Joe Biden's Early Moves Dash Beijing's Hopes of U.S.-China Rapprochement

Early foreign policy decisions by President Joe Biden appear to have dashed Beijing's hopes of rekindling bilateral ties, which Chinese officials say are in their most serious state since relations were formalized more than 40 years ago.

Just one week on from Biden's inauguration, China has had to defend itself against U.S. charges of intimidation against its neighbors, as well as malpractice in trade and technology.

As Biden's victory became more certain in the days after the 2020 election, Chinese officials remained largely silent until Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory telegram in late November. Before that, however, China's state-owned media outlets had already turned on the charm and were confident that the new president and his cabinet would restore U.S-China relations to levels not seen since before the term of Donald Trump.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times was among the Chinese publications reacting positively to the nominations of Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser.

The state-owned tabloid, which espouses some of the Chinese government's most hawkish views, described the pair as "old faces" from the Obama era. Blinken, it said, would be more "rational and pragmatic" toward Beijing—at the time a welcome change from Trump and Mike Pompeo.

Last month, the paper also welcomed Lloyd Austin's nomination to the Pentagon, saying he would focus on the Middle East and therefore "ease tensions with China."

Biden himself was described as an experienced leader who understood Beijing's red lines and who would be unlikely to challenge China on its core interests, especially so-called domestic matters such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But hopes of a rapprochement were frustrated when Blinken said during his confirmation hearing that Trump had been right to take a "tougher approach" to China, which he described as posing the "greatest challenge" to U.S. interests.

The new State Department head also agreed with the previous administration's designation of human rights violations against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang as "genocide," before warning that any use of force against democratic Taiwan would be a "grievous mistake."

Austin and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expressed similar views on China during their Senate hearings, with the latter describing Beijing's policies in Xinjiang as "horrendous" and calling China the "most important strategic competitor of the United States."

The new chapter in U.S.-China relations got off to a rocky start when the Biden administration called for cross-party condemnation of Beijing's sanctioning of 28 former Trump officials, including Pompeo.

Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's de facto ambassador to Washington, was invited to attend the inauguration ceremony and the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was deployed to the disputed waters of the South China Sea days later.

China responded by flying a total of 28 warplanes near Taiwan on Saturday and Sunday. Beijing's move drew swift criticism from the State Department, which urged China to cease military pressure against Taipei.

This dramatic series of events, which was capped by President Xi's veiled message to Biden in his Davos speech, led to a stark admission by the Global Times on Tuesday.

In an unsigned op-ed titled "U.S. government's attitude toward China hard to change," the newspaper drew on a recent comment from White House press secretary Jen Psaki that Washington was "in a serious competition" with Beijing.

She described China's "economic abuses" and said Beijing was now "challenging our security, prosperity and values." She added that China needed to be held accountable for its unfair and illegal practices.

"Psaki's statement shows that the Biden administration's view and characterization of China is virtually identical to those of the Trump administration," the Global Times article said.

Once optimistic about a warming of relations between the two superpowers, the paper said Chinese people should prepare to "face the challenges in the long winter" of U.S.-China relations.

China should bide its time, the party newspaper suggested, citing its better handling of COVID-19 and its growing economy—the only major economy to record GDP growth in 2020, according to government figures.

The article likened China's hopes of improving bilateral ties to a "gesture of goodwill," insisting that Beijing did not need the Biden administration.

"If Washington is not in a hurry to make a change, why should Beijing?" read the op-ed, which said Biden's failure to adjust U.S. "strategic thinking" on China was like "putting old wine in a new bottle."

On Tuesday, the Chinese foreign ministry said the new U.S. government needed to "draw lessons" from the Trump administration's policies on China, including the mistaken view of Beijing as a "threat."

Analysts in Beijing believe President Biden will continue Trump's strategy to contain Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, only now flanked by more confident regional allies.

President Joe Biden Speaks from White House
President Joe Biden, pictured at the White House on January 26. His early moves on China have dashed hopes of a thaw with Beijing. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts