US China relations: bills, boats and a “battle for the century”

After 100 days as US President, Joe Biden showed little sign of backing down from a tough stance towards an equally stubborn Beijing that has kept tensions high in US China relations. The USA is “in competition with China” to “win the 21st century”, Biden told Congress. With stepped-up US reconnaissance in the disputed South China Sea, and a major bill to counter China in the Senate, only climate change appeared a promising area for co-operation. This article is a summary of important US China news in April 2021.

It will be a high-stakes, high-tech battle, said Biden. “China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future.” While they looked old school to non-experts, the three high-tech, world-class warships Xi Jinping commissioned on 23 April confirmed China’s ambitious naval expansion, military modernisation and preparation to take the island of Taiwan.

Beijing complained that the US has ramped up reconnaissance by plane and ship in Chinese-claimed waters, leading to a close encounter between the country’s warships. China is “preparing for its final military assault” on Taiwan, warned foreign minister Joseph Wu, who said China had been conducting misinformation campaigns, hybrid warfare, and increased grey zone activities.

Senior Chinese officials looked back to mark the 50th anniversary of “ping pong diplomacy” that paved the way for Nixon’s 1972 visit and the normalisation of relations. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US has “not yet overcome its misunderstanding of China, and has yet to find the right path to deal with China”. Beijing would not tolerate any criticism of its Communist Party leaders or political system, was one interpretation.
US climate envoy John Kerry visited China to meet its top climate negotiator, fellow veteran diplomat Xie Zhenhua. Xi Jinping then attended Biden’s virtual climate summit, where the US leader pledged to slash US planet-heating emissions in half by the end of the decade. India and China didn’t offer new commitments, but Xi Jinping pledged to “strictly control” coal-fired power plants. Beijing is spurring the US into action: Secretary of State Blinken said the US is falling behind China in the race to seize climate change opportunities.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed the “Strategic Competition Act of 2021”, pressing Beijing on human rights and economic competition, and supporting Taiwan as “a vital national security interest of the United States”. One amendment to the bill would force a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics by US officials, not athletes.

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