China has a strategic dilemma. They’re frustrated by the status quo, and they’re probing for ways to change it. But taking big, bold actions would come at an extraordinary cost to them. You can’t eliminate the possibility that they would be willing to pay that cost, and so we have to be prepared for it. But if you accept the proposition that war is inevitable, and we must do everything we possibly can to prepare for it now, then you risk precipitating the very outcome that your strategy is designed to prevent.
Both leaders held their ground on key issues without offering concessions in either direction. Even so, Biden and Xi clearly set a tone for their respective governments that tensions must be managed and that neither side seeks unbridled confrontation with the other.
The most valuable commodity in Washington is the president’s time, the more the administration demonstrates capacity to marshal tangible support for meeting the region’s key economic, health, and climate priorities, the more influence the U.S. will gain in the [Indo-Pacific] region.
Neither [President Biden or President Xi] will want to be seen as softening his approach toward the other, but at the same time, neither leader will see profit in allowing the relationship to escalate significantly beyond current levels of tension. As such, the relationship likely will navigate between a pretty firm floor and ceiling over the coming year.
The crux of [America's China] strategy is to advance interests, uphold values, and strengthen cohesion with allies and partners. One hopes that the Biden administration will be able to move discussion from questions of toughness to measures of effectiveness in delivering tangible results.
I don’t think it came as any surprise to Beijing that the Biden administration would prioritize efforts to repair alliance relationships, but the speed and the substance at which these efforts are moving forward, I think, has exceeded Beijing’s expectations.
With the downward trajectory in [U.S.-China] relations, the incoming ambassador ideally will need to have a visible connection to the president and his senior advisers, familiarity with the range of issues that comprise the relationship, and a future in American politics. The more the ambassador is seen as likely to wield influence in the future on issues affecting China, the higher the cost and risk for Beijing to mistreat him/her.
Watch for the gradual return of “strategic maturity.” [The U.S. under the Biden administration and China] will relearn how to walk and chew gum at the same time, e.g., by addressing sources of tension forthrightly and coordinating on issues where complementary efforts would be mutually beneficial, such as global COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Neither Washington nor Beijing will be guided in its approach to the relationship by amity or starry-eyed optimism about improving U.S.-China relations … but over time will become less confrontational and rhetorically venomous.
The most significant actions Biden could take on China in his first 100 days would not relate directly to China. Restoring American leadership in tackling global challenges, repairing relationships with allies and partners, countering the spread of Covid-19 at home and abroad, reviving an economy slammed by the pandemic — any of these steps would disprove Beijing’s belief that America has lost its capacity for self-correction.