Biden sees ‘thaw’ with China coming, even as he rallies allies against Beijing
President Biden and his allies spent much of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan announcing new arms packages for Ukraine, including a pathway to supply F-16 fighter jets. They spent hours discussing strategy with President Volodymyr Zelensky for the next phase of a hot war unleashed by Russia.
So it was easy to miss Mr Biden’s prediction on Sunday of a coming ‘thaw’ in relations with Beijing, as both sides move beyond what he called the China Act. “silly” of sending a giant surveillance balloon over the United States, only the most recent in a series of incidents that have fueled what appears to be a descent into confrontation.
It’s far too early to tell whether the president’s optimism is based on the muted signals he’s received in behind-the-scenes meetings with the Chinese government in recent weeks.
Mr. Biden’s own aides see an ongoing struggle in China between factions that want to revive economic relations with the United States and a much more powerful group that aligns itself with President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the national security rather than economic growth. As this weekend showed, China is extremely sensitive to any suggestion that the West is staging a challenge to Beijing’s growing influence and power.
So if Mr. Biden is right, it may take a while for the ice to melt.
Faced with a new set of unified principles from key Western allies and Japan on how to protect their supply chains and key technology from Beijing – contained in the meeting’s final communiqué – China erupted in outrage.
Beijing has denounced what it described as a cabal seeking to isolate and weaken Chinese power. Japan’s ambassador to Beijing was called in for a bore and China decided to ban products from Micron Technology, an American chipmaker, on the grounds that its products posed a safety risk to the Chinese public. It sounded like exactly the kind of “economic coercion” that world leaders had just sworn to resist.
Mr. Biden often says he has no desire to see a new Cold War start with China. And he points out that the economic interdependencies between Beijing and the West are so complex that the dynamic between the two countries is entirely different from what it was when he first immersed himself in foreign policy as a newly elected senator. elected 50 years ago. .
The harmony in Hiroshima on developing a common approach, and the ensuing outbursts in Beijing, suggested Mr Biden had made progress on one of his top foreign policy priorities despite underlying tensions. between the allies. Rather than dwell on their disagreements, leaders of major industrial democracies aligned their approach with China in a way that Beijing clearly saw as potentially threatening, some analysts noted after the meeting.
“An indication that Washington would be happy is that Beijing is so unhappy,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a research group in Sydney, Australia.
Matthew Pottinger, former deputy national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump and architect of this administration’s approach to China, agreed. “The fact that Beijing has been so responsive to G7 statements is an indicator that the allies are moving in the right direction.”
Mr Biden and the other leaders of the G7 – which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – drafted their first joint statement of principles on how they would resist blackmail economic and would deter China from threatening or invading Taiwan, while seeking to reassure Beijing that they were not seeking confrontation.
The statement pressed China on the usual points of tension, including its military buildup in the South China Sea and widely documented human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. Four months after the United States quietly began distributing intelligence to European allies suggesting that China was considering sending weapons to Russia to fuel its fight in Ukraine, the document appeared to be a warning to Beijing against pressure on its “limitless” relationship with Russia. far.
Yet the democracies also left the door open for improved relations with Beijing by making it clear that they were not attempting a Cold War containment strategy against the rising global economy, even as they sought to cutting off China from key technologies – including the machinery essential to the production of the world’s most advanced semiconductors.
“Our policy approaches are not designed to harm China, nor do we seek to thwart China’s economic progress and development,” the statement said. “A growing China that abides by international rules would be of global interest. We do not decouple or turn in on ourselves. At the same time, we recognize that economic resilience requires risk reduction and diversification.
“De-risking” is the new art term, coined by the Europeans, to describe a strategy to reduce their dependence on Chinese supply chains without “decoupling”, a much more severe separation of economic relationships. Mr Biden’s team has embraced the phrase, and the strategy – meant to sound self-protective rather than punitive – has become a staple of recent conversation about how to deal with Beijing. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, speaks of “building a high fence around a small yard” to describe the protection of key technologies that could support China’s rapid military development.
But what looks like risk reduction in the United States and Europe may look like a well-articulated containment strategy in Beijing.
The consensus reached in Hiroshima came after what Michael J. Green, former top Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, called “a series of diplomatic victories for the United States and losses for China”. He has worked behind the scenes to promote a rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, and plans to include Japan in a nuclear strategy and deterrence advisory group he announced during a state visit. last month by Yoon Suk Yeol. If successful, this would create a much closer nuclear alliance in China’s neighborhood.
“From Beijing’s perspective, this has been a week of even closer alignment between other powers in the region with the United States,” said Green, now director general of the Center for American Studies. from the University of Sydney.
China responded strongly. In a statement released over the weekend, he accused the G7 of “obstructing international peace”, “defaming and attacking China” and “grossly interfering in China’s internal affairs”. On the same day, he accused Micron of “relatively serious cybersecurity issues” that could threaten national security, the same argument the United States makes about TikTok and Huawei.
Despite the common ground in Hiroshima, Mr Biden’s decision to cancel the second half of his Pacific trip, including a stopover in Papua New Guinea, so he could rush home to s dealing with domestic spending and debt negotiations, was seen as a setback. in competition with China.
Now the question is whether, quietly, Mr. Biden can rebuild a relationship with Mr. Xi that seemed to be turning around last fall, after their first face-off.
Mr Biden discussed the spy balloon incident in an interesting way on Sunday.
“And then this stupid balloon that was carrying two freight cars’ worth of spy equipment was flying over the United States, and it was shot down, and everything changed in terms of communication,” he said. . “I think you’re going to see this start to thaw out very soon.
If there is a turnaround, it could stem from low-key talks Mr. Sullivan had in Vienna this month with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official.
The sessions were hardly warm, but in some ways they were more candid and helpful than US officials had expected. Rather than simply reciting talking points, as is typical of meetings with his Chinese counterparts, Wang spoke in more off-the-cuff terms than usual, according to officials familiar with the talks. There was an airing of grievances from both sides that the Biden team hoped would help clear the air.
There were long conversations, particularly on Ukraine and Taiwan. Wang stressed that China was not seeking conflict with Taiwan, apparently trying to appease US officials who feared last summer that China was accelerating its plans to resolve its Taiwan dispute by force.
Wang spoke of the need to avoid hasty actions surrounding elections in Taiwan early next year. Mr Sullivan insisted that China’s own conduct was raising the temperature and increasing the risk of escalation.
Administration officials hope to return to a more regular dialogue with China, perhaps sending Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to China, and possibly rescheduling a trip to Beijing by the secretary. of State Antony J. Blinken, who canceled a visit after the spy balloon episode. There is talk of a meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi in the fall.
But the war in Ukraine will continue to cloud the relationship – as will the course of the relationship between Moscow and Beijing, what one of Mr Biden’s aides calls “the alliance of the aggrieved”. Yet for now, US officials have taken comfort in the fact that China has not, to their knowledge, supplied Russia with lethal weapons despite President Vladimir V. Putin’s need for armaments.
David Pierson contributed reporting.