October 11, 2021

The announcement that Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will meet in a virtual summit before the end of the year have raised prospects that Washington and Beijing can begin to set “guardrails” to prevent U.S.-China competition from tipping into outright conflict. Despite Biden’s emphasis in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly that the United States is “not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs” and Xi’s statement that disputes should “be handled through dialogue and cooperation,” the intensifying rivalry between the two states has been very much in the spotlight. The current trajectory of U.S.-China relations and trendlines in the Indo-Pacific are concerning, and wise leadership on the part of Washington, Beijing, and the middle powers of the region will be essential to prevent a drift toward zero-sum conflict.


Since coming into office, the Biden administration has proposed that the United States will simultaneously confront and compete with China, while seeking cooperation in areas of common interest. Beijing, however, has rejected this framework, making the case that Washington should not expect China’s cooperation on issues like climate change as long as it continues to challenge China’s policies elsewhere. Chinese leaders have expressed that the “ball is in the U.S. court” to rectify its “misguided policies.” This past July, Beijing presented U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with “three bottom lines” and “two lists.” Included in these are demands that the U.S. must refrain from criticizing China’s domestic system and its policies toward Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, and that all sanctions, tariffs, and export restrictions imposed on China be removed.


Patricia Kim Brookings Institution CWP China Alum

Patricia M. Kim is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at Brookings and holds a joint appointment to the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies. She is an expert on Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and U.S. alliance management and regional security dynamics in East Asia.