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America, China, and the Virtue of Low Expectations

In the days since U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s highly anticipated visit to Beijing this month, many commentators have lamented the paltry results of the trip. Although it was the first visit to China by a U.S. secretary of state in five years and Blinken was even accorded an audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the trip did not yield any major breakthroughs or changes in relations between the two countries. Nor were there signs that either side was altering its basic strategic assessment of the other.

Yet the lack of dramatic breakthroughs or grand gestures may be precisely the point. By now, it is clear that there will not be any reset or major thaw in U.S-China relations in the coming months. Neither side will forgo competitive actions or reduce efforts to shore up defenses against the other. Instead, this period will demand what former Secretary of State George Shultz referred to as “constant gardening”: both sides will need to develop contacts and clarify mutual intentions with the patient knowledge that such efforts will put both sides in a stronger position to manage stresses and explore opportunities for common cause on narrow areas of shared concern.  

Rather than stirring unreasonable hopes of a U.S.-Chinese rapprochement, then, the modest framing of the Blinken trip could offer an effective template for dealing with Beijing in the months to come. For the Biden administration, keeping expectations low—even as it works to reduce risk of conflict and search for a shared agenda with China—will be crucial in breaking the downward trajectory of relations between Washington and Beijing.

At present, the U.S.-Chinese relationship is neither improving nor deteriorating. Nor is it locked into a preset or linear trajectory. The relationship is in an exploratory period. This means that although prospects for a major breakthrough are slim, Biden and Xi can take advantage of contacts to give direction to the relationship. They will have occasions to meet this fall when they attend the G-20 summit in New Delhi in September and the gathering of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders in San Francisco in November. These dialogues will be teed up by a series of exchanges between the two leaders’ key advisers, including, on the U.S. side, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and John Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate.

To take maximum advantage of these contacts, Washington must have clarity about its objectives and a plan for achieving them. Among the measures of strategic success for the United States this fall would be a reduction in the risk of conflict, a shared commitment on both sides to shrink the space for strategic miscalculation, and an increase in Chinese contributions to addressing global challenges. Such an outcome would strengthen Washington’s ability to manage inescapable competition with Beijing without conflict, and it would bring tangible benefits for health and prosperity in the United States.

Even amid renewed contacts, progress is far from inevitable.

Arriving at a more durable and productive bilateral relationship would serve both countries’ long-term interests. Even amid renewed contacts, however, such progress is far from inevitable. To move toward more functional relations, Washington and Beijing will need to build a shared agenda that adds common purpose to an otherwise strained relationship. And they will need to avoid several pitfalls.

Above all, the two sides will need to set the bar low. Unrealistic expectations will be the enemy of progress. For example, neither side is going to acknowledge the errors of its ways and take corrective actions to remedy the downward spiral in relations. There will not be any meeting of the minds on principles to guide relations or on a common framework for describing the nature of the relationship. There will not be a full reopening of military-to-military channels of communication. If expectations to the contrary get built and then go unmet, it will embolden opponents of direct diplomacy in both countries, leading them to accuse their leaders of getting caught in an engagement trap: critics will charge that Beijing and Washington are getting locked into an interminable series of bilateral meetings that have become a substitute for actions to strengthen defenses against the other. Such a scenario would bring louder calls in Washington to discard diplomacy with Beijing altogether and instead pursue a strictly punitive agenda to arrest China’s overall development.


Even if Washington and Beijing successfully manage expectations, other possible pitfalls lie ahead. It is foreseeable that each side will take actions in the coming months that may frustrate the other side. China’s leaders are currently focused on hardening their country against Western pressure, just as U.S. policymakers are accelerating efforts to limit their country’s vulnerabilities relating to China. The true test will be whether policymakers will be able to manage those stressors through careful diplomacy, or induce retaliation.  

Moreover, the U.S. government and the Chinese leadership will not be friendly toward each other any time soon. The two sides have differing political and economic frameworks and competing global visions. At the same time, there is no permanence in international relations. Past adversaries of the United States, such as Japan and Germany, are now its closest partners. Leaders in both Washington and Beijing must remain modest about their ability to forecast the future. In other words, neither side should foreclose the possibility of a shift in relations, however unimaginable it seems now.

To avoid strategic miscalculation, American and Chinese leaders will need to resist the temptation to reach for historical analogies to make sense of the current moment. At present, there are no forces driving the relationship toward a “Guns of August” moment, in which diplomatic blunders and misguided assumptions about the opposing side led to the catastrophic outbreak of war in 1914. Similarly, the United States and China are not testing each other through proxy wars or similar such tests of will in a repeat of the early years of the Cold War.

There is no historical parallel to the current dynamic between China and the United States. The world is confronted with heightened tensions between two nuclear-armed, heavily militarized major powers who simultaneously share deep economic, environmental, and social interdependencies. A series of decisions by leaders in both countries have led the relationship to this state of growing rivalry, just as decisions by leaders in both countries will determine the direction of relations going forward.

Xi’s big bet on Russia as a bulwark against Western pressure looks less promising now.

In the current political climate, each leader may be tempted to use the other to gain political advantage at home. In February, Biden taunted Xi during his State of the Union address, arguing that no leader would want to trade places with the Chinese leader because of the scale of the problems that China confronts. And just days after Blinken’s visit this month, Biden described Xi at a political fundraiser as a “dictator” who had been unaware that a spy balloon was traversing the United States before it was shot down, a comment that caused purposeless friction with Beijing. In turn, Xi has deflected Chinese anger about mounting domestic problems by blaming the United States and its partners for seeking to “contain, encircle, and suppress” China. If the bilateral relationship remains hostage to domestic political requirements in both countries, there will be a low ceiling for how much progress is possible in forging a more durable relationship.

