GZERO Media logo

US-China relations can be improved under Biden, but geopolitical rivalry & human rights can't be ignored

In their latest op-ed for Project Syndicate, Javier Solana and Eugenio Bregolat stress the importance of the US and China not becoming staunch enemies - but the piece also avoids some uncomfortable truths about the US-China competition. Ian Bremmer, along with Eurasia Group analysts Michael Hirson and Jeffrey Wright, grabbed The Red Pen to clarify a few points re the US-China relationship.

Today we are taking our Red Pen to an op-ed from Project Syndicate, always gets distributed globally, written by two veteran Spanish diplomats, Javier Solana and Eugenio Bregolat. Among their many accolades, Solana served as Secretary-General of NATO and Bregolat was Spain's ambassador to China. So, not too shabby. And full disclosure, Javier is actually a dear and longstanding friend. So, I'm biased. But that doesn't stop The Red Pen.

Their article is titled "Biden Can Pass His China Test," and it focuses on what will be the most important foreign policy challenge that Biden will face as president, America's relationship with China, the second most powerful country in the world. The authors argue that under Trump that relationship deteriorated significantly, all-out battles over technology, trade, human rights, and even a giant global blame game over the coronavirus pandemic.

The piece makes solid points about the importance of the two nations not becoming staunch enemies. Their cooperation on everything from climate change to nuclear proliferation to cyber norms no doubt will be critical in the coming years. And we agree that the Trump administration's approach, particularly its rhetoric, requires recalibration in the Biden presidency. But the piece also avoids some uncomfortable truths about how difficult the road ahead is going to be in US/China diplomacy.

So first, Solana and Bregolat argue that "despite their obvious rivalry, the United States and China must try to understand each other" as they seek peaceful coexistence.

Now, let's be real: The rivalry between these two nations isn't about a failure to listen to one another. It's a geopolitical competition, particularly in and over Asia (though it's increasingly global) to dominate commercial sectors like technology and also increasingly zero-sum direct security concerns. Talking helps, absolutely, but won't change that underlying reality.

"The United States and China must try to understand each other." The US-China rivalry is not about a failure to listen to one another; it is a geopolitical competition.

Next, the authors urge Biden to promote democracy and human rights in a "calm, consistent, and sensible manner" and avoid "trying to impose values."

Never mind the fact that actually, Trump himself did virtually none of that, but calling for regime change in China is clearly not a sensible strategy. But neither is ignoring our values or Western values. And the United States can urge China to adhere to basic human rights standards without also demanding it become a liberal democracy. Treatment of Uighurs is at the top of the list. As is breaking the "one country, two systems" promise in Hong Kong. These things can't be swept under the rug, by the Americans or our allies across the pond, for that matter.

"But this is different from trying to impose values or enforce conduct through 'regime change.'" Regime change is not a sensible strategy. But neither is ignoring our values.

Solana and Bregolat also write that "a relationship built on cooperation and competition must exclude the open confrontation sought by Trump and his hawks."

And here, I want to say that Trump's strategy, while in many ways' imperfect, actually also held some truth. Relying on engagement alone, which is what we mostly saw under the old Obama administration, wasn't working to shape Chinese behavior. The smartest people on Team Trump and Team Biden both recognize that confrontation on some issues is necessary. Indeed, in overall policy orientation, Team Biden and Team Trump probably closer and see eye-to-eye on China than any other foreign policy issue.

"A relationship built on cooperation and competition must exclude the open confrontation sought by Trump and his hawks." Trump's strategy was not perfect but it held a kernel of truth.

Finally, Solana and Bregolat say that the EU is exercising "strategic autonomy" by developing "an ambitious agenda for collaboration" with Biden while also "concluding a comprehensive investment agreement with China."

Yep, Europe is a significant part of the equation here. But just as the EU doesn't need to slavishly follow the United States, it also shouldn't sign a last-minute deal with China and expect a pat on the back from Washington. Europe has just as much stake in preserving the liberal international system as does the United States, even though that is getting harder and the support for it is eroding.

The European Union, meanwhile, has already developed an ambitious agenda for collaboration with the Biden administration." Europe doesn't need to slavishly follow the US, but it has just as much at stake in preserving the liberal international system.

Well, there you have it, that's your Red Pen for this week. We will have much more to say about the US and China in the coming months, that is for sure. Stay tuned.

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele is an unusual politician. The 39-year old political outsider boasts of his political triumphs on TikTok, dons a suave casual uniform (backwards-facing cap; leather jacket; tieless ), and refuses to abide by Supreme Court rulings.

Bukele also enjoys one of the world's highest approval ratings, and that's what helped his New Ideas party clinch a decisive victory in legislative elections on February 28, securing a close to two-third's supermajority (75 percent of the vote had been counted at the time of this writing).

His triumph will resonate far beyond the borders of El Salvador, Central America's smallest country, home to 6.5 million people. Now that Bukele has consolidated power in a big way, here are a few key developments to keep an eye on.

More Show less

Now that millions of high-priority Americans have been vaccinated, many people in low-risk groups are starting to ask the same question: when's my turn? Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious diseases expert, has an answer, but probably not the one they're hoping for: "It probably won't be until May or June before we can at least start to get the normal non-prioritized person vaccinated." On GZERO World, Dr. Fauci also addresses another burning question: why aren't schools reopening faster? And while Dr. Fauci acknowledges that reopening schools must be a top priority, he has no quick fixes there, either. In fact, that's kind of a theme of the interview.

Watch the GZERO World episode: Dr. Fauci's Pandemic Prognosis

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I thought I would talk today, I haven't spoken much about former President Trump since he's no longer president and I intend to continue that practice. But given this weekend and the big speech at CPAC and the fact that in the straw poll, Trump won and won by a long margin. I mean, DeSantis came in number two, but he's the Governor of Florida, CPAC was in Orlando, so that's a home court bias. In reality, it's Trump's party. And I think given all of that, it's worth spending a little bit of time reflecting on what that means, how I think about these things.

More Show less

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Biden strikes Syria. Now what?

Quick Take