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People-to-people diplomacy expected, but full engagement not in sight

Xin Qiang / Global Times Share:
China US Photo: GT

SupChina, a New York-based, China-focused news platform, is getting growing scholarly support for an opinion piece it published on Thursday entitled “US-China: An argument for renewed engagement.”

The piece said that Washington now has an opportunity to engage constructively with Beijing, underlying that track II diplomacy, or nongovernmental diplomacy, is vital to restore normalcy in bilateral ties. Academics took delight with this on Twitter.


Will China and the US actually realise a renewed engagement?


The new US administration, especially President Joe Biden himself, has a far deeper understanding and insights into China-US ties than his predecessor Donald Trump. He will continue some of Trump’s legacies in China policies, but in certain fields that need to be changed and are able to be reshaped, he will surely make adjustments. It can be argued that Biden’s team will at least restore the bilateral people exchanges to some extent.

Over the past few decades, conflicts between China and the US on issues like the Taiwan question, human rights, and South China Sea disputes have never ceased. But people exchanges have remained relatively stable and played a role of pressure relief valves in bilateral ties. That was until the Trump administration almost crushed their communication, and worse, maimed overall mutual trust.

But the tide will be, to a certain degree, turned by Biden. He knows that people-to-people communication between China and US is a crucial pillar in their relations. US restrictions against China in terms of cooperation in high-tech sectors will continue, yet communication in social sciences, economics and trade will likely be revived. The US Fulbright exchange program for the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong that was terminated by Trump will probably be restored except for high-tech aspects. Setting all else aside, the US may wish to restart its cooperation with China in vaccine development.

The nongovernmental communication between the two sides was interrupted due to restrictions set by the US. If Washington lifts some of them up, this can be viewed as a signal of goodwill for future constructive engagement. By then, more interactions between the two powers will emerge. This is a realistic and achievable goal for the Biden administration.

As SupChina put it, “There remains much value in the US engaging constructively and open-mindedly with China.” To begin with, cooperating with China in epidemic prevention and control, medical research and development, and information sharing is of practical significance to the US.

The US is also confronting another huge challenge after it reins in the virus – seeking economic recovery. The US has imposed sweeping tariffs on Chinese products. China, in turn, carried out corresponding countermeasures. If the two continue such mutual sanctions and confrontation in economics and trade, US business and job resurgence will be incredibly difficult. The economic damage done by COVID-19 will continue to deteriorate.

Biden is pursuing to make a difference on addressing global issues including climate change. Yet if China and the US do not cooperate, basically none of the global challenges can be tackled.

Biden and many members of his current team were part of the Obama administration. To a great extent, Biden shares similar stances on political policies with Obama. In the future, more similarities between the Biden administration’s China policy and that of Obama’s will be observed. Biden will come back to the framework of engagement, unlike Trump who created a havoc with China ties.

But it is impossible for Biden to completely copy Obama’s China policy. The big picture of the situation has changed. There is no way that China-US relations will return to the state of the Obama era.


Thanks to the Trump administration’s continuous slander and accusations against China, as well as the endless hype made by US media outlets, the American people’s attitude toward China has severely deteriorated. As an old Chinese saying goes, “It takes more than one cold day for the river to freeze three feet deep.” Tough work is ahead if one wants to break the ice and thaw the ties. The new US administration’s coming four years in office won’t be enough. More time and arduous efforts are needed to bring China-US ties back on a normal track.

That being said, despite some changes in China-US Track II diplomacy, it is too early to hold any expectations. At present, it is pure fantasy to wish a soon-renewed engagement between the two.


The author is deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. Global Times

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