consequences of not confronting countries like Russia and China and trying to find a premature compromise?

A: The danger is that we're essentially incentivizing Russia and China's bad behavior. Russia would like a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. China would like to take Taiwan back. The fear is if we turn a blind eye to those things, where does it stop? Is it the Senkaku Islands or the South China Sea that's next? For Russia, is it all the way back to East Germany?

China would like to be the most dominant state in Asia, and eventually globally. So we have fundamentally incompatible interests. So that's bad for our vital interests, bad for allies' vital interests if we try to compromise.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more