Fifty years ago this week, former U.S. President Richard Nixon flew to China, setting the stage for a dramatic shift in relations between the two countries. Much has changed since that visit, not always for the better. Despite a flurry of diplomatic activity over the past year, U.S.-China ties remain tense. Discussions in Alaska and Tianjin yielded few, if any, breakthroughs. While friendlier in tone, the recent summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden led only to agreements to hold yet more talks, albeit on important issues such as strategic stability. The lone bilateral bright spot has been some cooperation on climate.

Since the summit, the Biden administration announced its diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and added more Chinese companies to its trade restriction list while Congress passed a bill aimed at countering China’s forced labor abuses in Xinjiang. The two sides’ antagonistic stances on issues related to security, economics, technology, and ideology have largely crystalized, leaving little space for the adjustments that could relieve simmering tensions. Below, Paul Haenle and Sam Bresnick analyze how the two countries got here and how they can move forward.

Why Are the Two Sides Stuck?

Former U.S. President Donald Trump ushered in a more confrontational era in U.S.-China relations, and Biden has largely maintained his predecessor’s approach to Beijing, albeit with a more equanimous tone and embrace of multilateralism. The U.S. government has for decades been concerned by China’s mercantilism, rapid military modernization, and illiberal approach to human rights, but it had held out hope that China might liberalize through increasingly robust contact with the rest of the world. That has not happened, and the United States and others have lost patience with China’s state capitalist system, militarization of the South China Sea, and increasingly authoritarian governance.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He served as the White House China director on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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But Beijing is not backing down. Despite facing pronounced international pushback during the pandemic, Xi has become even more confident in China’s economic system, governance model, and approach to international affairs. “Time and momentum are on China’s side,” he argued last year at a high-level meeting, though many analysts accuse the party of overconfidence. At the same time, Chinese officials are increasingly looking askance at their U.S. counterparts. Many appear to believe that the United States, though still a formidable power, is in the early stages of an inevitable decline. Just as China resumes its rightful place atop the hierarchy of Asian nations, Beijing’s thinking goes, the United States’ unresolved racial justice issues, income inequality, and political polarization will catalyze an irreversible diminution of U.S. power in Asia and across the globe.

Complicating matters further, the U.S. and Chinese publics are increasingly distrustful of each other. A whopping 89 percent of American respondents to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center consider China a competitor or enemy, while around two-thirds of Chinese respondents view the United States unfavorably or very unfavorably. Such negative mutual perceptions would likely hamper each side’s ability to recalibrate its approach to the other.

Sam Bresnick
Sam Bresnick was senior research analyst and assistant editor.

Finally, the two sides’ divergent framings of the relationship are contributing to the ongoing stalemate. Discussions with high-level Chinese scholars and former government officials have revealed that Beijing prefers to define the bilateral relationship as a peaceful coexistence guided by shared principles, consensus, and possible cooperation. China is frustrated that the United States is more focused on competing with and confronting Beijing. In Washington, however, great power rivalry, defined more by competition and confrontation than cooperation, has become the central framework for bilateral ties.

How Have These Differing Views Affected Policymaking?

The pronounced turn in U.S. policy toward China, beginning with the Trump administration, has not led to self-reflection on the part of Beijing. Chinese scholars and experts initially appeared somewhat surprised that many of the economic, security, and technology policies that Beijing has pursued for years have recently precipitated robust policy responses from the United States. The ruling party believes that it is merely continuing down the same path it established some years back, which has led to its attributing the downturn in the bilateral relationship solely to the United States.

Chinese government officials appear to believe the United States’ goal is to “suppress” China’s rise. They cite the Trump administration’s policies, as well as Biden’s AUKUS submarine pact and the Quad’s increasing coordination, as evidence of Washington’s desire to contain China and limit Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, many Chinese scholars and experts view U.S. restrictions on sensitive technology exports to China as proof that the United States seeks to hamper its burgeoning tech sector. Finally, they see U.S. complaints about human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet as disingenuous, given the United States’ own problems with racial justice and homelessness, as well as its high levels of wealth and income inequality. In short, China sees the United States as a declining power that is attempting to keep a rising China from overtaking it.

The United States, as expected, has a very different view of bilateral dynamics. Washington blames the downturn in relations on China’s increasing assertiveness abroad and repressiveness at home. U.S. officials are concerned that China, through its support of authoritarian regimes, is chipping away at the liberal international order and trying to create “a world safe for autocracy”; that its continued military modernization and interest in building bases in Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, and the United Arab Emirates will allow Beijing to challenge Washington’s security primacy; and that its state capitalist, mercantilist system threatens the rules-based economic order. Beijing’s incarceration of around 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, increasingly strict online censorship, and prosecution of dissidents have further fueled Washington’s desire to enact more aggressive responses.

