U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen recently returned from a four-day visit to China, according to CNN. Her visit was an attempt to calm the turmoil of China-U.S. relations.
Since the days of the Trump administration, tensions have increased between China and the U.S. That situation has not changed with the advent of the Biden administration.
A Panoramic View of US-China Relations
As any novice student of U.S. foreign policy knows, the U.S. has identified China as its most significant rival. China is also a growing force, challenging U.S. dominance in the Far East and also globally.
To handle economic and national security concerns, the U.S. has made multiple attempts to curb Chinese foreign policy and Chinese expansionism. China has largely been depicted as an adversary by most U.S. administrations for decades. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that 83% of Americans hold negative views of China in a 2023 poll.
From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. has been an inevitable rival. Beijing considers that U.S. dominance is in withdrawal, creating room for Chinese expansionism and worsening U.S.-China relations.
A recent book by political scientist Suisheng Zhao, “The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy,” notes how Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping have charted unique courses in Chinese foreign policy.
By using their total authority in all aspects of life in China, these leaders were able to mobilize national security and create strategic policies with bureaucratic institutions. They were also able to exploit international power vacuums, all in the name of advancing their foreign policy agendas and converting China to a superpower.
A Power Play before the Yellen Visit
Journalist Minxin Pei from Bloomberg News depicted the goal of Yellen’s visit as an attempt to go back and return the U.S. relationship with China to “frenemies.” With the rising tensions in Taiwan, the growing role of China in world politics, and the trade war during the Trump era, it is clear that the U.S. and China are not playing nice anymore.
Just days before the Yellen visit, China made its next power move: limiting the export of gallium and germanium to the U.S. as of August 1, 2023. These materials are commonly used in the electronics industry for microchip production.
CNN noted, “Gallium and germanium are used in a variety of products, including computer chips and solar panels. Both are on the European Union’s list of critical raw materials, which are deemed ‘crucial to Europe’s economy.’
“China is by far the world’s biggest gallium producer and a leading global producer and exporter of germanium, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The measure is the latest development in the global battle to control chipmaking technology, which is vital for everything from smartphones and self-driving cars to advanced computing and weapons manufacturing.”
Yellen Met with Various Senior Leaders in China, Except Xi Jinping
According to a Department of the Treasury press release, Secretary Yellen stated of her visit to China, “My objective during this trip has been to establish and deepen relationships with the new economic leadership team in place in Beijing. Our discussions are part of a broader concerted effort to stabilize the relationship, reduce the risk of misunderstanding, and discuss areas of cooperation.”
“Over the past two days, I have had the chance to do just that. I’ve met with Premier Li, Vice Premier He, Finance Minister Liu, People’s Bank of China Head Pan, and other senior officials to discuss important pillars of our economic relationship. These conversations were direct, substantive, and productive.
“We were able to learn more about each other’s economies and policy choices, which I believe is vital as the world’s two largest economies. Even where we don’t see eye-to-eye, I believe there is clear value in the frank and in-depth discussions we had on the opportunities and challenges in our relationship, and the better understanding it gave us of each country’s actions and intentions. Broadly speaking, I believe that my bilateral meetings – which totaled about 10 hours over two days – served as a step forward in our effort to put the U.S.-China relationship on surer footing.”
Secretary Yellen’s statement is very telling. It is easy to see who she did not meet: Xi Jinping, the paramount leader of China.
Xi Jinping’s decision not to meet Yellen was another sign that China is not running to get a hug from the Biden administration. Notwithstanding the good wishes and the honest attempt by Secretary Yellen to create a better relationship with China, China is not afraid of its continued clash with the U.S., which some experts have called the prelude to a cold war.
The Future of US-China Relations
What should we expect for the future? The Brookings Institute published a report in early 2023 that foresaw that this situation is the new reality of U.S-China relations.
If the U.S. wants to defy China’s prediction that American dominance is coming to an end, then the U.S. government needs to act. As the Brookings Institute report noted, “At a strategic level, America’s leaders are receiving a strong demand signal from their international partners to manage competition with China responsibly. Thus, even if Beijing refuses to abide by America’s efforts to advance a positive agenda, the world will be put on notice as to where the obstacle lies. This, in turn, will open political space for America to enlist partners on common projects in Asia.”
The U.S. needs to push its investments in developing countries and resume its role as a mediator in international relations. A recent report from the Harvard Kennedy Center suggested that there is a possibility for a shared international narrative for the U.S. and China if it is “realist” about those areas that are not possible to resolve in the foreseeable future; “constructive” about areas that could be resolved with high-level political effort; and guided by a “common purpose” to build strategic trust, not based on declaratory statements, but on common action in resolving common problems.
Improving Knowledge Gaps Would Be a Useful Step in Improving US-China Relations
In order to accomplish those goals, U.S. policymakers and the U.S. public need to know more about China. Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers do not understand Chinese culture and knowledge gaps in Chinese language and culture creates a chasm that invites growing tensions.
Academics, however, can help to create better U.S.-China relations and improve people’s understanding of China by producing more content about China’s government, culture, and history for popular consumption. At present, there is simply not enough material in English about the views of the Chinese Communist Party concerning the future of China and the party.