Heightened tensions between the United States and China reflect a new phase of relations between the two powerful states, a senior White House official said Thursday.
Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, also acknowledged that the Biden administration’s efforts to find areas of cooperation with Beijing have failed so far.
“We do believe we’re in the early stages of a new phase of our relationship between Washington and Beijing,” Mr. Campbell said during remarks to a Washington think tank.
The U.S. strategy is evolving “but the dominant framing of that is competition, and we seek it to be peaceful competition,” he said at the Center for New American Security.
The Biden administration has begun shifting away from decades of past policies that sought to encourage changes in Chinese Communist Party policies by engaging Beijing directly both diplomatically and economically.
Now, the new policy is to accept China “as it exists,” an authoritarian power seeking to overturn the U.S.-led international order, Mr. Campbell said.
The remarks followed recent statements by Chinese President Xi Jinping that analysts said signaled a hardening of Beijing’s stance toward the United States, accusing Washington of explicitly seeking to block Beijing’s economic and military development.
Mr. Xi stated in a speech March 8 that Xi said the United States is engaged in a campaign of “containment and suppression” that produced “unprecedented, severe challenges.” The Chinese leader, who has revived Marxist-Leninist ideology since coming to power in 2012, also called on the Chinese to “dare to fight.”
New Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang recently warned that the United States and China are headed for a conflict unless Washington alters its China policies.
“If the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there surely will be conflict and confrontation,” Mr. Qin said March 7.
Tensions remain high between the two countries over a range of issues, including trade, human rights, naval confrontations in the South China and East China Seas, Taiwan, and the recent dispatch of a suspected Chinese intelligence surveillance balloon over the United States.
The White House sought to play down the bellicose comments, saying the U.S. still seeks competition and cooperation and not a war with Beijing. Mr. Campbell said despite the growing tensions, the administration is seeking to cooperate on areas such as climate change and on some global health issues.
The Xi government’s widely criticized response to the COVID pandemic, which began in China and has killed an estimated 7 million people globally, has dashed hopes for cooperation in that area, Mr. Campbell said.
“But there would be, I think, potential efforts on dealing with cancer potentially, about fentanyl challenges in the United States. There are areas that we could potentially collaborate going forward,” he said.
Work to do
To date, however, Mr. Campbell acknowledged that the effort to seek areas of cooperation with China have not been successful.,
Chinese government officials have said Beijing will not be more accommodating on areas of mutual concern until the United States adopts more conciliatory policies on issues such as Taiwan.
In July 2021, Chinese officials presented Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with two lists of demands that China indicated were preconditions for improved relations. The lists were not made public but Chinese state media described them as 16 “wrong” U.S. policies to be corrected and 10 “cases of concern,” such as the Justice Department’s prosecution of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou.
After the lists were presented, the Justice Department dropped the prosecution of Ms. Meng, although the White House said it was not involved in the decision.
“I think there’s also a recognition that in many respects, our efforts to build a foundation, a floor under the relationship and guardrails have yet to be successful,” Mr. Campbell said.
Chinese leaders and officials are reluctant to hold talks and adopt the kinds of confidence-building measures such as crisis communications links or hotline telephones that eased tensions with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“We think that they’re appropriate now, and we believe that the strategic rationale is clear for taking those steps more directly,” Mr. Campbell said.
President Biden met with Mr. Xi in Bali, Indonesia in November in a bid to reset relations and establish a more stable relationship.
“I think some of those steps were interrupted by the unanticipated, giant spy balloon that went across the United State,” Mr. Campbell said.
Despite the new phase of competition, the administration is committed to re-establishing closer diplomatic relations with China, he said.
“That it is very much the American intention to keep those lines of communication open. We believe that it’s the responsible thing to do,” Mr. Campbell said, adding Mr. Biden was open to a new phone call with Mr. Xi to discuss the state of bilateral relations.
The new approach to relations with China is not through direct diplomacy but through organizing and strengthening alliances and partnerships in the region, he said, noting that the United States is “here to stay” in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s actions over the past decade have “challenged the global order” and included what U.S. officials say are provocative activities by the Chinese military in areas stretching from India’s border to the South China Sea northward toward Japan. Beijing is seeking to alter the “operating system” that has kept peace in Asia for decades, Mr. Campbell said.
On Taiwan, Mr. Campbell said the administration’s main approach is to preserve peace and stability across the increasingly tense 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
The approach involves active diplomacy to preserve the status quo between Taiwan and China and to bolster Taiwan’s defenses under the 1972 Taiwan Relations Act.
“We recognize that what Taiwan has accomplished with respect to a flourishing democracy, a thriving economy, remarkable technological innovation, is really something that we should cherish and support,” Mr. Campbell said.
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