Biden hints at thaw in China ties, but US’ sincerity in doubt
Improvement to be superficial as overall atmosphere still negative: expert
Published: May 22, 2023 09:39 PM
US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden. Photo: AFP

Following the latest G7 summit and Quad meeting that outlined a strong stance against China and ramped up efforts to hype China-related issues, US President Joe Biden adopted an apparently softer tone by claiming that the frosty bilateral relations between China and the US will begin to "thaw" very shortly, hoping to open more lines of communication with China and hinting at easing sanctions on a Chinese official. 

Chinese experts believe that Biden's message was sent as the G7 is somehow divided on how to deal with China and as Washington itself faces growing domestic economic woes and international dilemmas like the Ukraine crisis. While they hold a cautious attitude on whether Biden's rhetoric toward China will turn into a reality, some experts pointed out that the necessary conditions for US-China relations to "thaw" is Washington respecting Beijing's core interests and fulfilling its commitment instead of "saying one thing and doing another." 

Also, the so-called potential thaw in relations can only be superficial, for example, the resumption of high-level interactions between officials of the two sides, but Washington's fundamental understanding and its China policy show no change, some experts said. Any real improvement in China-US relations depends on whether the US takes concrete actions to create a positive atmosphere. 

Changing rhetoric 

Despite the G7 issuing a harshly toned communiqué, which drew strong opposition from the Chinese side on Sunday, Biden said when wrapping up the summit that "he expected a thaw in relations with China," calling the recent balloon incident between the two countries "silly" and hinting at lifting US sanctions on Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu, according to media reports. 

"China and the US have maintained the necessary communication, but if the US uses any means to suppress and contain China and imposes sanctions on Chinese officials and enterprises, what is the sincerity and significance of such communication?" Mao Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said during a press conference on Monday. 

China has always been firmly opposed to the illegal unilateral sanctions in question and has stated its solemn position to the US side. The US should immediately lift the sanctions and take concrete actions to clear obstacles for dialogue and communication, and create a favorable atmosphere and conditions, the spokesperson said. 

Biden's message reflected the paradoxical mindset of the US and some Western countries, some experts said. On the one hand, Washington has been ramping up efforts to smear and distort China-related matters in order to keep Beijing under pressure for dialogue while maintaining pressure on its allies to adopt a similar stance. On the other hand, some of its allies, such as France and Germany, prefer to find opportunities in China's development and oppose political, economic and military confrontation with China, which makes the divergences inside the Western bloc even more apparent. 

Despite the US' lack of sincerity in its communications with China, coupled with its ill-intentioned attempts to contain China, it's necessary for the two countries to keep communication channels open to keep some divergences under control, some experts said, who also believe that the necessary condition for easing bilateral relations is the US government matching its words with its actions.

Biden on Sunday said the G7 nations had agreed on "a united approach" to China that called for "diversifying supply chains" to reduce dependence on any one country, and hinted that "he could speak with the Chinese President soon," Reuters reported. 

G7 leaders outlined a shared approach to "de-risk, not decouple" economic engagement with China, and Biden further explained that this approach means taking steps to "diversify supply chains," "resist economic coercion and protect advance technologies for national security." Some US media outlets such as the New York Times described this "newly fashionable term" as reflecting an evolution in the discussion on dealing with China, as the term "de-risking" caught on after a speech by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, in March before her trip to China. 

Sincerity in question  

The US government has been intensifying its technological and political wrestling with China and has been pressuring the bloc's six other countries to take the same stance. "But apart from Japan, other allies will not be willing to see China-US relations become so intense, or even confrontational," Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday. 

"Particularly, among its European allies, although they have differences with China, they are not willing to confront it politically, economically and militarily, which made the Biden administration adjust some of its rhetoric on China," he said. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is facing an intensifying partisan struggle on debt standoff and a looming recession in coming months, in addition to the Ukraine crisis that has become an unsustainable burden, all of which led to the change in rhetoric, Lü noted. 

However, some experts expressed doubt over whether that changing rhetoric could turn into action and whether the Biden administration will take the necessary steps to create a favorable atmosphere for the true improvement of bilateral relations. 

"It's believed that the so-called thaw means the resumption of high-level interactions. For example, our commerce minister is scheduled to meet his US counterpart this week, and our new ambassador to the US will soon embark on his trip," Wu Xinbo, director at the Center for American Studies of Fudan University, told the Global Times on Monday. 

Meanwhile, the US may push for some cabinet-level officials to visit China, Wu said, noting that such an "improvement" may only be superficial as the overall atmosphere between the two countries is still negative. 

Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao will travel to the US this week for meetings with US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Trade Representative Katherine Tai, US media NBC News reported on Friday.

Recently, China's top diplomat Wang Yi had a more than 10-hour talk with the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Vienna on major topics including bilateral relations, the Taiwan question, the Asia-Pacific situation and the Ukraine crisis. 

Mao, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the Chinese side has always developed China-US relations following the principle of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. "We urge the US side to correct its understanding of China, stop interfering in China's internal affairs, stop harming China's sovereignty, security and development interests, and meet China halfway to take concrete actions to get China-US ties back on the right track," she said. 

"Apparently, the US has changed its rhetoric, but its true intention of containing China has not changed. It needs to take more concrete actions to truly create an atmosphere for such a thaw," Wu said.