Competition overshadows cooperation? New US envoy should help avoid ‘lose-lose confrontation’
Published: Feb 25, 2021 10:08 PM

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden has yet to appoint a new ambassador to China, but the US State Department said that the new ambassador's job is to "steward an approach to China that has competition at the center." Chinese analysts said on Thursday that US State Department statement sends a convoluted message, and that the new ambassador should work with China on rulemaking to ensure competition won't fall into another lose-lose confrontation. 

At a press briefing on Tuesday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that "Our ambassador will be responsible for helping to steward an approach to China that has competition at the center," but he didn't say who will be appointed to the job, and when the nomination would be announced.  

Chinese experts said that an ambassador normally should work on cooperation and exchanges, to build a bridge for the two peoples and governments, to fix damaged ties, to reduce mistrust and miscalculations. But the US State Department is still highlighting "competition," so this could mean that the recovery of China-US ties won't be very easy. 

China-US relations have adversarial and competitive elements, and the competitive elements are really at the crux of that relationship, Price said. "It also has a number of cooperative elements…climate, for example, is one of those areas."

Chinese analysts said that the ambassador's job normally includes matters like providing assistance to US companies and citizens in China to solve problems, and boost people-to-people exchanges and inter-governmental cooperation, so he or she should at least not be an unwelcomed figure in China.

But US diplomats in China have always involved some issues that might offend Chinese people from time to time, such as contacting anti-government and separatist forces to interfere in China's domestic affairs, or use China's internal problems to launch ideological offensives. Chinese experts' concern is what role the new ambassador would play - to build the bridge like a peacemaker or to throw stones like a troublemaker?

Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times that "whether we like it or not, the competition will become the mainstream of bilateral ties. The atmosphere in the US Congress, society and media makes it impossible for the Biden administration to say too many nice words about China."

Lü Xiang, an expert in US studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times that "competition" is an acceptable word, and China also has confidence in it. 

The key is to ensure healthy and fair competition for the participants, rather than another round of lose-lose confrontation, Lü said, noting that "rulemaking would be significant. There is no doubt that China and the US compete in many fields, and in some cases, the old rules are not working or unable to satisfy everyone."

The new ambassador would need to engage with the Chinese government and communicate with relevant groups in the US involved in the competition "to help the two sides  make the rules of the game together," rather than force China to accept the rules unilaterally made by the US or with its allies, said Lü, adding that the rules should be accepted by not just China and the US but also other members of the international community.

Without the rules being accepted by all participants of the game, the competition would become another confrontation with lose-lose consequences, Li noted.

"Of course, we hope the US can return to reason, but if they use the word 'competition' to cover the real intention of confrontation to launch a zero-sum game again, China has enough experience to handle it. So there is no need to be afraid," Li said.