The Difference Between US and Chinese Foreign Policy in a Word

On November 15, US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met for a three and a half hour virtual discussion. Though little of real significance was accomplished, for talks held with a hope of cooling a second cold war, that both sides simply described the talk as cordial is significant.

But there were important differences between the approaches of the two leaders. Biden did reaffirm a commitment to the One China policy, and XI did reaffirmed that China "will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification." And both stressed the need to establish "guardrails" to prevent the situation from going off the rails into a hot war, from "veer[ing] into conflict, whether intended or unintended," as Biden put it.

But Biden couldn’t extricate himself from his cold war framework. While committing to building guardrails in an attempt to tamp down the cold war, Biden could not refrain from his cold war vocabulary. In the White House readout of the meeting, Biden almost immediately slipped into the cold war language of "our allies and partners" "stand[ing] up for our interests and values" and the generational language of ensuring that "the rules of the road for the 21st century advance an international system that is free, open, and fair." "He also discussed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and communicated the continued determination of the United States to uphold our commitments in the region."

Biden underscored that the US remains committed to the One China policy, but undercut that assurance with the announcement that the US will host senior Taiwanese officials the same week for high level security talks. The Pentagon said, "our support for and defense relationship with Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China." Topics will include "the next wave of weapons purchases from the U.S." The Taiwanese delegation will include several people with ranks as high as deputy minister. The One China policy commits the US to maintaining only low-profile, unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

According to former Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in the American embassy in Beijing and former State Department Director for Chinese Affairs Chas Freeman, three joint communiqués negotiated with China between 1972 and 1982 “are the foundation of Sino-American relations." They commit the US not only to low-profile, unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan but also to having no troops in Taiwan and reducing and limiting arms sales to Taiwan. Freeman says this commitment "has long been the key to peace or war – possibly nuclear war – between the United States and China." This week’s meeting with Taiwan seems to violate both of those promises and to undermine Biden’s declared commitment in his meeting with Xi to the One China policy.

But beyond specific statements or contradictions, the general difference between the American approach to foreign policy and the Chinese approach to foreign policy can be captured in Biden’s choice and XI’s choice of a single word.

China had long wished for a post cold war world that embraced China and the US as equals: an international system devoid of hostile alliances. This world view was represented by XI’s constant choice of the word "cooperation."

On the topic of climate change, XIhoped that it "could become a new highlight in U.S.-China cooperation." In his opening remarks, he declared that "China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation." Later, he said that "China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation." Despite their differences, XI said, "China was willing to engage in talks and cooperation with the United States on a wide range of matters." The choice of the word "cooperation" was deliberate, and the constant repetition was no accident.

Biden, though, could not bring himself to characterize the relationship as one of cooperation. He sees it, instead, as a competition. And that is the word he chose to set the tone in his opening remarks: "As I’ve said before, it seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended. Just simple, straightforward competition."

XI and China seem to be willing to surmount the cold war competition and create a world of cooperation; Biden and the US seem incapable of escaping the mindset of a competitive cold war. And that difference was captured in a single word.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.