Reviews | When Biden and Chinese Xi meet, leverage will be everything
As an American diplomat managing our relations with China, I have often been asked, “What is our influence on China?” Beijing was always doing something we didn’t like – buying oil from Iran, building a port in Cambodia, locking up dissidents – or not doing something we thought we had to, like imposing sanctions on North Korea. or open its market to American agriculture. some products.
We were constantly thinking about what sticks or carrots we could deploy to change China’s behavior. There were no easy answers; the frustrations over our insufficient leverage and our inability to “change China” are old. But the growing power of China compounds the problem. And in this era of great power competition, the need to accumulate and use leverage to influence Chinese stocks has never been greater.
President Biden himself has admitted that influence over China is lacking. Soon he will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. So where will the required American leverage come from?
It doesn’t help that the Chinese leadership sensed weakness on the US front. Successfully combating Covid-19 and reviving the U.S. economy will help counter those impressions and improve Mr. Biden’s hand. Yet that is not enough to give Washington the necessary edge over Beijing.
The Biden administration’s main approach to confronting China has been to recruit other countries to join it in the fight against Beijing on all kinds of issues, from human rights to technology to Taiwan. But the difficulty in establishing clear priorities could ultimately be Mr Biden’s loss.
If everything is a priority, then nothing is and the leverage dissipates into an ever-changing list of pressing issues.
President Donald Trump has focused on the trade deficit. While this wisdom is debatable, he got a deal to fix it in less than two years. This is because the Chinese saw that solving this specific problem could stabilize the relationship.
When it comes to dealing with China, Mr Biden should take note. Prioritize issues on which the United States can make realistic progress with China: trade and investment, climate change measures, and limits on dangerous weapons.
We need new trade rules governing subsidies and technology, and rules to stop the spread and limit the use of autonomous weapons. The Biden administration is also expected to aim to achieve concrete changes in global energy, construction and transportation systems to tackle climate change.
To achieve the necessary leverage, we need to give China the prospect of a beneficial outcome – which for Beijing could start by developing what it would see as a more respectful partnership. US officials often speak of “increasing pressure” on China, but the sanctions and tariffs have generally not produced a Chinese political movement. What made things happen was the prospect of a more stable and constructive relationship with the United States – a likely driver behind Mr. Trump’s interim trade deal. Currently, the Chinese do not see this on the table.
Instead, the Biden administration has targeted everything from Chinese infrastructure projects in other countries to Chinese scientists in the United States – as if everything China does or manufactures is a potential Trojan horse sneaking in. inside the American fortress.
This approach not only misses the hallmark of the Biden administration’s signature claim to assess foreign policy priorities in terms of the benefits they bring to the American people. It also allows Beijing to dismiss our concerns as politicized. This risks leaving us empty-handed on issues where the influence of negotiation matters most. If the list of transgressions is unlimited or if there is no prospect of improvement, Beijing has no incentive to engage or change its behavior.
Confronting China on a whole host of issues also makes it harder for others to align with our approach. Mr Biden says he wants to work with our allies to shape Chinese behavior. But in pushing for a vague “counter-China” effort, the administration ignored the fact that US allies have their own priorities. Some won’t elevate human rights, others won’t shy away from Chinese technology or join an anti-Chinese security bloc. Some do not want to sever commercial ties or dispute the origin of the new coronavirus.
To take advantage of joint leverage, Mr Biden must recognize and give due weight to the concerns of the allies and get a genuine – not half-baked – agreement on the agenda with them first. It takes time, hard work and compromise.
With targeted joint pressure and the promise of a constructive US approach, China will move. But he also recently made it clear that he saw no point in committing if the United States insisted on a zero-sum relationship. And the White House message doesn’t leave much room for optimism.
The Biden administration has said the era of engagement with China is over – that it seeks to “win in strategic competition.” The administration sets up coalitions to deter and militarily contain China and frequently publishes public criticisms of Chinese actions. So unless something changes and more compelling incentives appear, I don’t expect China to change its behavior.
Of course, it must be said that even with all the levers in the world, there will always be areas of disagreement with China. Its human rights protections are abysmal and the treatment of its own citizens, especially minorities and dissidents, abusive. Likewise, questions of sovereignty – ie Taiwan – are national touchstones; these are likely to continue to be a source of friction in US-China relations.
Mr Biden should, of course, continue to speak out against human rights abuses or Chinese pressure on Taiwan, but we must recognize that our ability to move China forward on these issues is negligible.
That is why Mr Biden must not waste the leverage that the United States can achieve. Setting clear priorities and ensuring that China knows that progress will lead to a constructive relationship is a necessary starting point.