Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have all made public remarks in the past month to clarify the US strategy toward China. In substantive ways, these remarks—and Yellen’s speech in particular—represent an important shift in framing. If received positively in China, these clarifications might help to facilitate much-needed dialogue between the two governments and set the bilateral relationship on a more even keel. Yet, as initial reactions in China indicate, they are unlikely to be enough to shift perceptions in Beijing that the US is seeking to curb China’s rise.
How has US strategy toward China been reframed?
In its earlier incarnation, the US strategy toward China was summed up by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “invest, align and compete.” Broadly, this meant a commitment to investing in expanding US production capacities, aligning with partners and allies, and competing with China. The problem with this formulation was that the first element of the strategy was domestically focused and the second oriented toward other countries, leaving “compete” as the sole descriptor of the desired US relationship with China. This, combined with Sullivan’s September 2022 speech outlining the new US approach of maintaining “as large of a lead as possible” in key technologies, created the impression, not just in China but also elsewhere, that the main US goal was to hold China back in its overall development.
In her April 20 speech, Yellen underscored that the US seeks healthy, rather than zero-sum, competition with China, a point later reiterated by Sullivan in his April 27 speech. Both emphasized that the US intends to narrowly target restrictions on national security grounds. Sullivan described this as a “small yard, high fence” approach, while Yellen sought to assure that that "(o)ur goal is not to use these tools to gain competitive economic advantage" and that US measures were “calibrated to mitigate spillovers into other areas.” Sullivan clarified that the US seeks to “derisk,” rather than decouple, from China. Together, these remarks offer up more space for a positive-sum relationship between the US and China and potential to, in Yellen’s words, pursue a “healthy economic engagement that benefits both countries.”
However, US efforts to reframe its approach to China have been met with muted reactions in Beijing. In the week following Yellen’s remarks, China’s foreign ministry spokespersons deviated little from their existing talking points when asked questions touching on the US-China relationship. Instead, between April 21 and 26, the spokespersons variously asserted that the “true intention of the US is to take away the right to development from China and maintain US supremacy,” that the “US has pushed for decoupling and severing supply chains,” and that China “oppose(s) overstretching the concept of national security and unjustifiably suppressing Chinese companies.”
What explains the seemingly cold response from China, at least publicly?
One consideration is that the US language on “derisking” is not credible to audiences in China. US officials have been at pains to clarify that their government is working to target its technology restrictions as narrowly as possible and to minimize spillovers into other aspects of the relationship. From the Chinese perspective, however, US efforts are perceived as a surgical targeting of chokepoint technologies that will have maximal impact in curbing China’s overall development. These export controls—on advanced computing, semiconductor manufacturing equipment and software—remain in place, signaling no change in the US national security strategy. Trump-era tariffs also remain in place. New controls on US outbound investment in China are being drafted, and Congress is seeking new legislation to further tighten restrictions on China.
Given the unfolding impact of these measures, the gap between US assurances and Chinese perceptions is unlikely to be bridged. Where is the path for what Yellen describes as a relationship allowing for “growth and innovation in both countries,” when China is shut out from access to vital leading-edge technologies?
Another factor to take into account is Chinese domestic politics. In March, Chinese president Xi Jinping publicly asserted that the US strategy is one of “containment, encirclement and suppression.” The top leader’s remarks effectively narrow the available space for the party-state apparatus to accept any alternative interpretation of US intentions toward China. This emphasis on top-down discipline has only strengthened after the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th party congress and the party-state restructuring announced in the spring, during which the party’s authority was further centralized.
Finally, these speeches alone are not enough to alter dynamics that have been gathering speed over a sustained period of time. Xi’s remarks in March about US containment represent the culmination of steady changes in China’s overall threat perception. Official views that the US is out to curb China’s rise have been building since the tariff war started in 2018. Chinese policies emphasizing self-reliance and building “independent and controllable” technology capabilities have increased significantly. In 2021, high-level guiding policies such as the 14th Five-Year Plan called for “coordinat(ing) security and development,” effectively elevating security to the same plank as economic growth. Xi’s report at the 20th party congress last year saw the proliferation of the security framing across different dimensions, from territory and ideology to the political realm, economy, and energy. Central government policies are urging the construction of a “new whole-of-nation” system for science and technology innovation, to face heightened odds in a hostile world.
Against this backdrop, public remarks from cabinet-level officials in the US may be much needed but ultimately will be insufficient against the building momentum in China to securitize the economic agenda. The danger is that what could be perceived in the US as a substantive shift in its policy framing, and an extension of an olive branch, is not seen the same way in China. In order for China to not dismiss Yellen’s and Sullivan’s remarks as mere rhetoric, we need substantive measures that strengthen confidence on both sides.
The US Transportation Department’s recent approval of increased Chinese airline flights to the US is one small example. But the US alone cannot halt the downward spiral in bilateral relations. It hopes that China will reciprocate its clear efforts to establish dialogue, unlike previous episodes where requests for calls were declined. China’s invitation to John Kerry for talks on climate change cooperation is a positive sign that could pave the way for more confidence-building measures.
Without both sides being open to dialogue, it will be exceedingly difficult to bridge the gap between what the US views as its national security interests and what China sees as its crucial path for continued development to find areas of mutual interest and cooperation.
This publication does not include a replication package.