The US and China appear to have realised the constraints placed upon them by their interdependence and are seeking to ease relations as a result, with high-level government-to-government engagement between the pair ramping up significantly over the past year. However, companies from the US and beyond will need to continue to tread carefully in and around China, writes Joe Cash
In American political circles, China is seen as both a disease and a cure. As President Biden leads the Democrats to the polls for the mid-term elections in November, detente with China could stave off inflation, which analysts expect to be the number one issue among voters. However, a China-dominated world would also be “darker and harsher for American families, and it’s one [the US] needs to stand against,” according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Meanwhile, among Democrats and Republicans alike, polling suggests that voters believe that limiting China’s power and influence is a top priority and that they feel ‘cold’ towards China, despite also considering climate change to be the number one national security threat and only solvable through compromising with China.
It is an equally complex picture on the other side of the Pacific. Despite the increasing frequency of rhetoric coming out of Beijing signalling that China feels comfortable pitting itself against the US in Asia-Pacific affairs (eg, the Taiwan Strait does not constitute international waters) Beijing is discovering that it is going to need to work with Washington if it is to make the region more agreeable to China’s rise. Very tellingly, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi recently failed to persuade 10 countries in the Pacific to sign a regional agreement on trade and security, demonstrating that Beijing’s neighbours are not about to turn their backs on the US and accept China’s worldview. What is more, as in the US, there is also the issue that domestic political concerns demand boosting trade and investment between the pair – the zero Covid strategy isn’t going to pay for itself.
Finally, both countries’ respective business communities have made it clear that they would value relations easing to a more predictable and manageable level. US companies in the country’s technology sector, in particular, have lost billions of dollars’ worth of business due to the Trump administration’s decision to put Chinese technology companies with ties to the military on a ‘black list.’ Meanwhile, Chinese firms are continuing to look overseas for investment opportunities that are more stable than those on offer at home, and see the US as a key growth market, assuming the geo-political climate improves.
For all the headlines trumpeting the prospects of a second Cold War and the tweets by American and Chinese politicians and thought leaders alike seeking to stir up their respective bases to distrust and demonise the other, US-China relations fundamentally appear to be easing. Circumstances change, and the current circumstances in which the US and China find themselves warrant both sides taking time to reflect on their respective priorities.
This de-escalation comes from a high starting point, make no mistake, and will not result in US-China relations returning to a level of amicability similar to that which was maintained by both sides during the Obama administration. It’s unlikely that President Biden will be received by President Xi any time soon as a guest of honour at the Forbidden City (as was President Trump) nor will he want to be seen as accommodating China by offering a bow to his Chinese hosts (American media lambasted President Obama over this in 2012). Furthermore, hostility over topics such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as fair trade practices, will probably remain – but both sides appear to recognise the need to bring the rhetoric down a notch.
A little more conversation, a little less action, please
Recently, both sides have become far more vocal on an apparent shared desire for more talks. Presidents Xi and Biden last spoke in March, and another call is reportedly in the works for as soon as July. The pair also spoke in November 2021, while their call in September of that year was the first in seven months, indicating that both sides see value in increasing the frequency with which they speak. And it’s not just at the president-to-president level: other senior officials, such as US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chinese Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and China’s economic tsar, Vice-Premier Liu He, have all increased the frequency with which they engage with one another, too.
That said, just because American and Chinese leaders are engaging more does not necessarily mean they agree on more. Indeed, the recent meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue between Lloyd Austin and Wei Fenghe demonstrates this well, for the pair presented duelling narratives at the annual gathering of the great and good of Asia-Pacific defence and security. What’s more, the US is not always speaking to the right person, particularly on the subject of Taiwan. For example, while Wei Fenghe is nominally Lloyd Austin’s direct counterpart, Austin reports directly to President Biden, whereas Wei answers to China’s Central Military Commission, the vice-chair of which, Xu Qiliang, is seen as having the ear of President Xi.
Agree to disagree
While both sides seem to place increasing value on engagement, there are issues where the two sides will continue to disagree vehemently – international free trade and Xinjiang are two prime examples. The US and China might have come to recognise the constraints of their interdependence, but that does not mean that they will not move to advance their respective agendas in matters which fall outside the fundamental areas in which they cooperate, such as the environment and growing non-sensitive bilateral trade and investment.
US companies will still need to tread carefully around China, even if both countries’ officials are starting slowly to accommodate each other more at the highest levels of government. The US’ Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (UFLPA) which came into effect on Tuesday 21 June, for example, requires companies that import goods from China’s Xinjiang region to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that no component was produced with slave labour; this is likely to be very difficult to do given the complexity of US firms’ supply chains.
The UFLPA is a piece of legislation that, when viewed in isolation, suggests the Biden administration is continuing to take a hard line on China. Read it alongside President Biden’s recently announced plan to cut some tariffs placed on Chinese imports by the Trump administration, however, and it becomes clear that President Biden is signalling that trade with China remains important to the US, but within increasingly tightly defined parameters.
While the two will continue to disagree with one another on issues such as Taiwan and international free trade, both countries’ governments appear to have realised that there is room for greater pragmatism in areas such as the environment
One could argue that this is a more nuanced and pragmatic approach by the US towards its trade relationship with China, especially when compared with the Trump administration’s modus operandi of placing Chinese firms on sweeping blacklists imitating the various market access lists maintained by China.
The US is standing up to China where their values do not align and compromising where it is in America’s interests to do so. This is further evidenced by the Biden administration’s plans to change its approach towards China over free trade, which up to this point has been to punish Beijing with tariffs.
Lifting some of the tariffs on $370 billion worth of imported Chinese goods could alleviate inflation by as much as 1% over the next six months; with inflation in the US currently running at 8.5% on the year, that could be tempting.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that some of the tariffs currently placed on Chinese imports serve “no strategic purpose,” while US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has indicated that the tariffs predominantly serve as a way of maintaining leverage over the Chinese in negotiations surrounding levelling the playing field for US firms in China and third markets. Removing some of the tariffs is in America’s interests as it will push down consumer prices and ease inflation; keeping others in place reminds China that the world’s most powerful economy takes issue with how it trades.
The CBBC view
Though it may be hard to see, US-China relations appear to be thawing. While the two will continue to disagree with one another on issues such as Taiwan, international free trade, and human rights, both countries’ governments appear to have realised that there is room for greater pragmatism in areas such as the environment and bilateral trade and investment. Furthermore, even on those topics where they do not see eye to eye, the realisation that a conflict would not be in either country’s interests appears to be sinking in, leading to increased engagement on these sticking points.
US companies will need to continue to tread carefully in and around China, and vice-versa, and their government affairs teams will have to pay even closer attention to the signals coming out of Beijing and Washington, such is the sensitivity of the relationship – but the US and China appear to have realised the constraint that is their interdependence, which is no small thing.
It’s good news for UK plc in China, too. With the US government adopting a far more clearly defined approach towards China, British companies dealing with both the US and China should anticipate the regulatory uncertainty that has significantly impacted companies trading between the two to ease significantly.