WASHINGTON — The U.S.-China relationship will be defined by strategic competition in the coming decades but must involve engagement when the interests of the two countries align, the U.S. ambassador to China said Friday, one month after President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to stabilize the fraught relations.
Nicholas Burns said the U.S. and China are “vying for global power as well as regional power” as they compete militarily, politically and economically.
“I think we are systematic rivals, if you think about our national security and economic and political interests around the world,” Burns said at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
In the Indo-Pacific region, China “wishes to be the strongest power,” Burns said.
“China has a very different view of global governance and the future of the liberal order,” he said. “And of course, we are attached to a liberal order because it speaks to our values and our interests, and we think this is the best order of the world.”
Yet, the two countries need to work together on issues such as climate change, narcotics, global health and food security, he said.
“No person in their right mind should want this relationship to end up in conflict or in war,” he said. “So we’re going to develop a relationship where we can compete, but, as the president says, to compete responsibly, drive down the probability of a conflict and bring our people together in a balanced relationship is one way to do that.”
Washington is recalibrating its relationship with Beijing after several years of tumult that began with the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods under the Trump administration. Ties further deteriorated over the COVID-19 pandemic and military tensions in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait.
Last month, Biden met with Xi in Woodside, California, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The two leaders vowed to stabilize relations and agreed to combat illegal fentanyl and reestablish military communications.
Burns said China had begun shutting down some of the black market for fentanyl precursors, but the test would be whether the effort would continue. The ambassador said the resumption of military communications was important because the two militaries were operating “in very close proximity to each other” in the South China and East China seas, and communications could help prevent any crisis from getting out of control.
But differences on economic competition and global security remain.
On Thursday night, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the U.S.-China Business Council the Biden administration seeks to strengthen relationships with like-minded nations but also has established economic working groups with China to exchange information.
The Biden administration has kept the tariffs slapped on some Chinese goods by the previous administration and has tightened export controls and investments in high-tech areas such as advanced chips.
Xi also sent a letter to the business council, urging the group and its members to “build more bridges for friendly exchange” and expand cooperation. He vowed to build a better business environment in China.
“The Chinese-style modernization will create more opportunities for global businesses including U.S. companies,” Xi’s letter said.
China’s economy slowed in the third quarter, as global demand for its exports faltered and the ailing property sector sank deeper into crisis.