To avoid this pitfall, both Biden and Xi will need to gain confidence in their understanding of the other’s requirements. In practice, this means recognizing that Xi has his own imperatives for seeking to lower tension with the United States without appearing to compromise or soften his stance toward Washington in the process. Xi is facing sagging economic growth, a real estate crisis, mounting local government debt, rising youth unemployment and declining productivity at home, and tighter coordination between the United States and a large majority of developed countries on issues relating to China. Xi’s big bet on Russia as a bulwark against Western pressure also looks less promising in light of the recent rebellion by Wagner paramilitary forces. If Putin’s standing unravels from within, it could cause China to seek to reduce strategic stress with the United States, as long as Washington avoids actions that could be perceived by Beijing as exploiting its growing vulnerabilities.

In other words, now is an inopportune time for Xi to provide an impetus to the United States and its partners to ratchet up economic, technological, or financial pressure on his country. Biden, likewise, is entering a political season in which he will want to demonstrate competent management of U.S. competition with China. This would allow him to contrast his administration favorably with that of his presumptive presidential opponent in the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

Finally, U.S. and Chinese policymakers need to avoid getting bogged down in debates over “guardrails” and principles for managing the relationship. Xi believes that China can survive by seeking security through struggle and risks perishing if it seeks security through compromise. Against this backdrop, any American pursuit of Chinese assurances that U.S. military forces can safely operate near China’s shores would willfully disregard the incentives that Chinese officials face to limit that access. If U.S. officials want to lower risk, they should instead offer concrete proposals on issues requiring reciprocal restraint, such as proposing that neither country should ever allow a system guided by artificial intelligence to launch a nuclear warhead. It would serve both sides’ interests to build toward an international norm in which decisions on a nuclear launch reside only in the hands of humans.  


It will also be imperative for the two sides to develop a common agenda that could give purpose to their relationship. Such efforts would not offset or balance the competitive dynamics between China and the United States, which are long-standing and structural. But identifying and acting upon shared interests would broaden the relationship beyond the current narrow focus on areas of contestation. For example, both countries benefit from peace and stability in the Middle East and a reduction of threats emanating from the region. They have a shared interest in preventing Iran from achieving nuclear breakout. Both Washington and Beijing also benefit from energy and food security, each for its own reasons: China is the world’s largest importer of fuel and food, and the United States is struggling to bring down stubbornly high inflation.

Leaders in Washington and Beijing also understand that the war in Ukraine will not end on the battlefield and that the country’s postwar needs will be immense. Given its unique leverage with Moscow, Beijing would be likely to play a role in any peace process, including as a guarantor of any comprehensive cease-fire agreement or cessation of hostilities. China would also likely be called upon to contribute to Ukraine’s rebuilding.

For Washington, the point is simply to leverage Xi’s craving for recognition as a world leader.

Of course, Beijing’s motivations for engaging with the West on Ukraine may be driven more by a desire to improve relations with Europe than with the United States. That is fine. For Washington, the point is simply to leverage Xi’s craving for recognition as a world leader to nudge China into shouldering a greater burden in addressing major global challenges. If China acts to bolster stability in the Middle East, as it did this spring in the deal it mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or to enhance global food and energy security or to push for a just and durable peace in Ukraine, it will be taking actions that serve its own interests. Notably, all of these issues are ones in which Beijing’s interests diverge from Moscow’s.  

Washington and Beijing also have mutual incentives to coordinate with each other broadly on global macroeconomics and to address the debt troubles of developing countries. For any debt relief plan for developing countries to be credible, it will require a buy-in from the world’s two largest economies. China’s leaders respect Yellen’s expertise and insights and will welcome her in Beijing.


For the Biden administration, a pursuit of diplomacy to moderate tensions and shape a shared agenda with China will doubtless elicit charges of appeasement from critics in Congress. The White House knows this. Even so, there are several reasons for Biden and his staff to tune out the reactionary voices and forge ahead with efforts to advance specific goals. First, the politics of the 2024 U.S. presidential race have shifted with former President Donald Trump’s mounting legal challenges. Even as Trump’s legal path remains unclear, it is reasonable to expect that these issues will be consuming for him and for other Republican presidential candidates, who will be induced to either defend him or distance themselves from him.

Second, when viewed in a global context, the U.S. economy is performing strongly. American companies are continuing to drive innovation, including in generative artificial intelligence. The unemployment rate is low. The country has consolidated its position as an energy superpower. Its financial system is central to the global economy, with the dollar firmly in place as the world’s reserve currency. U.S. demographics—despite recent data showing an aging population—are also healthy in comparison with those of much of the developed world, especially China’s. These strengths allow the Biden administration to be more proactive, confident, and moderate in tone in its diplomacy with Beijing, even as it maintains a highly competitive underlying China strategy.

Third, U.S. allies want Washington to keep the door open to diplomacy, even when Beijing is unwilling to walk through that door. By persisting in its pursuit of a more durable relationship with China, the United States can signal to the world that it does not pose an obstacle to more stable major power relations. This in turn, will open space for U.S. partners to coordinate more comprehensively with Washington on specific concerns relating to China, since doing so will no longer be seen as signing on to an anti-China coalition.

Of course, there are hundreds of ways in which these efforts could founder. But the Biden administration has put itself in a strong position by investing at home and strengthening coordination with allies abroad and can now afford to explore efforts with Beijing to lower the risk of conflict, shrink space for miscalculation, and elicit greater Chinese contributions to global challenges. And if the administration is able to patiently, persistently build contacts and advance a modest agenda in an understated way, tamping down expectations of major progress, it may stand a greater chance of success.

Source : Foreign Afairs