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Unpacking the Biden administration's approach to China


I normally cover China for NPR, and I wanted to just start the new year with a conversation about its relationship with the U.S. It's a relationship that has not gone well in the last few years, whether because of trade wars or sparring over technology. And that's prompted a crucial foreign policy debate on whether the U.S. and China can coexist together, and if so, how? We're joined now by Jessica Chen Weiss, professor of government at Cornell University and a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. State Department. We also have Nadia Schadlow, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategy.

Welcome to you both.

JESSICA CHEN WEISS: Thanks so much.

NADIA SCHADLOW: Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Jessica, we hear China now repeatedly referred to as a threat. And at the same time, the Biden White House says it still seeks cooperation with China on several fronts, like climate change, for example. Do you feel like this approach is working?

CHEN WEISS: Well, look, I think that on the present trajectory, we are headed toward an increasingly confrontational relationship that is veering toward an avoidable crisis. And I worry that without greater efforts to put a floor under the relationship, as the Biden administration, I think, is interested in doing, we are headed in a direction that, really, we aren't collectively prepared for and that will come at great expense to our own national interests. It will come at an expense to the citizens and the - kind of the vitality of our democracy and our economy.

FENG: What would that floor look like? I mean, how can - how do two quite ideologically different states find a way forward that is not purely adversarial?

CHEN WEISS: Well, first of all, I think that there are ways that - in the near term that both sides could take reciprocal steps back from the brink in ways that wouldn't fundamentally require compromise or sacrifice of our core kind of security interests and our values. That basically requires, I think - for example, in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait or around Taiwan - finding ways to lower the temperature but that don't ultimately sacrifice our efforts to bolster the kind of long-term defense and deterrence of potential military conflict.

You know, I think that under Xi, you know, certainly the Chinese Communist Party has become much more aggressive in its tactics to defend its legitimacy and interests. But he doesn't seek military conflict. There's very little research to support that. And so if anything, we see Xi Jinping acknowledging that China is still weaker than the United States, and its modernization drive still remains dependent on access to international technology and capital. This desire for stability doesn't mean that Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party is going to, you know, accept what they see as provocations or humiliations.

FENG: Nadia, you worked under the Trump administration, and starting then, that's when we started to see the U.S. take a more confrontational stance on China that Jessica is referring, whether it was a trade war or pretty significant sanctions on Chinese technology companies. What do you think might need to be refined, and what do you think so far about President Biden's approach to China that Jessica's been describing?

SCHADLOW: I would question the assumption or phrase it slightly differently. What we did in the previous administration was take a more realistic approach to China, one which ensured that we were going to protect American interests and not continue to be disadvantaged by the economic and trade practices by the CCP. Fundamentally, what we're discussing here are almost three approaches.

One is an engagement approach, that China will become more like the United States. It will open up a sort of globalist perspective that we are all converging and all want the same sort of life, the same type of liberal international order. Second, there's kind of an entanglement approach. We're almost too entangled to drive ourselves apart, right? We're almost too entangled to compete, because entanglement means that we're interlinked, right? Our economies are intertwined. And in many senses, they are, right? They're very, very intertwined. And that's part of the problem we're facing.

And then I think, third, there's what I would call a more - maybe a realistic approach, a sense that China will not change, that there's a certain determinism, that China has its own goals, and it's stated those goals. They see this as an ideological long-term conflict where socialism and capitalism are not necessarily compatible. So I think it depends - some of your answers - to some policy choices here, and the policy choices you make will actually be linked to the - some of those assumptions.

FENG: And which framework do you feel like predominates now in the U.S.?

SCHADLOW: I think the Biden administration itself is divided on this. So I think the language on climate in the Biden administration's strategy and the view that we could and must cooperate with China because climate is an existential threat is probably more aligned with the entanglement view, a little bit of the engagement view, because it's based on the assumption that China wants the same things as us in the climate domain, too.

FENG: Well, then I'm curious what you two make of the meeting that happened between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November in Indonesia on the sidelines of G-20. I was there covering the meeting and I was just astonished that after the friction of the last couple of years, you saw these two men smiling and shaking hands with each other and sitting down for a pretty substantial discussion. So just quickly, how optimistic are you both that there might be a different or even more relaxed relationship between the U.S. and China going forward?

CHEN WEISS: Well, I'll say that I don't expect the relationship to become friendly or relaxed anytime soon. What I see is two, you know, very pragmatic leaders recognizing that a short-term crisis or a war is in neither of their interests - both have. And so in the near term, I think a more stable relationship benefits both. And there are important issues on which it would be beneficial for the two sides to be able to coordinate, if not cooperate.

SCHADLOW: I agree with Jessica that I don't think the friendly tone of the summit necessarily means something substantially different from what we've seen, but I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing. Again, I think stability is very important. Communication between leaders is very important. But in the end, the United States needs to be alert to the realities of what China wants to achieve. And so this is where I think we see a difference.

China is seeking and has sought and has done a fair job of reshaping the international system in ways that advantage its own domestic political situation. So I do think we need, actually, this period of competition to ensure that U.S. interests well into the future are protected. I just don't see China's long-term interests aligned with the U.S. in a fundamental way.

FENG: That's Nadia Schadlow, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Jessica Chen Weiss, professor of government at Cornell University. Thanks to both of you for speaking to us today.

SCHADLOW: Thank you.

CHEN WEISS: Thank you. It's been great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Weekend Edition Sunday
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.