The President has spent too long ostracising Xi Jinping
Janet Yellen had a pretty successful trip in Beijing at the end of last week. The US Treasury secretary highlighted that, in spite of recent tensions, the two countries set a record in 2022 for bilateral trade. She also emphasised the need to coordinate on climate policy, a long-running cornerstone of the Sino-American relationship.
But when it came to America’s stance toward China on economic issues, things got a bit rockier. Yellen tried to assure her Beijing counterparts that the controls the American government were putting on investment into China would be “highly targeted and clearly directed narrowly at a few sectors where we have specific national security concerns”.
It is unlikely that the Chinese view the situation this way. The initial restrictions that America put on semiconductor exports to China seemed quite obviously aimed at stifling Beijing’s ability to keep up with US technological development. These sanctions are not “highly targeted” but, rather, extremely broad, covering a sector that is crucial for future development. Never mind that experts in the industry have said that these sanctions will not work and will only lead to the Chinese developing their own, lower-cost industry: it is the intention that matters when it comes to diplomacy.
Washington’s approach would appear to be confused. When the semiconductor sanctions were first unveiled, it looked like American policymakers had decided to launch an all-out trade war with China. But business leaders immediately pushed back by visiting Beijing themselves, presumably explaining to American policymakers behind the scenes that this approach was completely impractical given the current state of the country’s manufacturing base.
Now it looks like the White House is trying to have it both ways. They want to hang on to the policies that they have already imposed, as to do otherwise would be to lose face. Yet they want to alleviate some of the tensions between the two countries to avoid an all-out trade war — which would be devastating for both parties. This does not appear to be going so well, though, with China now threatening to restrict exports of gallium and germanium — two elements that are indispensable to America’s high-tech industry.
The reality is that President Biden will find it very difficult to walk back on the policies he has backed on China. He will also find it hard to establish cordial relations with Xi Jinping after calling him a “dictator”, among other provocations. Full normalisation of relations with China will only take place when there is a new president.
Indeed, Biden’s days in the White House might be numbered. Few of the China-related policies he has pursued while in office could be called a success. The world seems a lot more chaotic after three years of Biden than it did before, even under the often volatile Donald Trump. Perhaps it is no coincidence that leading liberal publications like the New York Times are beginning to peel back the skin on the scandals surrounding Biden’s son Hunter. There may be a changing of the guard sooner than we think.