On the U.S.-China Relationship

Separating signal from noise

Today, Joe Biden announced his Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. At a time like this, it’s good to think about what the new administration means for the U.S. relationship with China. My view is that, in the grand scheme of things, not all that much, as I explain in a new article at NBC Think.

American global hegemony has been made possible by the U.S. being more powerful than any other nation in the world by a wide margin. Today, depending on how one measures, China already has the largest economy in the world, or it will soon. It focuses on its own region, and does not try to maintain a global military presence and multiple wars at the same time. The idea that the U.S. can continue to be the dominant power in East Asia under such conditions is delusional, and no politician is willing to say it. Other countries in the region show little interest in the kind of balancing coalition many American leaders want, and are happy to follow the “laws of economic gravity” and become more economically integrated with Beijing, as the recently signed 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership shows.

The discussion about what to do about this tends to exaggerate the importance of American elections and personnel decisions. Everyone has an incentive to do this. Political parties want their followers to believe that their vote is really important, and government officials would like to give the impression that they can fundamentally solve problems that their predecessors could not.

To the extent that American decisions matter, it is not through determining whether the U.S. or China will dominate East Asia. Rather, American leaders can accept the inevitable, and cooperate on pressing issues facing humanity, or engage in a pointless effort to stay on top that will lead to dumb decisions like pulling out of the WHO in response to COVID, shooting themselves in the foot by starting trade wars and risking nuclear war over something like Taiwan, which has no effect on American security.

Biden’s foreign policy seems like it is going to lean more towards a more accommodationist approach relative to the current administration, but major risks remain, and our leaders have not yet allowed the real implications of China’s rise to sink in.

Here is a picture of Biden and Xi shaking hands in 2013, and we should all hope that they remain friends.