What Does Each Side Want out of the Relationship?

Our conversations have revealed that China wants the United States to afford it the space it believes it deserves as a rising power, at least in its own backyard. Beijing, as the preeminent Asian security and economic actor, sees the United States’ military presence in East and Southeast Asia as inherently threatening. Moreover, it hopes that Washington will ease pressure, especially regarding economics and technology, as well as refrain from engaging in ideological competition in service of impugning Beijing’s governance model and human rights record. But perhaps China’s most significant wish is for the United States to acknowledge the legitimacy of its economic and political systems.

Given that the United States views China’s economic and political practices as antithetical to its own, as well as to those of countries acting within a healthy, properly functioning international system, Washington is unlikely to refrain from impeaching Chinese authoritarianism, mercantilism, and treatment of ethnic minorities and dissidents. The United States’ tougher policies and more confrontational approach are meant to push back on and defend against a range of Chinese domestic and foreign practices that threaten to undermine the international rules and norms that have been in place since the end of World War II, as well as raise the costs for China to revise that very order. In general, Washington would prefer that Beijing dial back or eliminate its economic and innovation mercantilism, respect other countries’ sovereignties, agree to peacefully resolve disputes, and abide by international agreements on human rights.

How Can the Two Sides Reconcile Their Differences?

Biden has opted to use a calmer, more restrained tone with Beijing than did his predecessor, with the aim of avoiding escalation. Moreover, unlike some Trump administration officials, Biden’s team has made it clear that Washington is not seeking regime change in China. And though Biden criticized Trump’s lack of a clear set of goals or a coherent interagency policy framework for addressing the China challenge, his administration has yet to release its long-awaited China strategy (though China does figure prominently in its recently issued Indo-Pacific Strategy). Until that document is issued, the finer points of the administration’s plans to compete with Beijing, as well as the end goal of such competition, will remain fuzzy. A clear articulation of U.S. aims would be helpful in Washington’s efforts to secure greater international cooperation from allies and partners in addressing the challenges China poses. It would also provide Chinese and U.S. leaders a starting point from which to negotiate the future of bilateral ties.

In China, there is considerable room for greater self-reflection. Chinese leaders should closely examine how Beijing’s own aggressive diplomacy, economic statecraft, military buildup, and human rights violations have alarmed and unsettled the United States and many other countries, especially those in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Across many conversations, few, if any, Chinese experts have acknowledged that Beijing’s actions have played a role in the cratering of U.S.-China relations. Furthermore, they are reluctant to acknowledge that numerous nations’ hardening stances toward China are driven by China’s activities rather than U.S. coercion. Acknowledging its agency in harming relations, as well as its ability to take proactive steps to put U.S.-China ties on better footing, would constitute important initial gestures by the Chinese side. Moreover, China’s willingness to take more responsibility for its own actions and modify its policy and rhetoric would go a long way toward stabilizing bilateral dynamics.

There is no doubt the U.S.-China relationship will remain competitive going forward. Preventing bilateral ties from becoming even more hostile and adversarial, however, should constitute a common aim for both countries. Biden understands this, as he stressed the importance of developing guardrails and establishing strategic stability talks between the two governments during his virtual summit with Xi. Implementing robust crisis management mechanisms would also prove a useful step in augmenting both nations’ abilities to control escalation in the event of a military incident in the increasingly crowded waters and air space off of China’s eastern and southern coasts.

Washington and Beijing also should establish an effective problem-solving mode for the bilateral relationship. Many observers stress the importance of U.S.-China cooperation on transnational issues where the two sides have common interests—climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and global health, among others. These efforts are certainly important, but they are quite ambitious and often hampered by Washington’s and Beijing’s different approaches to managing international issues. The two countries have thus far failed to make progress in most areas. That does not mean they should abandon these efforts. But perhaps the United States and China should devote more energy toward trying to create a problem-solving approach for addressing more pointed irritants, such as limits on journalist visas and consulate closures. Such a method has already yielded dividends regarding the former issue. The two countries should focus on how to build on those smaller successes to work through larger problems in other areas.

By committing to this pragmatic approach, the United States and China may be able to find a way to put a floor under deteriorating relations, begin to build goodwill, and lay the foundation for taking on the larger structural issues in areas, like trade and technology, that will be key to determining the future health and welfare of the U.S.-China relationship over the long term. Despite the two nations’ differing mindsets and approaches to bilateral ties, starting small could prove the best method through which to, eventually, realize large gains.