China sometimes forgets that it has real agency in the U.S.-China relationship

In a stars webinar with Paul HAENLE, Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, we discussed how the great power rivalry between the U.S. and China may evolve in the next four years. Paul shared his insights about how Biden will approach the relationship. While Trump’s national security team focused on competing, confronting and containing China, Biden’s team will continue to compete with and confront China where China is seen as undermining U.S. interests, but also cooperate with China in areas of common interest, such as in fighting the global pandemic and climate change. That cooperation will not be held hostage to solving problems in other areas where the U.S. competes with China.

Paul further explained how Beijing sees Biden and how he expects Beijing to respond to the new administration in the coming weeks and months. At the same time, he emphasized that China also has real agency in the U.S.-China relationship. Instead of being reactive and just waiting to see what the U.S. is going to do, he therefore argued that China needs to be more proactive and realize that there are steps that China can take – in many cases unilaterally – to improve its relationship with the U.S. and its image in the international community.

The real challenge for the U.S. and China therefore lies in being both strategic competitors and strategic cooperators at the same time. In Paul’s view, how this will turn out largely depends on whether China is willing to step up, to accept the fact that it also has agency in the U.S.-China relationship and that its own actions, behaviours and rhetoric have an impact, and on whether China acknowledges some of the grievances by the U.S. and other countries and begins to address those in a genuine manner. China needs to come to the table in a constructive way – and if this doesn’t happen, Paul foresees an unhappy reckoning in fairly short order; it won’t take four years to get there.

To watch the recording of the webinar, please click here.