“The November 2022 Summits”
A View from the US
President Joseph Biden played a prominent leadership role at the summit of the COP-27 in Egypt, the ASEAN and ASEAN-led regional summits in Cambodia, and the G20 summit in Indonesia against the background of substantial accomplishments in domestic and foreign affairs enhancing US international influence, including leverage against China. The achievements were adverse for China in wide-ranging competition with the United States. They reinforced circumstances explaining Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s remarkable reversal of his past refusal to accept longstanding Biden government offers to negotiate guardrails bounding rising US-China rivalry unless the US met Chinese preconditions for improved relations. Meeting with Biden at the G20 on November 14, Xi agreed with the US president to advance such communications.
China followed the shift with a sometimes-awkward public relations effort to show a more benign and flexible approach to several recently alienated, western-aligned governments. The new posture contrasted starkly with recent Chinese practice, notably the repeated harsh warnings of Chinese struggle against foreign opponents in Xi’s lengthy authoritative report to the Chinese party congress in October. The improved US-China dialogue reduced what was arguably the most important concern among Asian and other leaders at the summits—the danger of escalating US-China conflict.
Biden has an advantage in having built personal rapport in oft-repeated in-person meetings with most of the G20 leaders. And he showed flexibility in considering opposing positions of leaders such as Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, and even engaging in substantive discussion with very authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Cambodia. In contrast, Xi Jinping came to the summits with little in-person experience with most leaders over the past three years. His message of struggle and resolute resistance at the party congress and firm Chinese policies on COVID restrictions and economic self-reliance underlined a rigid and uncompromising image reinforced by Xi’s aloof personality. Chinese media claimed that Xi actively “worked the room” in interactions with foreign leaders at the G20, but he reportedly skipped the Indonesian leader’s “bonding” experience for the visitors in dressing up in matching outfits to plant trees in a nearby forest park, and his schmoozing at the conference included a widely publicized unpleasant encounter with the Canadian prime minister and snubbing the British prime minister.
Meanwhile, the summit participants’ widespread concern with climate change saw Biden claim American world leadership at the COP-27 summit, based on the passage in August of the Inflation Reduction Act, which has $369 billion in climate change efforts. In contrast, China solidified its position as the largest emitter of green house gases, Xi Jinping was notable for not attending the summit, and in recent months China blocked climate change talks with the US until the US met Chinese preconditions.
International media also highlighted Biden’s claim that the results of the American mid-term elections supported US leadership on climate, Ukraine, and Asian issues. The results reportedly reassured concerned US allies and partners and admonished US opponents that America’s democratic system was resilient in the face of challenges from former president Donald Trump and his supporters claiming widespread election fraud leading to the dramatic mob attack on the US Capitol in January 2021. The mid-term election results showed voters seeking moderation with few supporters of Trump’s extreme views gaining high office.
Understanding US Strengthening Against China—2022
American success in competition with China for international leadership reflects the careful measures by administration leaders working with bipartisan majorities in Congress to strengthen US capacities at home and abroad for dealing with China’s many serious challenges. The hardening against China has been driven since its outset in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy in December 2017 by the so-called Washington Consensus, featuring bipartisan majorities in Congress working closely with Trump and Biden administration officials in a years-long overall hardening of US policy by creating a “whole of government” effort to counter Beijing’s very serious security, economic, and governance challenges.1 Since 2018, two challenges have been seen as existential threats to fundamental American national security and well-being: the Chinese efforts to (1) undermine US power and influence in and dominate Asia; and (2) seek dominance in the high technology industries of the future. Such dominance would make America subservient to Chinese economic power, and because such technology is essential to modern national security, subservient to Chinese military power.
This Washington Consensus emerged “inside the beltway” without significant media attention or public support until the coincidence of COVID-19 hitting America with a vengeance coincided with the 2020 election campaign featuring harsh attacks against China, particularly by Trump. Previously ambivalent about China, incoming president Biden adopted systematic and carefully crafted approaches involving strengthening at home and working closely with allies and partners abroad to deal with China from a position of strength. In this way, they endeavored to create circumstances that would prompt Chinese leaders to see the wisdom in more accommodating and less assertive practices in foreign affairs important to the United States.
Events in 2022 had the potential to divert administration attention from the China threats. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made Europe the focus of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, the overall impact strengthened US resolve to counter China. The United States found NATO, the European Union, many European powers as well as Canada, New Zealand and South Korea now more inclined to align with the United States in dealing with the danger posed by China as well as Russia. The ongoing conflict substantially weakened Russian military, economic, and international power and influence. The result worked to the advantage of the United States in countering the power and influence of China and Xi Jinping, who was closely aligned and significantly dependent on his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as a like-minded authoritarian endeavoring to undermine the United States and its international influence.
Another important diversion came as China created acute tensions in the Taiwan Strait with four days of unprecedented and provocative military exercises surrounding the island in response to the visit to Taiwan by congressional leader Nancy Pelosi on August 2. In the United States, debate over the Pelosi visit and the Chinese show of force for several weeks gave greater prominence to differences among Americans over US policy toward China and Taiwan.
On one side of the US debate was the Washington Consensus of administration and congressional leaders featuring continued hardening to defend America from China’s challenges. On the other side of the US debate were many China and foreign policy specialists and commentators in the US, along with large business and investment firms and universities and their high technology specialists with strong institutional and personal interests in close collaboration with China. In broad terms, they opposed the US hardening toward China as based on an excessive view of Chinese challenges, counterproductive for American economic development and innovation, and increasing the danger of US-China war. They sought an overall US relationship with China acceptable to both sides, often stressing the need to reassure China.
As it turned out, the debate soon subsided with no notable impact on US policy. There were repeated reassurances for Taiwan, including Biden’s public declaration that he would defend Taiwan if attacked by China, and Congress doubled down on delegations to Taiwan and legislative support. The administration underlined toughness toward China in launching in October strict restrictions on US advanced computer chip technology to China, seeking to undermine China’s high technology advances across an array of major industries.
Meanwhile, US domestic strengthening targeting China made major progress. After protracted deliberations lasting over a year, a compromise was approved in July on a $280 billion Chips and Science Act, which supports US competition with China in high technology industries and military forces dependent on high technology. 17 Republican senators and 24 Republican representatives voted for the bill. And in August, Congress passed a long stalled $369 billion climate and tax package labeled the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. In terms of China policy, the bill favored electric autos made in the United States rather than China and favored battery and other components coming from the United States and its allies, excluding China. As noted above, the bill raised the US profile on climate change deliberations, putting China, the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions, on the defensive.
At present, Chinese diplomats and commentary are working overtime to highlight the recent more positive and accommodating image of Xi Jinping in dealing with the United States and other alienated powers. Diplomats go to great lengths in long private meetings to persuade skeptical Americans that Xi’s Party Congress report did not highlight struggle against the United States and other adverse forces at home and abroad but focused on peaceful development for all. Foreign Minister Wang Yi put aside his past common practice of giving the US side lists of requirements to improve relations before China would agree to move forward with US calls for talks to establish guardrails allowing the two powers to manage rising tensions without war or confrontation. Wang notably gave four such lists to Secretary of States Antony Blinken in a meeting in August. In an ironic about-face, Wang’s remarks at a press conference after the Biden-Xi summit were effusive in praising China’s flexibility and in an apparent allusion to US practice criticized those “drawing up a laundry list of demands.” How flexible Xi’s China is prepared to be in dealing with the United States and related issues is hard to discern, though the Chinese leader’s tough handling of Canada and Great Britain at the G20 suggest strong limits on accommodation
Anticipated policy actions on the US side are clearer in demonstrating stronger likelihood that tensions in US-China relations will rise than that the recent greater communications between the United States and China will significantly change acute Sino-American rivalry. As noted, the Washington Consensus effort to defend America from serious Chinese challenges has strong momentum. It is forecast to advance US relations with Taiwan and in other areas sensitive to China and to block heretofore easy access enjoyed by Chinese entities and individuals to economic benefits from the United States. Such US behavior very likely will result in negative Chinese reactions, raising overall tensions in the relationship.
Most immediate are various legislative provisions strengthening US support for Taiwan and targeting China in the National Defense Authorization Act which must pass the Congress and be approved by the president before the end of the year in order to allow for continued US defense spending. And the Biden government backed by Congress also is likely to follow its efforts to cripple Chinese access to high technology to make advanced computer chips with potential dual use by taking steps to curb the continuing very large US financial investments in China supported by major US banks and financial investment companies. Adding to the mix, the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives is highlighting many areas for actions targeting Chinese behavior.
Meanwhile, there are significant gaps in American efforts to counter Chinese challenges that US officials in the administration and Congress will need to address. These involve careful oversight of the billions to be spent on high technology innovation to ensure that US-funded breakthroughs are not passed to Chinese authorities. And one lesson of the Chinese show of force after the Pelosi visit to Taiwan was that American support for Taiwan will require much greater military involvement as well as economic and diplomatic interaction sure to get the attention of Beijing leaders.
Strengthening US efforts to broaden and deepen alignments against Chinese advances in Asia and the world also seem likely. The Biden administration will build on its growing cooperation with like-minded leaders in Australia, Japan, and India to counter Chinese advances in Asia and elsewhere. And it will indirectly benefit from US leadership in supporting Ukraine against Putin’s Russia backed by China to build on the change among leading European powers, NATO, the EU, and Canada to guard against Chinese expansionism in Asia and in other areas of importance. US and allied military shows of force in the South China Sea, near Taiwan, and possibly elsewhere seem likely. China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands and its dramatic effort to create a much broader regional footprint involving ten Pacific Island countries mobilized the United States and its regional and European allies to pursue a variety of means to counter China.
Also important is the Biden government’s strong promise to deepen relations in Southeast Asia as the United States government faces an uphill effort to end the widely perceived American decline as China has risen as the leading economic power there. Beijing remains vigilant against US advances, which are seen as challenging China’s success in building regional dependence on China economically and stoking regional fear of Chinese retribution if they take positions siding with America in ways that would offend China.
As 2022 nears an end, the US view of the results of November’s summits is remarkably upbeat. While they appeared to put a floor under the rapid fall in Sino-US relations, they actually boosted US confidence that it could manage further decline. China’s image has taken a hit, US policy and diplomacy have gathered momentum, and Washington appears better prepared than it has been in a long time to sustain a long-term strategy for China.
1. Robert Sutter, “Congress Is More Important Than Ever in US China Policy,” The Diplomat, January 22, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/congress-is-more-important-than-ever-in-us-china-policy/