Biden tones down harsh rhetoric against China
Published: Nov 17, 2021 10:29 PM
US President Joe Biden answers questions from the media after signing a Made in America Executive Order in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on January 25, 2021 in Washington.Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden answers questions from the media after signing a "Made in America" Executive Order in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on January 25, 2021 in Washington.Photo: AFP

The US request for a Joe Biden-Xi Jinping summit reflected at least a partial realisation by the US that its attempt to bully or coerce China, launched by Trump, has been entirely unsuccessful. Therefore, the Biden administration has now attempted, at least on some key issues, to return to a more rational discussion with China. 

As US media analysed, China made no concessions on its key points to have the meeting, and the request for it came from the US.

This situation was reflected in Biden's approach in the opening public section of the meeting. Instead of arrogant attempts to attack China, which had characterised recent US speeches, Biden was polite, and particularly stressed that his aim was to avoid conflict with China. 

Particularly significant was that Biden at the meeting unambiguously reiterated US acceptance of the One China policy - dashing hopes of separatists in the island of Taiwan. Of course, unequivocal acceptance of the One China principle, by itself, without follow-up actions such as acceptance of the 1992 Consensus, is not enough to fully calm the tensions in the Taiwan Straits. But nevertheless, it is a key foundation for resolving them. And the separatists have suffered a firm setback.

In addition to this fundamental position on Taiwan, also notable was that shortly before the summit China and the US issued a joint declaration at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. This, again, indicated that the Biden administration was prepared to enter into rational dialogue with China - unlike the previous adversarial, anti-scientific, positions of the Trump administration on climate change.

Looking at the overall situation at the summit meeting, China did not change its positions on any significant issue. But Biden notably corrected, at least in tone and on some points of substance, the US' recent behaviour to China. 

The Trump administration had launched a cold war against China, attempting to bully and intimidate it. This entirely failed and instead the result was that problems were created in the US - US economic growth was much slower than China's, tariffs against China's exports increased inflation in the US, handling of COVID-19 in the US has been a disaster, and other countries refused to support attempts by the US to go against the One China policy etc. 

China was not intimidated at all by these US measures, made entirely clear it did not want confrontation with the US, and welcomed any possibilities of cooperation, but would continue with policies in its national interest. If, within that framework, the US wished to discuss on equal and respectful terms then China was very willing to do so. If the US did not wish to discuss on those terms, then China would continue with its own policies, and it would be the US that would be the loser.

Biden, noting damage done to the US by the Trump administration's adversarial policies to China, decided to attempt to eliminate some of these setbacks for the US by moving towards a more rational discussion with China. This dictated the US approach to the recent summit. In particular, Biden appears to have realised that any frontal attempt to pressure China to cross its "red lines" on Taiwan and the One China policy was doomed - and therefore it was abandoned. 

However, unfortunately, the Biden administration does not appear to have drawn, at least in public, all the implications about the failure of US policy - although it is not known what was discussed in the private part of the summit between the two top leaders. The US has so far continued on aggressive policies on issues such as maintenance of trade tariffs, attempts to exclude China's companies such as Huawei from the rollout of the 5G networks, etc. Nevertheless, the summit saw at least a few corrections of US positions - due to China's firm stance.

Despite this partial step forward, there remain complications. So far US media briefings by the Biden administration appear to reflect that the aim of the meeting was to "calm down" the situation created by US actions against China. This is positive. However, it is likely pro-Trump and other forces in the US will accuse Biden of being "soft on China". 

So it will be important to see if the Biden administration continues to maintain what appear to be the initial tones of its briefings, or gives in to anti-China rhetoric. For example, reports in the US press that the Biden administration intends to call for a "diplomatic boycott" of the upcoming Winter Olympics would indicate that it has failed to draw the necessary consequences of the present situation.

The author is a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn