Chinese Views of Hegemony and Multilateralism in the Biden Era

  • See-Won Byun

Multilateralism was the driving theme of Xi Jinping’s 2021 World Economic Forum (WEF) speech in January, advancing his message there four years ago supporting economic globalization. Addressing post-pandemic global challenges, Xi insisted that “multilateralism should not be used as pretext for acts of unilateralism.” In addition, “differences in history, culture and social system should not be an excuse for antagonism or confrontation, but rather an incentive for cooperation.”1 Emphasizing a universal rules-based global governance system, Xi told Boao Forum partners in April, “what we need in today’s world is justice, not hegemony.” He reminded neighbors, “however strong it may grow, China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.”2 The Chinese state media contextualized President Joe Biden’s first overseas visit to Europe in June: “the old international order in the post-World War II era led by the US has become increasingly unsustainable and a new world order is far from being established, with the global system shifting from unipolar to multipolar.”3 How do Chinese perceptions of the changing world order inform our understanding of Beijing’s external orientation in the Biden era?

The Biden leadership extends Washington’s policy trajectory by identifying “a more assertive and authoritarian China” as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”4 As Chinese observers point out, despite some openings for cooperation, Biden’s China policy leans toward “strategic competition and even confrontation.”5 Rejecting Trump’s unilateralism and explicit attacks on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Biden has chosen alternative tools of multilateralism and engagement with allies for the continued goal of constraining China’s influence. The first US-China talks in March displayed mounting frictions over human rights, Taiwan, cybersecurity, and “economic coercion toward our allies” according to Tony Blinken.6 The US Senate’s 2021 Strategic Competition Act in April signaled bipartisan consensus on a more aggressive China strategy,7 reinforcing debate on China’s response to a changing “hegemonic order.”8

This article assesses Chinese interpretations of the international order in the Biden era, focusing on views of hegemony and multilateralism. It first places these debates within China’s post-Cold War international relations discourse based on Wang Jisi’s review of Chinese worldviews in the 1990s and more recent conceptualization of “two orders” framing US-China relations. Second, it assesses current narratives on hegemony and multilateralism using Chinese academic publications in the first half of 2021. Third, it identifies how these views manifest in US-China interactions under the Biden administration. The concluding section considers prospects for Beijing and Washington’s respective agendas for global engagement.

Views of the Post-Cold War International Order

Conventional structural perspectives frame mainstream Chinese views of the “international order” (国际秩序), as “the most global, long-term, and strategic issue in world politics.”9 Official narratives reject hegemony and favor multilateralism in line with a post-Cold War shift to a multipolar order. In Xi’s post-pandemic world, “there is no fundamental change in the trend toward a multi-polar world; economic globalization is showing renewed resilience; and the call for upholding multilateralism and enhancing communication and coordination has grown stronger.”10 As Xi defined it in January, “multilateralism is about having international affairs addressed through consultation and the future of the world decided by everyone working together.”11 Interpretations of hegemony in this changing structural context have expanded from a primarily military focus to broader forms of expansionist behavior for regional or global dominance. From a Chinese official’s perspective, US “hegemonism” means “not occupying land but promoting its own system and ideology, in an attempt to meet its own national interests through domination of the world.”12 According to Yang Jiechi, multilateralism today prevails over recent pressures of “unilateralism and bullying,” “populism and de-globalization,” and “ideological confrontation.” In China’s pursuit of multilateral diplomacy, “we oppose hegemony and power politics, and oppose any practice of unilateralism in the name of multilateralism.”13

Despite such official claims, China’s multilateralism remains described as “strategic” and “opportunistic.”14 Yang Jiechi made clear in February, “we will resolutely defend our national interests and dignity at multilateral fora when our core and major interests are at stake.”15 Skeptics view China’s multilateral diplomacy as part of counter-hegemonic strategies.16 The “new Chinese multilateralism” that emerged by the 2000s “has to be understood with its combination with multipolarism, the two being used together as a double-track strategy to deal with the United States…and to shape China’s desired future structure of world politics.”17 Xi’s push for global governance reform “is directly linked to counterbalancing the dominance of a liberal-based international order.”18 Especially at the regional level, China-led multilateralism “is an interim arrangement in China’s drive to acquire regional and global dominance.”19

Hegemony and Multipolar Order

Chinese assessments of hegemony and multilateralism have evolved with perceptions of the changing world order. Studies of the post-Cold War order identify a long-term shift to “multipolarization” and persistent threat of “hegemonism,” with a growing emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.20 As Jiang Zemin indicated in 1997, while “the pattern of the world is moving in the direction of multipolarization,” “hegemonism and power politics continue to be the main source of threat to world peace and stability.”21 Academic interpretations of such trends vary in terms of the dimensions and distribution of global power. But this multipolar transition is commonly linked to perceived changes in US power since the 1990s, when “one superpower, several great powers” characterized the international structure according to Chinese official assessments. Views of multipolarization not only assume more global resistance to US demands, but also disagreement within the West favoring alignment with Chinese worldviews.

From a historical cyclical perspective, power, interests, and rules shape the international order’s formation, involving “long-term competition and short-term compromise in the pursuit of common values.”22 Uncertainty over the postwar liberal international order’s future has grown with the clear fragmentation of Western power. China’s position in the existing order is viewed through the lens of US hegemony as the “peak form of Western historical hegemony.”23 US political elites advanced the “hegemonic” Bretton Woods system representing their preferences, successfully managing a domestic isolationist tradition and foreign resistance. With the decline in US relative power, US policy shifted from “accepting” China into this dominant order to “rejecting” it.24 In particular, the United States can no longer accept a rising China as a strategic partner or member of the international system since “democratic discipline” has failed there.25 China’s market transition from 1978 drove both US-China conciliation and eventual discord as China advanced its own economic and political agenda.

