Navigating High-Level Exchanges: Assessing the Dynamics of US-China Diplomacy under the Biden Administration

Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, where he also is the Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies. He is also a nonresident affiliated fellow in the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Prior to joining Brookings, Hass served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council (NSC) staff from 2013-2017. In that role, he advised President Obama and senior White House officials on all aspects of U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and coordinated the implementation of U.S. policy toward this region among U.S. government departments and agencies. Prior to the White House, Hass was a Foreign Service Officer, serving overseas in Beijing, Seoul, and Ulaanbaatar, and domestically in the State Department Offices of Taiwan Coordination and Korean Affairs. 
Jian (Athena) Ke '26 interviewed Dr. Ryan Hass on September 18, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Ryan Hass on behalf of Brookings Institute.

When Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce, left China by the end of August, it marked the end of a three-month diplomatic engagement by the Biden administration to establish a working relationship with China even as the US and China continue to compete with each other in all domains. What are the intentions and motivations behind the Biden administration’s efforts to engage in such high-level dialogue with China?  

The Biden administration's outreach to China serves several key audiences. Firstly, it aims to strengthen ties with America's allies and partners, a central pillar of its China strategy. These nations are looking to the United States to actively work on stabilizing the US-China relationship. None of them wish to see a return to a Cold War-like binary dynamic or be forced into a choice between the two superpowers. Their desire is for the United States to engage with China actively, manage sources of tension, and establish a more stable and predictable relationship.

Secondly, there's a domestic audience in the United States. President Biden seeks to showcase his competence in handling America's primary global competitor. This involves demonstrating that he is a steady, stable statesman capable of managing a challenging relationship with his Chinese counterpart. Within the United States, no one wants to see tensions escalate or the risk of conflict with China. President Biden is responding to this demand signal.

Lastly, the third audience comprises the US government's counterparts in China. The Biden administration wishes to explore the possibility of reducing tensions in specific areas of the US-China relationship. Additionally, they aim to identify opportunities for mutual self-interest and collaboration in addressing common challenges. These factors collectively inform the administration's outreach to their Chinese counterparts. 

How do you think the dialogue is perceived in the US? Has the dialogue reached its targeted audience? And are they reacting the way that we expected them to react?

It's currently too early to draw definitive conclusions. A significant portion of this outreach happened during the summer months when many Americans were preoccupied with their daily lives and enjoying their summer activities. Consequently, they might not be giving much thought to topics beyond US-China relations.

Nonetheless, there are critics of the Biden administration's approach, particularly in Washington, DC, and among members of Congress. These critics argue that the administration appears overly eager to pursue a closer relationship with China. They point to the repeated high-level visits to Beijing without equivalent visits by Chinese officials to the United States, suggesting that this eagerness sends a message of excessive enthusiasm to stabilize relations with China.

Another criticism revolves around the notion of an "engagement trap." This perspective suggests that the Biden administration is engaging in dialogues primarily for the sake of holding dialogues. The repeated meetings with China are seen as a strategy employed by China to slow down and stall policy decisions by the Biden administration. Moreover, some critics contend that despite the numerous trips by senior officials to China, the Biden administration has not achieved tangible results.

Despite these criticisms, it appears that the Biden administration is managing the situation and remains committed to its current approach.

Returning to the criticism about the Biden administration engaging in dialogues for the sake of dialogues, the question is, what specific topics are discussed in these conversations? Have they addressed some of the contentious issues currently straining the China-US relationship?

My expectation is that these dialogues will tackle the most challenging issues in the US-China relationship. The Biden administration isn't avoiding any topics in their interactions with the Chinese counterparts. These meetings aren't about building friendly relationships; they're about addressing issues directly and honestly. If these discussions were left to lower-level officials, it would imply that there aren't significant matters to address. So, issues like Taiwan and the Ukraine conflict are often on the agenda, along with concerns about economic fairness and understanding China's ambitions. 

Before this period of high-level engagement, there was a significant lack of communication between both countries. This absence of communication led to people in both countries making assumptions about each other's actions, plans, and intentions. It created a fertile environment for misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and worst-case scenarios. This dynamic, if left unchecked, can be harmful and drive relations towards confrontation and hostility. I am personally pleased to see that this cycle has been broken, and both governments have shown the courage to sit down and discuss their differences. While it doesn't guarantee agreement, engaging in dialogue is a positive step in diplomacy.

And in your opinion, after this round of dialogue, what's the current state of the relationship between the US and China?

In this current phase, both countries are engaging in communication without any willingness to compromise significantly. They recognize that direct conversations are necessary, but they are not inclined to make major concessions to establish a more stable relationship. Consequently, we shouldn't expect any significant improvements in the relationship at the moment. However, there is also a reduced likelihood of a sharp deterioration in the relationship. It seems that both President Biden and President Xi want to avoid appearing weak to their domestic audiences and prevent uncontrollable escalation of tensions. Hence, the current situation of communication without concessions serves the interests of both leaders.

Do you see President Biden and Xi Jinping meeting up in person anytime soon? Would this round of dialogue contribute to that effort or, you know, push it away?

Both sides are actively working towards arranging a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders. The most likely venue for this meeting would be on the sidelines of the APEC leaders' gathering scheduled for November in San Francisco. This event presents the highest likelihood of the two leaders coming together to discuss various aspects of their relationship. However, it's important to note that the meeting has not been confirmed as of now, so we'll need to await further developments to know for sure.

Jian (Athena) Ke '26Student Journalist

Office of U.S. Commerce Secretary, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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