US China Relations: Competition Replaces the Era of Engagement

The top trade negotiators from the US and China held their first telephone call of the Joe Biden presidency, and stressed the importance of improving trade ties. But the rest of the bilateral relationship remained deeply troubled, with defence chiefs failing to talk, and Beijing angry at Biden ordering an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. This article is a summary of important US China news in May 2021.

Get used to these ongoing tensions, advised Kurt Campbell, the US coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council. “The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end,” he said, as US policy towards China will now operate under a “new set of strategic parameters”, and “the dominant paradigm is going to be competition”.

One area of potential optimism is trade, after US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and China’s Vice Premier Liu He had “candid” and “constructive” exchanges”, though without any obvious breakthrough other than speaking.  As the two sides’ trade deal runs into its second year, Chinese purchases are still running short of the agreed amount, reported CNBC.

At least they’re talking. US officials were unable to set up talks between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese military chiefs, with reports that Beijing rejected requests on protocol grounds. China’s defence ministry told the US to show “sincerity” about improving communications, and warned that America’s Indo-Pacific strategy was “pulling the region down a dangerous path”, through increased US reconnaissance against China, and a recent close encounter at sea.

Biden gave the US intelligence community 90 days to report back on their intensified efforts to find the origins of Covid-19, including specific questions for China. The lab leak theory gained traction in the US, and generated more outrage in China. Its foreign ministry accused the Biden administration of playing politics and said the US must open itself up to investigations into its own biological laboratories. Xi Jinping urged nations at a Europe-led health forum to focus on fighting the pandemic together rather than playing politics.

The Senate will include $52bn to bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing in the broader Endless Frontier bill to enhance US competitiveness with China, said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. This technology bill and the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 reflect Washington’s “Cold War mindset, ideological bias and gross interference in China’s internal affairs”, commented The Global Times. Beijing is also angered by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call for a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

China’s corn imports could reach a record high this year, with the US expected to be the largest supplier, analysts told the Global Times. Port of Los Angeles customs officials blocked a shipment of Uniqlo men’s shirts for containing cotton suspected of being made by forced labour in Xinjiang. The Biden administration is considering sanctions over China’s alleged use of forced labour in production of solar panels and other components in renewable energy, said John Kerry.

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