“Two Orders” in US-China Relations

Views of US hegemony have varied with shifts in US-China relations since the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which promised that “neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony.”26 While Chinese concerns in the 1990s centered on external threats to Taiwan, domestic political stability, and ethnic minority regions, the scope of contention now extends to economic and technological competition. In addition, the transition from Deng’s “keeping a low profile” principle to Xi’s “striving for achievement” shifts China’s external focus from primarily economic gains to political support, raising questions about the normative dimensions of Chinese grand strategy.27

US-China debates in an evolving world order are primarily about rulemaking. “Two orders” form Wang Jisi’s view of current US-China relations, including the CCP-led domestic order challenged by the United States, and the US-led international order challenged by China. With increased interdependence, the United States frowns on the CCP leadership’s rulemaking at home not just for ideological reasons, but more importantly for the implications for US material interests. Conversely, US rulemaking at the global level threatens Chinese interests. The US quest to “promote global democracy” defies China’s insistence on non-interference and the “democratization of international relations” granting the developing “global majority” a bigger voice.28 Yang Jiechi told Blinken in March, “it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”29

As Wang Jisi argues, “in Sino-US competition and cooperation today, almost everything is connected to the issue of rules.”30 This issue will be the biggest point of future contention, not because the United States fears being displaced by China economically, but because “they are concerned about how they will manage once they have been overtaken.”31 As Wang asked in 1997, “what will China do in global and regional affairs when its international status is enhanced, economic growth sustained, military capabilities improved, and political stability ensured?”32 Current assessments of hegemony and multilateralism offer tentative answers.

Current Views of Hegemony and Multilateralism

A general decline in Chinese academic interest in hegemony over the past two decades has accompanied a growth in interest in multilateralism, at a notably faster rate since 2016. Journal articles with the keyword “hegemonism” (霸权主义) fell in volume by 83 percent in 2000-2016, and became outnumbered by those with “multilateralism” (多边主义) from 2005 during the Hu Jintao administration.33 In both cases, the number of articles more than doubled in 2016-2019. But in 2019-2020, studies on hegemonism declined by 20 percent while those on multilateralism grew by another 49 percent. While the multilateralism literature amounted to 10 percent of hegemonism studies in 2000 by publication volume, by 2020 it was almost five times greater.

A perceived structural shift to a multipolarity contextualizes these trends. From the perspective of China’s international relations theorists like Qin Yaqing, one of the biggest changes in the past century is the end of not just US global hegemony but also hegemony itself as a world order. The current transition to a more pluralistic world of “inclusive multilateralism” points to “a multipolar power structure, multilevel institutional arrangements, and multidimensional ideas.”34 An alternative “one world, two systems” bipolar order lacks the material and institutional conditions for its formation, as well as US and Chinese support. In this changing external environment, China’s participation in global governance has progressed in four stages since the PRC’s founding in 1949: 1) “anti-hegemonic governance” under Mao’s revolutionary diplomacy, 2) “active integration” after reform and opening, 3) “constructive participation,” and 4) the current phase of proposing “Chinese solutions.”35 As Chen Zhimin and Zhang Xueying indicate, China’s global role has shifted from a “revolutionary order-challenger” to a “reformist order shaper.”36 According to Yang Jiechi, Xi’s WEF speech this year embodied the need to “contribute China’s wisdom, visions and solutions.”37

US-China power politics is a defining feature of the 21st century international order.38 Bilateral relations since diplomatic normalization in 1978 have evolved from “strategic coordination” to “strategic competition” under the Trump administration.39 Relations have fluctuated with neoliberalism’s rise and fall in the West. The 2008 financial crisis marked the most recent neoliberal crisis and decline in the US-China power gap, compelling new models for bilateral relations since the Obama administration.40 The competitive direction of US China policy is clear in the post-2008 trend of US economic strategy. According to Chen Yu, bipartisan consensus emerged that “the US economic approach to China does not embed China in the hegemonic system under US leadership,” and instead facilitates China’s rapid growth as a “revisionist” challenger to the US hegemonic order.41

China’s international relations journals at the start of 2021 recognize a critical transition in the US-led liberal international order. Current uncertainty surrounds a new phase of industrial and technological development, intensified major-power competition, globalization backlash, and vast repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Unilateralism, protectionism, and hegemony” present major external threats to the international order.42 Xi Jinping’s project of national revival enters a new stage in 2021, marking the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding and start of China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025). 

Post-Pandemic Debates: National Strategy, Global Governance, and Regional Order

Two shocks to the global economy in 2020 frame current academic debates: the US “global trade war” to maintain “economic hegemony” while withdrawing from multilateralism, and COVID-19.43 As the biggest global non-traditional security shock in a century, COVID-19 catalyzed long-term changes in international strategic relations and US global leadership, placing multilateralism and global governance in a new external setting.44 Under the dual impacts of global health and economic crises, “the international order’s reform and reconstruction is imminent.”45 Specifically, while the United States has become the biggest destructive force by evading its global responsibilities, China has emerged as the biggest stabilizing force by assuming such obligations in line with its capabilities. Current uncertainties reinforce the question of whether unilateralism or multilateralism will prevail. Xi Jinping’s WEF remarks this year favoring multilateralism intensified domestic debate on China’s strategic orientation, the ideological and practical dimensions of global governance reform, and the changing East Asian regional order.46

