2021: US-CHINA RELATIONS IN REVIEW
Taking you through the most important themes, trends, and events of Sino-American affairs in 2021, one of the most consequential years for the relationship in recent history.
Global Image: International Repercussions to Hong Kong Security Law
By Dylan Shepard
Throughout the year the world continued to see the effects of the Hong Kong national security law (NSL), which was first implemented starting summer 2020. In January of this year, over 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians were arrested under the NSL for organizing an electoral primary for pro-democracy candidates in the year prior. Of the 54 arrested, 47 were charged with attempting to subvert state power, with further arrests of journalists and opposition leaders continuing through December. Although Hong Kong was guaranteed 50 years of continued self-governance under the Basic Law as negotiated in the 1984 agreement between Britain and China, China’s apparent growing confidence regarding its authority over Hong Kong reflects a new mindset from Chinese leaders that diverges from Deng’s “bide your time” strategy employed before. The major consequence of this shift has been a growing skepticism from world leaders of what was once considered China’s “benign” rise. In Taiwan, it has certainly dispelled any ideas of voluntarily joining China’s One Country, Two Systems scheme, which the Taiwanese government called this year nothing but a “facade” as a precursor to annexation.
Health: China Forbidding the Entry of WHO investigators Regarding COVID-19 Origins
By Schuyler Van Tassel
In January of 2021, World Health Organization officials were barred entry into China for the investigation on the origins of COVID-19, prompting an international backlash. The investigation, which had been announced a month beforehand, was blocked, with claims of their visas not yet being valid. In the previous year, the WHO had not been invited to join the Chinese government’s own investigation. The US had criticized China’s barring of entry, with the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, saying “Their position is irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous,". The Chinese response, by China’s National Health Commission Vice Minister Zeng Yixin, claimed that China was hesitant due to security concerns. Overall, the early part of 2021 showed both sides had a mistrust of the medical institutions that were set up, and COVID-19 put additional strain on that.
Economy: US Sanctions and Blacklisting Chinese Companies
By Kaitlyn Yuan
In early 2021, the US imposed a series of sanctions against Chinese officials and blacklisted a number of Chinese companies. In March, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) blacklisted five Chinese companies, including Huawei, on national security grounds. A few weeks later, seven Chinese supercomputing entities were added to the list. Meanwhile, sanctions were launched against Chinese authorities over human rights issues in China’s takeover of Hong Kong and the situation in Xinjiang. As a comeback, Beijing responded by imposing sanctions on ten European Union officials and four entities, including the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament and the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany. Altogether, the blacklistings and sanctions put the economic and political relations between Washington and Beijing at a rocky start. Global companies were caught in the crossfire as they attempted to conduct business in both countries but faced scrutiny in the US and backlash in China.
April 4: China sends additional fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace
April 6: Closer relations between Serbia and China form via the inoculation of President Aleksandar Vucic using Sinovac
April 17: US—China Joint Statement Addressing the climate crisis
April 22: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completes second test flight on Mars
April 22: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter completes second test flight on Mars
April 28: China’s launches Tianhe module, the first of three space station components for astronauts to build the Tiangong Space Station
May 5: Joe Biden makes speech on US vs China, calling it democracy vs. autocracy
May 8: US watches out for Chinese rocket debris re-entering atmosphere
May 21: 7.4 Magnitude earthquake 27 miles away from Dali, Yunnan
May 22: China’s Zhurong Mars rover is deployed on Mars as part of its inaugural mission to the Red Planet
May 26: US Trade Representative Katherine Tai + Chinese Vice Premier Liu He hold first trade talk over phone
May 27: Biden announces release of inquiry into Wuhan lab leak
Health: WHO Approval of Chinese COVID Vaccines Sparks Competition
By Viktor Olah
The race to vaccinate the planet became a crucial issue over the summer, with multiple actors’ attempts to push out transnational agreements. After the WHO granted emergency use to both Chinese vaccines, the CCP looked to send them abroad. Sinopharm and Sinovac would struggle to break into the developed world due to their low success rates, but would find most of its success in deals with developing nations that failed to gain shipments of Western vaccines. Through making deals with the manufacturers, China sealed a deal to produce vaccines in Serbia and ultimately spread its soft power in the region. Hoping to establish deeper relations and improve the region's chance to fight the virus, the United States also began donating Johnson & Johnson vaccines to the African continent. Additionally, the American goal was to grant a clear divide between the US's relatively effective vaccine and the questionable Chinese ones. The vaccine race served as an example of the political transformation of COVID-19 from its original health identity. The US and China turned the politicization of the global pandemic into an opportunity to challenge each other on the global stage through spreading their influence alongside vaccine shipments.
Politics & Culture: CCP 100th Anniversary
By Sam Horner
The sky was clear despite forecasts for rain on July 1 in Beijing, China, which would be the main site for the Communist Party of China’s 100th Anniversary celebration. Established on July 1, 1921 in Shanghai, the CCP grew from 50 members to over 95 million members today. As such, the CCP’s culture significantly informed China’s politics. Red carpets spread out across Tiananmen Square as thousands of singers, spectators, and national dignitaries converged to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech. Xi, who also serves as the General Secretary of the CCP, began his address with how the birth of the CCP came at a critical moment in Chinese history. After years of foreign intervention and oppression, Xi expressed how the CCP “struggled and sacrificed… [to] unite and lead the Chinese people.” Fast forward to today, Xi views the state of modern China as the manifestation of the CCP’s effort to revitalize the Chinese nation. Pointing to two specific policies, moderately prosperous society and One Country, Two Systems, Xi urged listeners to follow the party’s lead as China marches towards the future, which will involve China balancing both development and security mechanisms to protect the nation. Catching the eye of viewers here in the US, Xi expressed the hope to build a peaceful international order, but quickly qualified those words with the phrase, “we will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us.” The sentence that followed created considerable discourse among American journalists as Xi stated, “Anyone who dares try to do that will find themselves on a collision course against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” In the original words of this sentence, Xi used the idiom 头破血流 (tóupòxuěliú) that means ‘head bashed, blood flowing’, and startled many in the West with its violent imagery. Even as Chinese language scholars debated over the severity of Xi’s words, it is clear that the forceful language used here and throughout his speech demonstrated that he is confident in China’s capability to defy foreign influences.
Geopolitics: Growing US-China & Taiwan Tensions
By Dylan Shepard
Disputes over Taiwan heated up this year as China ramped up military drills around the island. The PRC sent an unprecedented 28 warplanes into Taiwanese airspace on June 15 until they later doubled that number on October 4, setting a record of 56 Chinese warplanes entering in just one day. Back in 2013, Xi told his Taiwanese counterpart that the question of Taiwan’s long term sovereignty status “cannot be passed on from generation to generation,” hinting that achieving reunification may be a top policy objective within Xi’s administration. Officially, China has always promised to integrate Taiwan peacefully, but growing Taiwanese nationalism and the backlash against the One Country, Two Systems plan perhaps forced the leadership in Beijing to adopt a more aggressive strategy. In response, there have been growing calls in the US to further signal American support for the Taiwanese, potentially doing away with the long term policy of “strategic ambiguity.” It’s a policy that leaves open the possibility of US intervention in the case of a Chinese invasion while not giving Taiwan a blank cheque to declare outright independence and provoke China. In a town hall with CNN, President Joe Biden pledged to defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese incursion while the White House later walked back his statements as not diverging from the status quo. Despite Biden’s retraction, a poll in August revealed a dramatic shift of opinion for the first time as a majority of Americans said they would support a military intervention to protect Taiwan.
