Notwithstanding its avowed commitment to world peace and development, China is ruled by a party-state apparatus that is ideologically out of sync with the current U.S.-led world order. It will be impossible for the West — and for the Biden administration — to treat China as a normal country.
Newsletter 2021 No. 1
Beijing Calls for US-China 'Coopetition' after Biden Election
J. Michael Cole
Senior Fellow, Taiwan Studies Programme, University of Nottingham
January 11, 2021
Following the election of Joe Biden in the November 2020 elections, China embarked on a charm offensive calling on the two countries to repair their “severely damaged” relations. While not directly pointing fingers at outgoing President Donald Trump, former Chinese vice-foreign minister Fu Ying, in an op ed in the New York Times on November 24, and CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping in a congratulatory message to Biden the following day, left no doubt that, in their view, the party mostly responsible for the eroded bilateral relationship was the United States.
The U.S. and China, Xi said, should “uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation, manage differences, advance the healthy and stable development of China-U.S. ties, and join hands with other countries and the international community to promote the noble cause of world peace and development.”
For her part, Fu said that each side must accurately assess the other's intentions in order to revive the relationship. “It would be a tragedy of history if two countries of such power moved toward confrontation based on misperceptions,” she wrote. “That would only work against their own fundamental interests, and many businesses and people would pay the price.” In addition, Fu called for the two militaries to talk at the strategic level to avoid misunderstandings and unexpected conflicts and called for cooperation on a host of global issues, including climate change, public health, economic stability, and digital security.
Beijing's Wishful Thinking
On paper, none of what Xi and Fu proposed is inherently controversial, and the language seems calibrated to appeal to, and to reflect, Biden's multilateral instincts. Invariably, it calls for the Biden administration to distance itself from the policies that characterized its predecessor, with the view that the U.S.' harsher approach to China over the past four years was a historical aberration caused by Trump's idiosyncratic worldview.
In addition to wooing the incoming president, there is an element of wishful thinking in Fu's and Xi's appeals. Both seem to be hoping for a return to the status quo ante, to the point when, under the Obama administration, Washington's attitude remained permissive enough that China was able to rapidly expand its influence, even when this contravened international law, as in its occupation of the South China Sea. It is unlikely, however, that a return to such a period is possible, given the attitude shift that has taken place in the U.S. — and globally — in recent years, largely due to the belligerence with which China has treated the international community. A hardened view regarding China hasn't only occurred among the American public; it is also a reality within the U.S. government, and that is a bipartisan affair. Such pressure will make it extremely difficult for President Biden to return to a policy that, a decade ago, permitted China to get away with bad behavior. Undoubtedly, the signaling under a Biden administration will be more diplomatic, and multilateralism will likely be a foundational element of his foreign policy. However, to assume that his election will resolve the ideological chasm that has developed between China and the U.S. in recent years would, to use Fu's own words, be based on misperceptions.
A Widening Ideological Gap
The principal reason why Xi's and Fu's hopes are bound to lead to disappointment in Beijing lies in the fact that, notwithstanding its avowed commitment to world peace and development, China is ruled by a party-state apparatus that is ideologically out of sync with the current U.S.-led world order. As the Biden administration attempts to repair the damage done to American democracy by the Trump administration and to the U.S.' image abroad, it will be nearly impossible for it to turn a blind eye to mounting evidence that the CCP is holding more than 1.5 million Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang, tightening controls in Tibet, cracking down on civil society, and threatening peaceful neighbors like Taiwan. Moreover, China's ostensible success in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as achievements in other areas, are seen by the regime as an endorsement of the CCP's authoritarian rule, which in turn has encouraged the party to propose its model of governance as an alternative — a better one at that — to the Western liberal-democratic order. Its ambitions running rampant, Beijing no longer countenances opposition to what it regards as its rightful rise and position at the top of the global hierarchy of states. Also, its definition of internal affairs, in which it has made it clear it does not want the U.S. and other countries to meddle, is self-servingly vague and expansive, predicated on the principle of the party above all. As COVID-19 has made perfectly clear, in a globalized world, the censorship, lies, and controls that underlie authoritarianism often can have consequences that are detrimental to the entire international community and result in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Inherently paranoid, the surveillance party-state, furthermore, extends its tentacles far beyond its borders and threatens Chinese communities abroad, spying on dissidents while mobilizing ethnic Chinese, triads, and front organizations to further Beijing's strategic aims. If none of this suffices to convince the Biden administration that, for all its calls for normal relations, what we are dealing with is not a normal party-state, the behavior of China's overzealous “wolf warrior” diplomats will serve as a constant reminder.
Beijing (rather than Chinese citizens, who rarely have a say) has made a choice, and it has chosen to secure and strengthen authoritarianism as the form of governance in China. With “Xi Jinping Thought” elevating the ruler to the status of a god-like entity with nearly unchecked powers, the world is now confronted with a despot the likes of which has not been seen in decades. As long as such an ideology prevails in China, it will be impossible for the West — and for the Biden administration — to treat it as a normal country. Beijing, as a result, will be increasingly frustrated when competition perforce takes a lead over cooperation.