The historical pattern of the rise of great powers points to four strategic options: 1) protective unilateralism, 2) confrontational unilateralism, 3) centralized multilateralism, and 4) spontaneous multilateralism.47 In China’s case, its distinct advantages and constraints require building centralized multilateral networks in developing regions and a “virtuous economic cycle of internal-external linkages,” as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) currently embodies. As National Development and Reform Commission researchers anticipate, post-pandemic uncertainties will drive China’s continued pursuit of such integration between domestic and international development.48 Other assessments are largely inward looking, proposing change in China’s development model given anti-globalization forces of trade protectionism, shrinking global industrial chains, and multilateralism’s reversal. Such proposals emphasize the expansion of domestic consumer markets, industrial investment, and indigenous technological innovation, as China’s current Five-Year Plan outlines.49

At the global level, the dispute over international rulemaking is a competition between Western and Chinese “legal discourse power,” as shown in enduring South China Sea disputes and recent human rights issues surrounding Beijing’s 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law. In the reshaping of rules, non-binding “soft law” not only has significant meaning but also drives the development of “hard law,” promoting multilateralism’s persistence.50 The debate on relative discourse power in commercial and maritime disputes has sharpened since COVID-19, focused increasingly on reconciling domestic and international legal systems.51 According to Wang Lin, safeguarding national security requires opposing “Western legal hegemony” and a “colonialist legal mentality” in favor of “socialist law with Chinese characteristics.”52 From a cultural perspective of modernization, by promoting the expansion of individual values and decline of social justice, capitalism generates disorder in the form of great-power hegemonism.53

As Xi Jinping warned in Davos, avoiding such a scenario requires a UN-centered global governance system “based on the rules and consensus reached among us, not on the order given by one or the few.”54 China supported the creation of the UN’s “Friends of Neutrality Group for Peace, Security, and Development” last year as a platform for “like-minded partners,”55 exemplifying its commitment to multilateralism unlike the United States. As Yang Jin argues, “contrary to insisting on neutrality, the US repeatedly interferes in internal affairs of other countries…In recent days, it has been working hard to build an anti-China coalition to contain China.” Such behavior shows that “Washington is motivated by the desire to maintain its global hegemony and interests, and implement its “America First” policy.”56

The irrelevance of Cold War-style alignments is most notable in Chinese visions of the changing regional order. East Asia’s transformation from the “hub and spoke” system of US alliances to a “multinodal” one generated a structural discrepancy between the US bilateral model and the region’s multilateral orientation.57 The alliance system’s growing ineffectiveness in responding to regional security threats underscores the need to rebuild an Asian order in line with this multipolar shift. Multilateralism’s rise is clear in the economic domain, where trade protectionism and COVID-19 accelerated the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)’s signing in November 2020. As Chinese leaders claimed, the free trade deal was the biggest “victory for multilateralism” and regional economic integration since the 1990s, and a major opening for advancing China’s domestic reforms and global development model.58

Implications for US-China Relations in the Biden Era

The envisioned trajectory of US-China relations in the Biden era includes continuity, adjustment, and stabilization.59 Most anticipate a return to multilateralism and short-term easing of tensions.60 Widespread criticism of Trump’s unilateralism and enduring “Trumpism” prevails, emphasizing Washington’s “irreversible” competitive turn.61 As Tian Feilong indicates, “the new US-China relationship is centered on competition and conflict,” starting with the trade war and extending to a more comprehensive “new Cold War.” 62 Trumpism catalyzed the long-term qualitative change in bilateral relations, and the Biden leadership may only bring temporary adjustments.

Others project targeted and balanced adjustments with a continuation of Trump’s tough policy tone, urging Beijing to maintain “strategic rationality.”63 Especially given the level of economic interdependence, while “joint containment” with allies may replace “unilateral confrontation,” “conditional cooperation” will replace “direct confrontation.”64 For optimists, the Biden era opens an opportunity for pushing relations “back to the future” rather than “returning to the past” pattern of US China strategy guided by neoliberal ideology.65 The long-term stabilization of bilateral ties depends on building institutional mechanisms for grounding the relationship within this critical timeframe. Multilateralism is not just “the only correct path” of post-pandemic global development, but also requires US-China cooperation.66

The Trump-Biden Transition: Change and Continuity

Biden’s overarching diplomatic goal is to restore US global leadership after the damage of Trumpism, what Zhao Minghao terms a quest to renew the “West” in the face of rising challengers like China and Russia.67 This task relies primarily on reengaging allies, placing values at the center of US foreign policy, and building a “community of democratic nations.” Major-power competition remains a central force, through enhanced deterrence tools like NATO and US technological competitiveness. As Biden pursues post-pandemic cooperation on global health and environmental threats, the United States will only “selectively return” to multilateralism. According to Liu Guozhu, Biden’s national security strategy seeks to not just reverse Trump’s withdrawal from multilateralism but also “dominate the global governance system with US values and principles.”68

The key task of “de-Trumping” domestic and foreign affairs comes with an enduring deterioration in US-China relations. This trend extends to US relations with other major-powers, as evidenced by the “long-term freeze” in US-Russia ties.69 The “misalignment of strategic goals” between the United States and Europe makes it difficult for the Biden administration to restore their traditional alliance.70 But while the waning of the West reflects “European anxiety,” European partners may support the long-term consolidation of multilateralism.71 Soon after RCEP’s signing, the upgrading of ASEAN-EU relations into a strategic partnership at the end of 2020 signified a mutual willingness to uphold multilateralism.72 According to Fu Ying, China and Europe’s “common interest in upholding multilateralism” is especially important at a time when “Europe needs space for independent thinking” amid US-China competition.73

The Biden leadership inherits Trump’s designation of China as a strategic competitor and revisionist power. There are differences in the means of competition including multilateral mechanisms and the US alliance system Biden seeks to revamp. But under current conditions, China will more effectively respond to US strategy and actively shape the relationship. From this perspective, Wu Xinbo identifies three models of interaction in the next four years: 1) an ideal scenario of competition and cooperation, 2) competition-led relations, and 3) the worst-case scenario of competition-conflict.74

While most studies accentuate the second pattern, perceptions of US policy change and continuity in the Biden era depend on issue areas. Preliminary reviews center on four areas: Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, “technological nationalism,” economic competition, and US domestic politics. While domestic concerns remain in rehabilitating the economy, controlling the pandemic, and relieving social grievances, bipartisan consensus reinforces views of continuity on key foreign policy issues.75 Despite Biden’s stronger emphasis on multilateralism, continuity outweighs adjustments in Asia-Pacific security policy, with no substantive actions in the short term on regional economic integration. Trump’s tough policy tone resonates in economic relations with China, and especially science and technology competition. Human rights concerns deflect attention from the United States’ own domestic problems.

