Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
;

US China Policy after G20: Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Martina Bernardini

Leverhulme Doctoral Fellow

08 December 2022

Not only are global summits important customary appointments for leaders and their delegates, they also provide opportunities to analyse the state of a country’s foreign policy, particularly in the face of multiple crises. At this year’s G20 summit in Bali, US-China relations remained the predominant frame, even if the day-to-day discussions were dominated by the conflict in Ukraine. After a three-hour meeting, President Joe Biden communicated that he had an “open and candid conversation” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which generated the first murmurings of reassurance about tensions between the two countries for the first time since the start of the trade war in 2018. Given the developments in US foreign policy towards China since Biden took office, however, G20 did not represent a softening of US-China systemic competition.

For the Biden administration, the G20 in Bali occurred at a crucial moment. Amid rising tensions between the United States and China over the last few years, US China policy is now on its way towards acquiring a sharper and more definite shape. The administration’s foreign policy line was formally articulated in the 2022 US National Security Strategy, which was published just one month prior to the Bali summit. In the document – which is historically a blueprint for US foreign policy strategy – the state of the international order is characterised by an opposition between democracies and autocracies. In this picture, China is identified as the sole competitor with the intention of advancing an authoritarian model of governance that aims to reshape the international order (while discussed, Russia is not considered at the same level of competition). This is because, as the NSS continues, China is the only authoritarian power that now retains the economic, military and technological power to do so. For the US, China’s challenge therefore appears as twofold: undermining both the United States’ great power status, and the global democratic values that the US-led international order has been cultivating since the end of the Cold War.

For these reasons, the US has spent the last year working on the first steps to elaborate a foreign policy strategy that can address systemic competition with China. This has to do with strengthening US competitiveness vis-à-vis China through a statutory framework that could enable the US industrial and technological apparatuses to be more solidly ready to reject intrusions by an authoritarian superpower.

The making of a long-term foreign policy towards China strategy for the United States, therefore, began at home. It builds upon an anti-China sentiment in Congress that has been present since 1989, and that the Trump administration further consolidated, leaving Biden with a unified position on China from both the US executive and legislative branches.

Throughout the past two years, both the administration and Congress have put a coordinated effort into important bills that aim to enhance US industrial and technological competitiveness vis-à-vis China; while also positioning the US more strongly as a promoter of a free and prosperous international order. The most comprehensive legislation is the US Strategic Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, a cross-cutting bill that covers a variety of sectors relevant for US national security that is now in the hands of the Conference Committee. This has developed alongside the CHIPS Act of 2022, which starts implementing the long-term project of rebalancing and protecting the supply chains of semiconductors; and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans imports of goods produced by forced labour in general, with a more specific references to those made in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Biden therefore arrived at G20 with a well-defined, yet developing foreign policy strategy towards China. It speaks loudly in favour of international stability, but also positions the United States on a defensive line that the US is capable of maintaining thanks to the domestic efforts on restructuring US trade, industrial, and technological policies to counter the advancement of opposite models of governance in the wider international environment. As the phase involving domestic policies is now almost set, the next step of US China policy is likely to regard the relationship with democratic allies, with Taiwan being heavily under the spotlight. The G20 summit in Bali might not have triggered new tensions, but systemic competition is set to continue.

In this story

Martina Bernardini

Martina Bernardini

Leverhulme Doctoral Fellow

Latest news