Before US President Joe Biden took office, many people expected he might increase opportunities to enhance China-US relations. Although Biden differs from his predecessor Donald Trump, there are continuities in many aspects of Trump's policies. The improvement of China-US relations is possible, but it is uncertain. The huge gap between expectations and reality is mainly due to objective and subjective reasons.
Objectively speaking, the characteristics of China-US relations that Biden faces are not very different from those of his predecessors.
First, the power gap between China and the US is gradually narrowing. The September 11 attacks were a turning point in the US' unipolar posture, and marked the beginning of its decline. Later in the same year, China formally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), giving China a strong impetus for its economic take-off. The 2008 financial crisis further accelerated China's pace of development as the US continued to slip.
When Trump came to power in 2017, he took measures to contain China's development. They did not work, only proving to be a nuisance that harmed the US economy and in fact did nothing to slow down China's rise. As Trump left office, the gap of strength between China and the US was narrower than the time when he took office.
Second, the ideological differences between China and the US continue to expand and may turn into a wider ideological competition. In the past, China's economic success has given it confidence in its political system. The post Cold War era consensus that countries should no longer focus on ideology has been broken again. "Beijing Consensus" and "China path" have become new concepts in contrast to the Washington Consensus and the American Model.
During the past four years of Trump, the ideological differences between China and the US have not narrowed, but expanded, with a trend toward struggle and competition. Under such circumstances, the situation of China-US relations that Biden now faces may be more unfavorable to the US than that under Trump. This will make it difficult for Biden to get rid of Trumpism in his China policy.
Many people think that China-US relations will restore under Biden following historical lows not seen since the 1979. However, damage has been done, and this will be a challenge for Biden to repair.
The new administration will bring some changes to the China-US relationship. However, Trump himself was not the reason, but rather a manifestation and result of deteriorated ties between the world's top two economies. The presidential transition in the US will only change some interactions between Washington and Beijing, but will not alter the essence of their respective directions.
Many people in both China and the US are now inclined to find reasons to hurt ties. Simultaneously, Chinese people should not neglect the influence of China's rise, while Americans should be more introspective about their Cold War mind-set. The US should stop attempting to manipulate China with its diplomacy and policymaking.
Many in the US are too pessimistic about China. They now believe it is another Soviet Union. This has led to their prejudices against China. To them, if Chinese talk tough, it is challenging the world. If Chinese talk soft, then China is carrying on its efforts to deceive the world for its own strategic opportunities. Such cognitive misunderstandings are the biggest dilemma facing China-US relations.
China and the US are clearly in a new era with memories of old times. But many in the public sphere are forgetting the big picture of the great relations that were carefully cultivated since China's reform and opening-up and particularly after China joined the WTO 20 years ago. Scholars and policymakers in both countries should work to form a new definition of China-US relations. After all, China and the US have massive room for cooperation.
To improve their ties, China and the US should work with both hands. One hand should focus on recovering bilateral strategic dialogue mechanisms and high-level direct communication channels to reduce misunderstandings and mistrust. Meanwhile, the other should hold onto people-to-people exchanges. People's relations are the most vital foundation of China-US relations.
(The author is director of Institute of Strategic Studies and International Security, Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance, director of South Asian Studies Center at Fudan University and Professor at the Center for American Studies.)