Regional Security and Indo-Pacific Strategy

Security alliances are central to perceived US hegemonic strategies. The Asia-Pacific alliance system remains a key tool for containing competitors and maintaining regional order. According to Ling Shengli and Li Hang, to mitigate Trump’s regional policy impact, Biden has moved from “America-first” to an emphasis on common values, and from coercive strategy to institutional mechanisms of coordination.76 While alliance goals increasingly point to global governance, US Indo-Pacific strategy continues to frame regional cooperation.77 Quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India underpins this strategy as a mechanism to contain China’s rise, with major repercussions for China’s bilateral relations with US partners. As Lan Jiang and Jiang Wenyu argue, Biden’s push for the framework’s institutionalization and normalization as a “paramilitary alliance” “poses a serious threat to China’s security environment and national interests.”78 By strengthening the Indo-Pacific multilateral security architecture targeting China, the initiative indicates US efforts to diplomatically isolate China and strategically encircle it. In addition, Quad partners have signaled their intentions to continue targeting China politically and strategically but expand economic relations based on their own interests. According to Chinese ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming, the Quad exemplifies “fake multilateralism” as “a small political circle that excludes and targets a specific country.”79

Shifts in US Asia strategy are perceived in the context of declining US regional hegemony and domestic political factors. While Trump prioritized maintaining US hegemony in the South China Sea, Biden will focus more on cooperating with allies, implementing “Freedom of Navigation Operations,” and accommodating some diplomatic coordination with Beijing.80 In Northeast Asia, Washington will use the Taiwan issue to “strategically contain” China.81 Japan’s foreign policy under the Suga leadership aligns more closely with Biden’s proposals compared to the case during the Trump era. Tokyo will coordinate China policy with Washington by emphasizing “checks and balances” centered on the US-Japan alliance, promoting China threat perceptions and human rights concerns, and adopting a more cautious attitude toward Beijing.82 Although pressure on US-South Korea relations under Trump resulted in renewed agreement on trade, the Moon administration’s “delay tactics” on defense burden-sharing highlight “the initiative of weak countries in the alliance” according to Dong Xiangrong and Zhang Jiawei.83 Under the Indo-Pacific framework, the United States and South Korea will strengthen multilateral cooperation in addition to repairing the bilateral alliance. But the overall consolidation of US alliance relationships in Asia remains susceptible to the influence of domestic politics, as Tang Yanglin and Jiao Jian argue.84

From a broader perspective, the United States’ strategic orientation in the Asia-Pacific is tied to US strategy in other key regions. According to Jin Liangxiang, the reallocation of resources from the Middle East since the Obama administration remains only “partially implemented” due to the region’s significance to US global hegemony and US domestic politics.85 The Biden leadership is likely to adjust the means of allocation by committing hard resources in Asia and diplomacy and aid in the Middle East. Rather than treating them as mutually exclusive, Biden will move from “balancing” to “integrating” US regional strategies as parts of broader global strategy.

Technological Development and Technological Nationalism

US science and technology policy since the Trump administration is a major point of interest.86 For some America experts, relative capabilities in technological innovation are “the decisive factor” in great-power competition.87 Current debate responds to the US National Security Innovation Base since 2017 supporting the Defense Department’s “principle priorities” of “long-term strategic competition with China and Russia.”88 As a “whole of society” approach to promoting emerging technologies, the initiative “embodies a strong trend of technological nationalism and technological security” according to Liu Guozhu and Shi Bowei.89 US competition significantly challenges China as the post-pandemic external environment threatens the global technology supply chain. In Yin Nannan and Liu Guozhu’s view, the US emerging technology governance system in particular “shows obvious protectionism and technological nationalism, obeying and serving its national security strategy.”90 Specifically, the Biden administration is “actively committed to modernizing the US technology governance system and capabilities, and attempting to adopt a multilateral strategy to restrict and block the development of China’s emerging technologies.” While domestic political fragmentation constrains the governance process, US approaches to technology governance at the global level impede international cooperation.

Such views align with broader perceptions of a new “technological nationalism” wave, fueled by the contemporary stage of development, great-power politics, and historical memories of China’s “century of national humiliation.”91 In this context, US hegemony’s impact also extends to internet culture and internet freedom, as shown by the global spread of American culture through technology-driven entertainment products and social media. As Zhou Qiange argues, the internet facilitates “cyber hegemony” in the international competition for discourse power, where the Chinese media confronts the “linguistic and discursive hegemony” of the English language.92

Trade Rules and Economic Competition

Views of US-China economic relations focus on continued trade competition since Trump, and Biden’s emphasis on the American middle class. Despite the cooperative aspects of Biden’s China policy, the main trend of bilateral economic relations “is still fundamental opposition and suppression.”93 As Chen Yu argues, since Trump’s labeling of China as a strategic competitor, the focus of US economic strategy has shifted to “regulating China’s economic competition, aiming to comprehensively contain it.”94 Strategic competition presents a “mutual test” in post-pandemic economic relations in the short term according to Tong Jiaodong and Ju Xin.95 The test for the United States extends to managing multiple “crises” in domestic pandemic control, identity politics, foreign economic policy, and alliance relations. China’s challenges lie in the US “reconstruction of order,” regional integration and the BRI’s development, and intellectual property protection. But the long-term impact of competitive US policy depends on China’s response as well as economic complementarities and mutual interests.96

In the struggle over the reconstruction of international economic institutions, the US “strategic intention to contain China’s development is clear.”97 But in many assessments, the US-China dispute over rules links to their domestic systems as China pursues its own development path. As Zhu Caihua and Liu Rangqun indicate, competition prevails in the form of divergent preferences on WTO reform, and exclusivity in US-led rules “de-Sinicizing” and “stigmatizing” the Chinese system. Such trends may divide the world into two systems of rules and promote the regional rule system’s dominance, requiring China to pursue a more inclusive approach to mitigate US “institutional checks and balances.” While China and the United States will prioritize WTO rules when managing trade conflict, the bilateral trade war is rooted in US domestic constraints according to Peng Yue. The US government has renewed concepts like “embedded liberalism” to shift domestic legal and political constraints to trade partners.98

In contrast to Trump’s unilateralism, Biden’s approach to trade focuses on protecting the interests of American workers while restoring US international leadership. Washington’s tough position on trade is expected to continue in the name of “fair trade” and US “national security.”99 Diao Daming calls Biden’s “middle-class diplomacy” a “compromise” with Trump’s foreign policy, aimed at restoring the United States’ global status while narrowing differences within the Democratic Party.100 Given divergent domestic demands and government interests challenging this agenda, Biden’s foreign policy adjustments may not fully satisfy his overarching goal of serving the American middle class.

Human Rights and US Domestic Politics

US domestic politics similarly frame views of the Biden administration’s approach to human rights, as recently shown in Anchorage, where Yang Jiechi cited the United States’ own “deep-seated” human rights problems and “little confidence” in democracy.101 According to Cui Xiaotao, China is a key target in Biden’s effort to restore America’s values and image, build an “international human rights alliance,” and promote US human rights concepts on multilateral platforms.102 But such pressure confronts a “systemic crisis” at home, the “usual double standards” of US human rights diplomacy, resistance to US “hegemony in the right to speak,” and divergent strategic interests of European allies. The success of US human rights policy depends on resolving America’s domestic crisis reflecting its overall decline.

From Zhao Minghao’s US domestic perspective, “problems like “illiberal populism” in American society cannot be resolved in the short term.” As “Trumpism without Trump” continues to cloud US foreign policy, “the Biden administration will find it difficult to push the United States back into the “liberal international order.””103 As Tian Feilong similarly argues, Trump and Trumpism’s defeat in 2020 was “symbolic” for democratic norms, but “does not mean that Trump’s voters and political spirit have withdrawn from the stage of US history.”104 According to Wang Yinggui and Jiang Qiming, the 2022 midterm elections will shape whether Biden can address current domestic challenges that will also require international cooperation, including the rebuilding of US-China relations.105

The Limits of “Comprehensive Containment” and “Selective Multilateralism”

Biden’s European tour in June was the latest perceived effort to build an “anti-China united front” and promote “the US’ comprehensive containment strategy against China.”106 Guided by “our enduring ideals” and “commitment to multilateralism,” G7 leaders called out China’s “non-market policies and practices” and approach to “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”107 NATO allies reaffirmed, “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”108 For Chinese state media commentators, the G7’s Summit Communique was “the most systematic condemnation against China and interference in the country’s affairs by major Western powers.”109 Its “Build Back Better World” initiative, “a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies,”110 signals “the US intention to maintain hegemony in the world in the post-COVID era.”111 Washington is “politically exploiting” weaker allies in NATO, where “the US wants to create a narrative that equates its own hegemony to the collective strategic advantage of the West.”112

Biden’s top foreign policy priority surfaced in Europe: “to consolidate its alliance network in an attempt to maintain the US’ dominant position in leading the West to confront China.”113 But for many Chinese observers, transatlantic unity masks divergent interests on China. As the G7 agenda shows, while “the US has a strategic plan to maintain its hegemony,” Europe’s “economic relations with China are not only competitive but also have strategic needs for cooperation.”114 The “real problem” facing the United States is “declining competitiveness…China will continue to rise, and the US advantage over China will further shrink.” Since the benefits of cooperating with China outweigh the concerns, “Washington will never be able to transform its hegemonic ambitions into the realization that most of its allies will endure the losses to fight with the US.”115 As Yang Xiyu indicates, US decline also implies that “there has been a decline in the competitiveness of US and Western-led governance.”116 In the post-pandemic transition “from a unipolar to a multipolar structure,” Chinese counterparts doubt the United States can “lead the global system from a position of strength” as Biden promises.117

Expanded economic ties between China and US allies since Biden’s election may challenge his reliance on multilateralism and democratic alliances. Although China’s 2.3 percent growth in 2020 was the slowest in more than four decades, China was the only major economy to grow last year. As the Chinese media points out, the combined size of G7 economies since its establishment in 1975 shrank from 80 percent to 40 percent of global GDP.118 At the 2017 WEF, Xi Jinping asserted the need to “rebalance the process of economic globalization,” in which “China’s development is an opportunity for the world.”119 But for both China and the United States, “domestic affairs come first and foreign affairs are secondary.”120 In Wang Jisi’s model of “co-evolution,” both sides must meet domestic priorities through cooperation and competition, as Henry Kissinger envisioned. As Li Haidong also argues, rather than global leadership, Biden’s biggest question is “how to repair the US’ class antagonism, racial conflict and other domestic problems.”121 Although Xi reminded WEF leaders this year that ““selective multilateralism” should not be our option,” domestic constraints may also reinforce “the limits of socialization” that surfaced in China’s emerging multilateralism in 2000.122 

1. Xi Jinping, “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light Up Humanity’s Way Forward,” World Economic Forum, Davos, January 25, 2021.

2. Xi Jinping, “Pulling Together Through Adversity and Toward a Shared Future for All,” Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, Beijing, April 20, 2021.

3. Chen Qingqing, Xu Keyue and Xu Yelu, “US Turning G7 Into Anti-China, Anti-Russia Chorus ‘Wishful Thinking,’” Global Times, June 6, 2021.

4. The White House, “Renewing America’s Advantages: Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” March 2021, 20, 8.

5. Liu Guozhu, “拜登政府国家安全战略的基本方针与发展方向,” Dangdai Shijie 5 (2021): 50-57.

6. US Department of State, “Secretary Antony J. Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director Yang and State Councilor Wang at the Top of Their Meeting,” Anchorage, March 18, 2021.

7. US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Strategic Competition Act of 2021, April 2021.

8. Beverly Loke, “The United States, China, and the Politics of Hegemonic Ordering in East Asia,” International Studies Review (2021); Rosemary Foot, “China’s Rise and US Hegemony: Renegotiating Hegemonic Order in East Asia?” International Politics 57 (2020): 150-165; Evelyn Goh, “Contesting Hegemonic Order: China in East Asia,” Security Studies 28 (2019): 614-644.

9. Zhou Guiyin, Song Dexing, Liu Feng, Qi Lingling, Mao Weizhun, Zhang Xiaotong, and He Yinghao, “中国与国际秩序笔谈:观念与战略,” Guoji Zhanwang 13-1 (2021): 16-47.

10. Xi, “Pulling Together.”

11. Xi, “Let the Torch.”

12. “US Uses Hegemonic Theory to Smear China,” Global Times, October 30, 2020.

13. Yang Jiechi, “Firmly Uphold and Practice Multilateralism and Build a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind,” February 21, 2021.

14. Scott Kastner, Margaret Pearson, and Chad Rector, China’s Strategic Multilateralism: Investing in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) and “China and Global Governance: Opportunistic Multilateralism,” Global Policy 11-1 (2020): 164-169.

15. Yang, “Firmly Uphold.”

16. Barthelemy Courmont, “Promoting Multilateralism or Searching for a New Hegemony: A Chinese Vision of Multipolarity,” Pacific Focus 27-2 (2012): 184-204.

17. Guoguang Wu and Helen Lansdowne, “International Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics: Attitude Changes, Policy Imperatives, and Regional Impacts,” in . Wu and Lansdowne, eds., China Turns to Multilateralism: Foreign Policy and Regional Security (New York: Routledge, 2008), 7-8.

18. Katherine Morton, “China’s Global Governance Interactions,” in David Shambaugh, ed., China and the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 176.

19. Srikanth Kondapalli, “Regional Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics,” in China and the World, 334, drawing from Liu Qingjian, “挑战, 应对, 构建—中国多边外交探析,” Sixiang Lilun Jiaoyu Daokan 9-81 (2005): 34-41.

20. Wang Jisi, “Multipolarity versus Hegemony: Chinese Views of International Politics,” in Samuel Huntington, ed., Project on Conflict or Convergence: Global Perspectives on War, Peace and International Order, (Cambridge: Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, 1997), 1-20.

21. Jiang Zemin, “Hold High the Great Banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory for an All-Round Advancement of the Cause of Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics into the 21st Century,” Report to the 15th National Congress of the CPC, September 12, 1997.

22. Zhang Hongtao, “建构新时代国际秩序:历史经验的逻辑,” Xueshu Tansuo 3 (2021): 52-60

23. Tian Feilong, “制度变迁视角下的中美新冷战、西方缺失与世界秩序重构,” Dang Zheng Yanjiu 2 (2021): 79-90.

24. Liang Yabin, “美国建立和维持霸权的偏好与方式变化:从接纳到排斥,” Yatai Anquan yu Haiyang Yanjiu 3 (2021): 18-42.

25. Tian, “制度变迁.”

26. “Joint Statement Following Discussions with Leaders of the People’s Republic of China,” Shanghai, February 27, 1972.

27. Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 7-2 (2015): 153-184. For a recent review of Chinese scholarly debates focused on the relationships between the two doctrines, China and the United States, and China and the international system, see Wei Ling, “Striving for Achievement in a New Era: China Debates Its Global Role,” Pacific Review 33-3/4 (2020): 413-437.

28. Wang Jisi, “How China and the US Will Co-Evolve Under “Two Orders,” in Shao Binhong, ed., Reconstructing China’s Participation in the Global Order (Beijing and Lieden: Social Sciences Academic Press and Brill, 2017), 72-73.

29. US Department of State, “Secretary Antony J. Blinken.”

30. Wang, “How China and the US,” 71.

31. Wang, “How China and the US,” 80-81.

32. Wang, “Multipolarity versus Hegemony,” 17.

33. China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) database,

34. Qin Yaqing, “世界秩序的变革:从霸权到包容性多边主义,” Yatai Anquan yu Haiyang Yanjiu 2 (2021): 1-15.

35. Zhu Xu, “中国参与全球治理的政策主张与历史经验,” Xian Jiaotong Daxue Xuebao 41-2 (2021): 111-121.

36. Chen Zhimin and Zhang Xueying, “Chinese Conception of the World Order in a Turbulent Trump Era,” The Pacific Review 33-3/4 (2020): 438-468.

