The United States-China relationship is complex. As Secretary Blinken stated, “the relationship between the United States and China is arguably one of the most important we have in the world.” Cooperation with China will be necessary to address some of our most pressing existential threats, like climate change. But some issues will require the United States to push back on China, including China’s human rights violations.
The Trump administration took an adversarial approach to the United States’ relationship with China, moving away from the previous strategy of integration and inclusion that had been the norm during the Obama administration. On the campaign trail, President Trump frequently invoked China as the reason for disappearing American manufacturing jobs. When he assumed office, President Trump began a trade war with China. Ultimately, the Trump Administration reached what it described as a phase one trade deal that included Chinese pledges to purchase more American farm, energy, and manufactured goods, as well as addressing some U.S. complaints about intellectual property practices. But the costs of the deal have largely ended up outweighing the good. The trade war that led to the agreement significantly hurt the U.S. economy while doing little to solve the economic concerns that it was intended to resolve. China also exploited the Trump administration’s desperation to reach a deal, recognizing that as long as a trade deal was on the table, the Trump administration would look the other way as China sought to advance its interests abroad and continued to engage in human rights violations at home.
of Americans view China as a global “competitor,” while just 9 percent view it as a “partner.”
The Trump administration also fell into the trap of focusing on China’s military threat to the United States. In particular, the Trump administration invoked China’s nuclear arsenal as an excuse to embrace reckless nuclear policies. A Trump administration official threatened to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” to win an arms race. The Trump administration also reportedly considered conducting nuclear tests for the first time in decades in part to counter China. Being drawn into military competition with China would be devastating for the U.S. and upend international norms. While competition with China may be necessary in some realms, military competition is not necessary nor a smart approach.
Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has stressed that the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order” comes from China. As Secretary Blinken said in a recent speech, “We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War. To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.” The Biden administration has instead offered a strategy of “invest, align, and compete” to push back on China without fostering unnecessary rancor.
This largely follows the strategy the Biden administration has laid out since its beginning. Soon after President Biden’s inauguration, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary Blinken traveled to Anchorage, Alaska to meet with their Chinese counterparts, the first high-level meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials under the Biden-Harris administration. The strained relationship between the two countries became strikingly evident during the meetings, with U.S. officials expressing concerns over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and China criticizing the state of U.S. democracy. During his opening remarks, Sullivan emphasized that while the U.S. hopes to work with China and does not want to “seek conflict,” the U.S. does “welcome stiff competition” and “will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends,” issuing a clear warning that the U.S. will react accordingly to any threats issued by China.
The Biden administration kept in place the Trump administration’s designation of China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the province of Xinjiang as a genocide. To that effect, in December 2021 President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to prohibit imports made of products made by forced labor in Xinjiang. Customs and Border Patrol began enforcement of the Act in June 2022.
The Interim National Security Guidance, released by the Biden-Harris administration in March 2021, also highlighted the U.S.’ complex relationship with China. Apart from outlining the threats posed by China, the document also emphasized the need to restore U.S. credibility and global leadership in order to “ensure that America, not China, sets the international agenda…to shape new global norms and agreements that advance our interests and reflect our values.”
In May 2021, President Biden signed the bipartisan COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. While the bill contained a number of constructive provisions, it was criticized by many for not doing enough. Moreover, hate crimes against Asian Americans have continued. As competition with China continues, the U.S. must redouble its efforts to break the historical cycle of bigotry and xenophobia.
While the Biden-Harris administration has made countering China’s rising global authoritarianism a key focus, the administration has also highlighted climate change as a possible area of cooperation between the two countries. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry traveled to China in April 2021, marking the first official visit to China by a top Biden-Harris official, to discuss global efforts to combat global warming.
Congress can play a critical role in the U.S.-China relationship, ensuring that the United States is both equipped to work with our allies to compete with China where necessary and prepared to work with China on shared challenges and existential threats. Call your members of Congress at 202-224-3121 and tell them to: