Can US-China relations 'reset' in the Biden era?
By Bobby M. Tuazon | | 01 February 2021

Unlike the US, China's foreign policy has been consistent and predictable, with a clear road map that is transparent to the world. China's foreign policy has been guided by five longstanding principles: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

Today, China stands as a strong voice for multilateralism and new global governance that promotes cooperation and harmony, equality, avoiding confrontation and refraining from imposing one's political and social system on other countries. Significantly, its foreign policy is coherent and united, coming as it does from solid Party-state leadership and institutional stability.

Today, world public opinion has in general welcomed the presidency of Joe Biden, with high expectations for repairing the damage to the international order inflicted by the Trump regime's four-year America First unilateralist mantra. Indeed, after being sworn in as the 46th US president Biden lost no time overturning many of Trump's signature actions - from rejoining the Paris climate accord and the WHO to extending the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia and tearing down the ban on Muslim refugees, among others.

The Biden administration's trajectory is to reclaim US global leadership and reshape America's alliances with a verbal commitment to a multilateralist approach in diplomacy. Such commitments, along with the president's first executive actions, may cast US' foreign engagements in a predictable light to many who still believe in America's central role in international affairs.

Arguably undergirding the new regime's foreign policy is the need to preserve America's global pre-eminence under the pretext of balance of power, rebooting its alliances in support of its military supremacy and pulling down peer competitors like China and Russia in the guise of deterring global security threats.

Not to be downplayed is America's post-war history of involvement in armed conflicts and interventionism across the globe in the name of "freedom and democracy" as well as international law – so long as it suits the US' geopolitical objectives.

Given the Democratic Party's slim majority in the US Congress, Biden's foreign policy will rely on bipartisan support – the same support that provided the legislative anchor and resources behind America's wars, including a tough policy on China. Congress has a long-running confrontational policy of pinning down China on alleged issues of human rights and repression in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

Closely tied to the US Congress' bipartisan stance are powerful lobbyists led by corporations with the same interests as many legislators and executive officials. Wielding a strong influence on US foreign and defense policies is the powerful military-industrial complex, whose business interests extend to the Pentagon's aggressive operations in the South China Sea as well as the Middle East, Africa and other conflict-ridden regions.

Aggravated by four years of Trump's isolationist, unilateralist and incoherent policies, the US has all but lost its credibility. From where he is now, Biden will find a changed world: an EU, although still technically aligned with the US, that has begun to assert its autonomy through a recent investment agreement with China; an Asia-Pacific region bound together by various economic communities like ASEAN and now the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that includes China, Australia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea with ASEAN's 10 member countries. In most of these countries, the clarion call is peace and development, multilateralism, cooperation and a refusal to stake the future to geopolitical tensions where they will be forced to choose between two competing powers.

As China's core leader, President Xi Jinping said in a speech during this week's virtual World Economic Forum in Davos, "Difference in itself is no cause for alarm. What does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice and hatred; it is the attempt to impose hierarchy on human civilization or to force one's own history, culture and social system upon others."

The US may need to jolt itself out of its Cold War coma of fantasizing about being the "world policeman", armed with unmatched power and supposedly grounded on the values of democracy and equality. Today these have become inconsequential, especially in the light of recent events that exposed US democracy's fragility and institutional rot.

The US should begin to accept that world systems change, old powers fade and new major countries rise. With eyes open, this can potentially be the first step toward resetting China-US relations. Biden and his policymakers need to welcome Beijing's overtures toward rebuilding the two countries' relations informed by mutual respect, non-interference and cooperation.

Bobby M. Tuazon is director for policy studies at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a think tank based in the Philippines.


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