37. Yang, “Firmly Uphold.”

38. Tian, “制度变迁.”

39. Chen Yu, “中美建交以来美国对华经济战略的嬗变(1979-2020),” Guoji Guancha 2 (2021): 85-102.

40. Da Wei and Zhou Wuhua, “回到未来:2020年美国大选与中美关系的机遇,” Meiguo Yanjiu 34-6 (2020): 32-44.

41. Chen, “中美建交.”

42. Chen Zonghai, “世界处于百年未有之大变局的丰富内涵,” Renmin Luntan 2 (2021): 54-56.

43. Li Zhongzhou, “让多边主义发扬光大,以共克时艰,” Kechixu Fazhan Jingji Daokan, 3 (2021): 63.

44. Zhou Fangyun, “后疫情时代国际格局的新变化与新特征,” Dangdai Shijie 4 (2021): 4-10.

45. Zhang Hongtao, “建构新时代国际秩序:历史经验的逻辑,” Xueshu Tansuo 3 (2021): 52-60.

46. For interpretations of Xi Jinping’s January 2021 World Economic Forum speech, see Hou Guanhua, “习近平多边主义重要论述探析,” Lilun Tansuo 2 (2021): 54-60; Feng Weijiang, “维护和践行21世纪的多边主义,” Hongqi Wengao 4 (2021): 41-44; Li Naiya, “让多边主义的火炬照亮人类前行之路,” Hongqi Wengao 4 (2021): 45-47; Xiong Aizong, “达沃斯议程”对话会:以多边主义应对全球挑战” Qizhi 3 (2021): 86-87; Li Zhongzhou, “全球化是多边主义和科技昌荣的结晶,” Kechixu Fazhan Jingji Daokan Z1 (2021): 99; “从习近平两次达沃斯演讲看世界之变,” Zhibu Jianshe 7 (2021): 4-5.

47. Hou Qiyuan, “多边合作与内外联动大循环——兼析中国崛起的两个“两难”抉择,” Shanghai Jingji Yanjiu 5 (2021): 106-116.

48. Jin Ruiting and Zhang Yiting, “促进国内国际双循环面临的外部风险挑战,” Zhongguo Jingmao Daokan 6 (2021): 11-14.

49. Chen Baoguo and Ying Qiuyang, “逆全球化背景下构建经济内循环的现实逻辑和实现路径,” Shihezi Daxue Xuebao 35-1 (2021): 56-62.

50. He Zhipeng and Shen Tianjiao, “国际软法在全球治理中的效力探究,” Xueshu Yuekan 53-1 (2021): 103-116.

51. Xiao Yongping, “后疫情时代更加需要加强国际法的研究与运用,” Speech at the 2nd Seminar of the International Commercial Expert Committee of the Supreme People’s Court and Appointment of New Members of the International Commercial Expert Committee, December 8, 2020.

52. Wang Lin, “总体国家安全观视野下的法律安全与法律霸权,” Zhongguo Xingjing Xueyuan Xuebao 1 (2021):5-12.

53. Yan Jinggao, 现代化的"中国特色"探析 (Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, 2019).

54. Xi, “Let the Torch.” For a recent study of the UN’s central role, see Liu Endong, “大变局下的联合国与全球治理新议题,” Renmin Luntan 12 (2021): 94-97.

55. Zhang Guihong and Wang Yue “中立之友小组”为多边主义提供新动力, 党员文摘,” Dangyuan Wenzhai 1 (2021): 46-48.

56. Yang Jin, “Turkmenistan’s UN Neutrality Bloc Rises Above US Slander of Others,” Global Times, August 30, 2020.

57. Bao Guangjiang, “多节点结构:东亚国际秩序的转型与“轴辐体系”的困境,” Guoji Zhengzhi Yanjiu 42-2 (2021): 42-65.

58. “RCEP的正式签署是多边主义的胜利,” Xiandai Guoqi Yanjiu Z1 (2021): 120-121; Zhang Qi, “全球最大自贸协定RCEP诞生,” Sixiang Zhengzhi Ke Jiaoxue 1 (2021): 37-40.

59. Ni Feng, Fu Mengzi, Tang Yongsheng, and Wang Yong, “拜登时期中美关系前瞻,” Guoji Jingji Pinglun 1 (2021): 102-115.

60. Cui Rong and Cai Shangyou, “拜登入主白宫的十大政策展望,” Guoji Jinrong 3 (2021): 47-56.

61. Li Xiao, Yu Xiao, Wang Da, and Jiang Yang, “新一届美国政府对外政策及影响前瞻笔谈,” Dongbeiya Luntan 30-1 (2021): 3-23.

62. Tian, “制度变迁.”

63. Wang Qiuyi, “美国对华政策转变及中国的战略选择,” Heping yu Fazhan 2 (2021): 83-98.

64. Wang Yinggui and Jiang Qiming, “拜登政府的经济政策与中美经贸关系展望,” Yatai Jingji 2 (2021): 47-54.

65. Da and Zhou, “回到未来.”

66. Li Zhongzhou, “让多边主义发扬光大,以共克时艰,” Kechixu Fazhan Jingji Daokan, 3 (2021): 63.

67. Zhao Minghao, “重新找回“西方”:拜登政府的外交政策构想初探,” Meiguo Yanjiu 34-6 (2020): 45-64.

68. Liu, “拜登政府.”

69. Li Guanqun and Ren Zijun, “拜登政府的俄美关系走势及其全球性影响” Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi Luntan 3 (2021): 127-141.

