Recent efforts by the Biden administration to engage with Beijing have been little short of a disaster. A visit by deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman in July was met with two Chinese lists of demands for US policy changes. John Kerry, Biden’s climate change envoy, traveled to Beijing a month later and received a clear message that the cooperation he sought on global warming was not going to happen due to US hostility. Washington’s hope of a leadership summit between Biden and president Xi Jinping appears improbable, though they may hold a virtual meeting before the end of the year. It is almost certain that Xi will not attend the G20 Summit in Rome in person, and there is almost no discussion in China that he will travel to Glasgow for the COP26 climate meeting.
Many in China have described the current state of US-China relations as a stalemate. They say Biden has adopted a path no more confrontational or cooperative than his predecessor, while maintaining the focus on competition. The real wrench in the works stems from the two completely different approaches to how the superpowers want to engage.
Biden’s approach is to deal with the different issues with China separately, or “compartmentalized.” The pursuit of competition, cooperation and confrontation with Beijing are being run in parallel. This approach fundamentally conflicts with the Chinese view that discussions should be interconnected across all areas, ie, through “issue linkage.” Without addressing this fundamental conflict, Washington’s desire for a relationship based on “responsible competition” may not transpire.