October 6: Biden and Xi agree to hold a virtual summit by the end of 2021
October 11: China says it carried out beach landing drills in province opposite Taiwan
October 14: Microsoft to shut down LinkedIn in China amid growing internet censorship
October 16: Biden compares Xinjiang internment camps to the Holocaust
October 19: China test fires ‘world’s largest, most hi-tech solid-fuel rocket engine’
October 26: US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He hold virtual meeting
October 26: FCC revokes China Telecom Americas, a US subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned telecommunications company, services in US
October 29: US lawmakers pass tighter restrictions on Huawei and ZTE, sending bill to Biden
November 10: US and China announce joint declaration on climate action
November 13: Chinese Foreign Ministry warns US not to support Taiwan independence
November 15: Biden and Xi begin their first virtual summit
November 16: US-China relax visa restrictions on each other’s respective journalists
November 24: US blacklists Chinese quantum computing companies
December 2: US finalizes rules enabling it to delist Chinese firms
December 6: US officials announce diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing
New York Times
January 6: US includes WeChat and Alipay as part of its ban on Chinese apps
January 11: Former US President Donald Trump’s executive order to prohibit US investors’ securities purchases in 35 Chinese companies linked to the People’s Liberation Army
January 19: US declares Xinjiang issue a genocide
January 21: China sanctions 28 Trump officials, including Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
January 23: Chinese combat aircrafts enter Taiwan’s air defense zone
January 25: Chinese President Xi Jinping warns of a “new cold war” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
February 5: American and Chinese officials including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s most senior Foreign Policy Official Yang Jiechi speak over the phone
February 7: Xi calls for combat readiness within the PLA
February 9: US Aircraft carriers navigate through South China Sea
February 10: Biden announces US strategy review on China and holds a phone call with Xi
February 12: China’s National radio and Television Administration bans BBC from broadcasting
February 13: WHO investigator claims Chinese officials withheld COVID-19 information
February 17: Biden calls for consequences against China regarding the Xinjiang camps
March 3: CISA demands government agencies to download the latest Microsoft software update after Microsoft caught Chinese hackers in its system
March 10: US extends tariff exclusion to include Chinese medical products to aid COVID-19 response
March 12: The US FCC blacklists five Chinese companies, including Huawei, as threats to national security
March 12: US, India, Japan + Australia (the Quad) partner up to supply 1 billion COVID vaccines across Asia by end of 2022 to counter growing Chinese influence
March 17: US sanctions 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials as a result of HK takeover
March 18: US and China hold contentious two-day talks in Anchorage, Alaska
March 22: US, UK, Canada + EU impose sanctions on Chinese officials with links to Uyghur genocidal campaign in Xinjiang
Climate: Climate Cooperation & China-US Joint Statement Addressing Climate Change
By Aedan Yohannan
In April 2021, both the US and China issued a joint statement on climate change, agreeing to take further action. The statement was released on both the State Department’s website and Chinese embassy to the United States’ website, which included six areas of mutual agreement. The first was an agreement on the intense urgency that the climate issue demands, the second was the importance of upholding the 2016 Paris Agreement, and the third continued with the significance of a productive lead up to the COP26 summit in November. The fourth was a broad list of action items including investment in renewable energy, the fifth was a list of methods aimed at reducing emissions, and the sixth was an agreement on the importance of successful climate summits in the future. The statement itself came after a meeting between Chinese Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua and US Climate Envoy John Kerry. Kerry’s visit to China was the first by any high-level official since Biden was elected. Both the US and China have an interest in leading the world in the fight against climate change, although 2021 proved that cooperation in this realm is far from impossible.
Politics: Bipartisan Support for Strategic Competition Act of 2021
By Aedan Yohannan
Concern about China’s rise has been an object of growing bipartisan concern in the US for years and 2021 was no exception to this trend. In late April 2021, bipartisan worry manifested in the “Strategic Competition Act of 2021,” an act overwhelmingly backed by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The act included aid to geopolitically contested regions like Africa and South America, increased investment in science, technology, infrastructure, etc., and enhanced cooperation with allies, which had support from both Republicans and Democrats. According to Reuters, both Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID) coauthored components of the bill with Risch deeming it “truly bipartisan,” making China one of the last truly bipartisan issues in the American body of politics. China hasn’t taken kindly to such legislation, with one spokesman who argued that the bill “distorts facts and confuses right and wrong.” Other critics can also be found in the US like Michael D. Swaine who claimed the act “epitomizes the worst errors of the new Washington 'consensus' on what a rising China supposedly means for the United States and the world." While the debate around the act’s necessity and content continues to rage, what cannot be denied is the increasingly bipartisan nature of the China issue in the US.
