The choreography was exquisite. President Biden spent his first nine months in office trying to gain ground on China: he calmed trade disputes with allies of the United States. He hosted the very first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of “The Quad,” which forged closer ties between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, all located on the outskirts of Chinese power. . He convinced NATO, for the first time in its history, to describe China as a challenge to the “security of the alliance”. He coaxed Congress into spending a trillion dollars to rebuild America’s infrastructure, which he touted, in part, as a way to counter China. Then, earlier this week, on the very day the infrastructure bill was enacted, he held his first formal meeting with President Xi Jinping. The message was unequivocal: The United States will work with China to address common challenges while competing for a position of strength.
The strategy is clear, the execution – a few hiccups aside – impressive. But there is a problem: Mr. Biden is trying to have it both ways. His collaborators insist that there is no compromise to be made between treating China as an adversary and as a partner. Or, as a State Department spokesperson put it, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” It is wishful thinking; the two goals collide. And despite all the recent talks about better relations between Washington and Beijing, the Biden administration still does not prioritize cooperation – although it is only through much deeper cooperation that the United States can tackle. to what threatens Americans the most.
Take climate change, the greatest long-term danger to life in the United States – and everywhere else. This should be the top priority of the Biden administration when it comes to China. But it’s not. Although U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart made headlines by signing a joint statement on “improving climate action” earlier this month in Glasgow, the document was weaker than a joint statement the two governments signed seven years earlier, before the United States’ relationship with China collapsed.
The United States’ hard line on China also undermines the fight against climate disasters in less obvious ways. To reduce carbon emissions, the United States must quickly switch to cleaner energy sources like solar. The cheapest place to get solar cells is China. But the Biden administration has defended the Trump administration’s tariffs on solar technology. Some Chinese solar producers are based in Xinjiang, where Beijing brutally suppresses Uyghurs and other Muslims, and are therefore subject to US sanctions for using forced labor. But solar tariffs are not limited to Xinjiang. Why? Because the Biden team wants to weaken China’s grip on a popular industry. In doing so, however, it makes solar power more expensive for Americans, delaying the United States’ transition to fossil fuels.
It’s not just solar panels. Many green technologies will advance faster if American and Chinese researchers collaborate. But the Biden administration has upheld the Trump administration’s visa restrictions that prevent students who attended Chinese universities with military ties from pursuing graduate studies in the United States – even though there is no evidence that these students have already worked for the Chinese military themselves. The Biden administration is working to thwart China’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure program, when the two superpowers could fight global warming more effectively by jointly funding clean energy in poor countries. And by portraying China as a threat, Biden is justifying higher Pentagon budgets – which, given the U.S. military’s status as the world’s largest institutional greenhouse gas producer, actually constitutes itself a climate catastrophe.
The climate and the world are changing. What will be the challenges of the future and how to respond?
While climate change poses the greatest security threat to the United States, pandemics like Covid – which killed more Americans than World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam and Korean Wars combined – are coming. in second position. There is ample evidence that U.S.-China public health cooperation saves American lives. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped China set up an influenza surveillance system, which was crucial in containing the H1N1 influenza in 2009 and the H7N9 influenza in 2013. US public health experts visited the headquarters of the Chinese CDC, which has given the United States a better understanding of potential Chinese epidemics. . In 2016, Washington and Beijing even agreed to jointly fund a surveillance system in Africa to help governments on the continent better fight viruses like Ebola.
Such cooperation may seem fanciful now given the sharp divergence between Washington and Beijing on issues ranging from Taiwan to the South China Sea to China’s abominable human rights record. But these differences existed when George W. Bush and Barack Obama also took office, and these presidents nonetheless elevated cooperation in public health matters. They could do this because relations between the United States and China were generally less hostile. It was Donald Trump who withdrew American medical and scientific officials from China, then took advantage of the Covid pandemic to further sever ties. In declaring, as one of Mr. Biden’s main collaborators in China did, that “the period that was widely described as the engagement is over,” this administration signaled that it was not considering a return. to pre-Trump levels of American public opinion. health cooperation possible, even desirable. This is exactly the wrong response to a pandemic that originated in China and claimed three quarters of a million lives in the United States.
Mr. Biden deserves credit for attempting to establish a “safeguard” for the United States and China to avoid war. But guardrails are not enough. The disturbing truths of the world today require much greater cooperation between Washington and Beijing. And this increased cooperation is not compatible with growing antagonism because, as more than 200 US-China relations experts wrote in a public letter in 2019, while there are figures in China who support a collaboration closer to the United States, “Washington’s opposition to Beijing weakens the influence of those voices in favor of assertive nationalists.”
The Biden administration cannot afford to triangulate between hawks who want to treat China as an enemy and progressives desperate for dramatic action to prevent climate and public health disasters. He has to choose what he likes the most. Pretending not to choose is also a choice.