Last week, American and Chinese diplomats met for a long-anticipated bilateral summit in Anchorage, Alaska. While few observers were expecting a cordial affair, the degree of animosity freely expressed by the Chinese delegation — what one veteran China analyst described as a “rhetorical snowball fight” — underscored what is sure to be one of the U.S.’s defining foreign policy challenges for the foreseeable future. Mounting signs from the Biden administration indicate that Washington is gearing up to respond.
After President Biden’s first call to Xi last month, the White House noted the president “fundamental concerns” about certain Chinese economic practices as well as violations of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But it sought to temper these confrontational notes by highlighting how both leaders discussed “the[ir] shared challenges of global health security, climate change and preventing weapons proliferation.” (For its part, Beijing released a more ominous readout of the call that noted how “confrontation between China and the U.S. would certainly be a disaster for both countries and the world.”)
From a strictly economic vantage point, the latter view is justifiable. The Chinese and American economies have reached an advanced degree of interdependence such that any sustained commercial hostilities would exact a steep cost. According to one analysis, if 25 percent tariffs were expanded to cover all two-way trade, the U.S. would forgo nearly $200 billion in GDP growth per year by 2025. The study goes on to note that “the stakes are even higher when accounting for how lost U.S. market access in China today creates revenue and job losses, lost economies of scale, smaller research and development (R&D) budgets, and diminished competitiveness.”
For these reasons, several Washington insiders believe that the administration will bide its time for the moment. As Clete Willems, a former trade negotiator with the Trump administration, has astutely highlighted, the administration has implemented a comprehensive review of all national security measures imposed by former President Trump, including the U.S.-China “phase one” trade deal that paused an incipient trade war. “I think they probably want to get through the G-7 summit in the summer, and then I think in the fall is [when] they’re really going to have to make some decisions on how to move forward.”
Beneath these diplomatic concerns over timing, American public views of China have dramatically soured. According to a survey conducted by Gallup and released this week, the segment of Americans who hold an unfavorable view of China has reached 79 percent, by far the worst reading since its polling began in 1979. Only Iran and North Korea scored worse. Indeed, from a polling standpoint, “The Biden administration is going to be on a very short leash with respect to doing anything that is perceived as giving China a break,” according to Wendy Cutler, a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. trade negotiator.
As if in response to this sea change in public opinion, the Biden administration’s foreign policy blueprint, laid out in the National Security Strategic Guidance released earlier this month, lays heavy emphasis on containing Chinese encroachment. Peppered with language describing the need to “hold countries like China to account” and “allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China,” the document lays out a cohesive strategy to “confront unfair and illegal trade practices, cyber theft, and coercive economic practices that hurt American workers, undercut our advanced and emerging technologies, and seek to erode our strategic advantage and national competitiveness.” In short, to wage a long-term economic cold war with Beijing.
And indeed, cabinet-level officials have inaugurated their terms in office with rhetorical notes that, only a few years ago would have been striking for their directness. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, widely anticipated to play a crucial role in relations with Beijing, vowed at her confirmation hearing last month to use the “full array” of America’s tools to combat “illegal, unfair and abusive” practices. Ms. Raimondo, Biden’s nominee for commerce secretary, used the occasion of her confirmation hearings to call out China’s actions “anti-competitive, hurtful to American workers and businesses” and say that the country was “culpable for atrocious human rights abuses.”