70. Zhao Huaipu, “拜登政府与美欧关系修复的空间及限度,” Dangdai Shijie 2 (2021): 18-24.

71. Tian, “制度变迁.”

72. Yang Yue, “多边主义的胜利:东盟与欧盟伙伴关系升级,” Shijie Zhishi 1 (2021): 26-27.

73. Fu Ying, “How China Views Multilateralism,” Euractiv, May 20, 2021.

74. Wu Xinbo, “拜登执政与中美战略竞争走向,” Guoji Wenti Yanjiu 2 (2021): 34-48.

75. Zhu Feng, Ding Chun, Yang Cheng, Mao Ruiping, Tang Bei, Liu Hongzhong, and Sun Haiyong, “拜登政府执政后的重大国际问题笔谈,” Guoji Zhanwang 13-2 (2021): 1-26.

76. Ling Shengli and Li Hang, “拜登政府的亚太联盟政策探析,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi 4 (2021): 19-27.

77. See Joe Biden, Narendra Modi, Scott Morrison, and Yoshihide Suga, “Our Four Nations are Committed to a Free, Open, Secure and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2021.

78. Lan Jiang and Jiang Wenyu, ““拜登政府的美日印澳四方安全合作构想述评,” Nanya Dongnanya Yanjiu 2 (2021): 16-36.

79. Ahn Sung-mi, “Korea-US Alliance Should Not Take Aim at China: Chinese Envoy,” The Korea Herald, May 30, 2021.

80. Zhong Feiteng, “理解美国南海政策转变的三个维度——霸权衰落、权力转移与美国国内政治,” Renmin Luntan-Xueshu Qianyan 3 (2021): 83-91

81. Tang Yanlin and Jiao Jian, “拜登政府的东北亚政策与东北亚地区关系走向,” Riben Yanjiu 1 (2021): 1-8.

82. Xu Wansheng and Ding Haomiao, “拜登当选背景下日本对华政策回顾与前瞻,” Heping yu Fazhan 1 (2021): 18-36.

83. Dong Xiangrong and Zhang Jiawei, “印太框架下的韩美合作走向,” Dangdai Shijie 2 (2021): 31-38.

84. Tang and Jiao, “拜登政府.”

85. Jin Liangxiang, “从平衡到整合:拜登政府兼顾亚太和中东的战略展望,” Xiya Feizhou 2 (2021): 26-46.

86. Fun Chunliang, “变动时期美国科技政策发展的逻辑和走向——从特朗普到拜登,” Zhongguo Keji Luntan 5 (2021): 1-13.

87. Liu Guozhu and Shi Bowei, “大国竞争时代美国科技创新战略及其对中国的挑战——以国家安全创新基地为中心,” Shehui Kexue 5 (2021): 21-40.

88. US Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” 4.

89. Liu and Shi, “大国竞争时代.”

90. Yin Nannan and Liu Guozhu, “美国新兴技术治理的理念与实践,” Guoji Zhanwang 13-2 (2021): 103-119.

91. Shi Lichun, “当代中国技术民族主义思潮的兴起及应对研究,” Sixiang Lilun Jiaoyu 1 (2021): 41-46.

92. Zhou Qiange, “以媒介文化视角管窥网络文化中的霸权主义,” Xinwen Yanjiu Daokan 12-2 (2021): 76-77.

93. He Weiwen, “中美经贸关系短期难以实现根本好转,” Guoji Jingji Hezuo 2 (2021): 4-13.

94. Chen, “中美建交.”

95. Tong Jiadong and Ju Xin, “拜登时期中美战略竞争态势、挑战与应对——基于双边经贸关系视角,” Guoji Jingji Pinglun 3 (2021).

96. He, “中美经贸关系.”

97. Zhu Caihua and Liu Rangqun, “中美博弈对国际经贸规则体系重构的影响,” Taipingyang Xuebao 29-4 (2021): 1-14.

98. Peng Yue, “中美贸易战的美国法根源与中国的应对,” Wuhan Daxue Xuebao 74-2 (2021): 147-159.

99. Sheng Bin and Sun Tianhao, “美国贸易政策评析与中美经贸关系展望,” Dangdai Meiguo Pinglun 5-1 (2021): 1-14.

100. Diao Daming, “拜登政府的“中产阶级外交”,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi 4 (2021): 10-18.

101. US Department of State, “Secretary Antony J. Blinken.”

102. Cui Xiaotao, “拜登政府的人权政策:动向、特点与困境,” Tongyi Zhanxian Xue Yanjiu 5-3 (2021): 99-108.

103. Zhao, “重新找回“西方”.”

104. Tian, “制度变迁.”

105. Wang and Jiang, “拜登政府.”

106. “G7 Communique Makes a Show But Chinese Don’t Buy It: Global Times Editorial,” Global Times, June 14, 2021; “Biden to Gain Little from ‘Geopolitical Feast’ in Europe,” Global Times, June 9, 2021.

107. “Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communique: Our Shared Agenda for Global Action to Build Back Better,” June 13, 2021.

108. “Brussels Summit Communique,” June 14, 2021.

109. “G7 Communique Makes a Show but Chinese Don’t Buy It: Global Times Editorial,” Global Times, June 14, 2021.

110. The White House, “Fact Sheet: President Biden and G7 Leaders Launch Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership,” June 12, 2021.

111. Song Lin, “G7 Infrastructure Plan Can Hardly Rival BRI,” Global Times, June 14, 2021.

112. “NATO Countries Shouldn’t Be Politically Exploited by Washington,” Global Times, June 15, 2021.

113. Chen et al., “US Turning G7.”

114. “G7 Communique Makes a Show.”

115. “Biden to Gain Little.”

116. Chen et al., “US Turning G7.”

117. Ibid.

118. “Biden to Gain Little.”

119. Xi, “Jointly Shoulder.”

120. Wang, “How China and the U.S.,” 74.

121. Chen et al., “US Turning G7.”

122. Xi, “Let the Torch;” Hongying Wang, “Multilateralism in Chinese Foreign Policy: The Limits of Socialization,” Asian Survey 40-3 (2000): 475-491.
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