Is Biden playing Deng’s card against Xi?

February 04, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

The inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States has been welcomed in Beijing but Chinese officials are increasingly impatient that Washington has not enunciated a new China policy.

At a foreign ministry press conference held the day after the inauguration, Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying acknowledged that “as I watched the fireworks display and heard the crowd cheering at the inauguration party, I did feel somewhat emotional.”

“We wish President Biden every success in state governance,” she added.

But, while understanding Biden’s focus on the domestic situation, particularly the need to control the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country, Chinese officials are clearly disappointed that he doesn’t seem to be thinking of China and did not mention China during his inaugural address.

They have asserted that unity, his solution for domestic discord, would work equally well to heal relations between China and the United States.

In Washington, Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, in a speech last month that while China wished the United States “success in building unity, in healing and in restoration,” it also “hoped that integrity, candor, respect and vision will return to its China policy.”

While Chinese officials call for the United States to “meet China halfway,” it is clear that Washington will have to do all the traveling if the two are to reach an accommodation.

As foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Jan. 26, “the Trump administration went in a very wrong direction,” regarding China as a “strategic competitor” and even a “threat.”

“We hope the new U.S. administration will draw lessons from the Trump administration’s wrong policies on China,” he added, and “focus on cooperation, manage differences, and bring China-U.S. relations back on the right track of sound and stable development.”

China, it seems, bears no responsibility for the crisis in the Taiwan Strait, the obscene deterioration of the so-called “one country, two systems” policy pledged to last for 50 years in Hong Kong, the border tension with India, its early mishandling of the coronavirus, which has now claimed millions of lives around the world and its increasing authoritarianism within the country.

In China’s view, it seems, any bilateral relationship that goes wrong is the fault of the other party. China is always right. Given such an attitude there can be no negotiation, only abject surrender to China.

While Biden has quickly reversed some of his predecessor’s actions, such as returning to the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, it hasn’t openly tackled the relationship with China.

This doesn’t mean the administration’s stance on China is unclear. Its distaste for China has been made clear by the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and other key officials.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a briefing that the Biden administration intends to use “some strategic patience” in dealing with China.

She also said the administration was eager to hold discussions with allies as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress to assess how to move forward in relations with the world's second-largest economy.

That is to say, the United States will take its time to formulate its policy on China and Beijing will just have to be a little patient and wait. The Biden administration won’t allow itself to be stampeded into action.

But, as Psaki made clear, the new administration had already come to certain conclusions about China, and a key one is that “strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century.”

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, took part in a discussion Jan. 29 involving several former occupants of his post. He said that, in order to be able to deal with the challenges the United States faces, including that of China, the climate crisis, the pandemic and future pandemics, “we have to put ourselves in a position of strength.”

That, Sullivan said, is the “fundamental early work” of the administration, beginning with domestic renewal and investment in allies and reestablishing America’s place in critical international institutions.

Until then, it may not feel ready to take any formal action, such as promulgate a new China policy. In a sense, this is similar to Deng Xiaoping’s policy for Beijing to “bide its time” and not be in a hurry.

The west, it is often said, is always in a rush while the east, namely China, is patient. Now, the shoe may be on the other foot. President Xi Jinping wants Biden to come up quickly with a new China policy, and the United States, for a change, is calling for patience.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.