June 4: Ban on Tiananmen Square anniversary in Hong Kong
June 4: US Senate passes $250 billion bill to increase competitiveness with China
June 10: China re-implements lockdowns within multiple cities
June 13: Deadly explosion in central market within Hubei
June 15: Additional fly over of Chinese jets into Taiwanese airspace
June 17: Shenzhou-12 space mission takes flight
June 20: Nearly 1 billion vaccines distributed within China
July 1: CCP celebrates it 100th year anniversary in Bird’s National Stadium
July 9: US Dept of Commerce adds 23 Chinese companies to economic blacklist for alleged ties to Xinjiang human rights abuses
July 14: US Senate passes bill to ban all products from Xinjiang
July 21: US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin
July 23: China sanctions 7 US citizens and entities with new anti-foreign sanction law
July 28: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Taliban leadership amidst US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan
July 29: New Chinese ambassador to the US Qin Gang visits the US for first time
August 5: US State Department approves $750 million arms sale deal to Taiwan in defense against possible Chinese invasion
August 9: US-China officials clash over Chinese actions in the South China Sea during a UN Security Council meeting on maritime security
August 20: Chinese astronauts complete second spacewalk to continue operational work on Tiangong Space Station
August 25: US grant licenses for suppliers to sell chips for components like sensors to Huawei
August 27: China cracks down on tech companies and internet firms with stricter regulations that limit listing in the US
August 28: Chinese Defence Ministry protests US Navy warship and coastguard cutter passage through Taiwan Strait
September 1: China imposes new maritime identification rules for foreign vessels that enter its territorial waters
September 8: US destroyer sails near a disputed body of water in the South China Sea a week after the implementation of China’s new maritime law
September 9: Biden holds second phone call with Xi, talking US-China competition management in associated regions like the South China Sea and Taiwan
September 14: PLA affiliation policy from former Trump administration causes the rejection of 500 Chinese students’ US visas
September 15: Biden announces new security partnership between US, Australia + UK to rival China’s expanding influence and military power
September 16: China extends tariff exemptions on 81 US products
September 17: Three Chinese astronauts return to Earth after spending 90 days working on Tiangong Space Station
September 22: Biden pledges to boost climate funding while Xi announces that China will cease building coal-fired power power plants overseas during UN General Assembly
September 28: China urges US to join in talks with Russia about banning weapons in outer space during UN Geneva conference
Climate Change: Catastrophic floods, COP 15 and COP 26
By Sam Horner
On September 23, citizens in Nanyang, Henan woke up to torrential rainfalls battering their community. A few days after, Nanyang County was put under a Level 2 emergency, which was too late as rapid flooding had already inundated the entire area. What made matters worse for local residents was that only two short months before, historic floods struck the exact same area that claimed hundreds of lives. These two floods that happened within a short period of time were just growing examples of climate change’s impacts. Scientists proved that rising temperatures create better conditions for flooding, especially in low-lying areas like Henan Province. Unfortunately, October brought more disastrous floods to Shanxi Province, forcing 12,000 people to evacuate. While floods dominated Chinese provinces, large-scale flooding also hit Tennessee in the US and proved that the harmful impacts of climate change weren’t targeting one country. From October 31 - November 12, the COP 26 Forum was held in Glasgow, Scotland but leaders from neither China nor the US attended the forum in-person. However, a breakthrough occurred in the aftermath of this conference as both nations agreed to cut down methane emissions in order to respond to the impending climate crisis. Furthemore, China reflected on its own ecological challenges at the COP 15 Summit hosted in Kunming, Yunnan Province earlier in October. In this setting renowned for its serene landscape and breathtaking nature, China set aside $230 million to a national biodiversity fund and pledged to halt plant species extinction by 2035. As evidenced by small but noteworthy changes like this, both the US and China are inching closer to revising big factors of society that harm the environment. However, the pressure of time still remains at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and questions about whether or not the two most powerful nations are capable of working together in a significant way is possible despite incredible gridlock.
Space: NASA Watches US Billionaires, Beijing’s Beginnings in Space
By Ishani Chettri
The second half of 2021 brought attention to China’s space adventures and ground-breaking endeavors like sending its astronauts to the Tiangong space station and testing hypersonic missiles with nuclear capabilities. While American billionaires like Jared Issacman and other private citizens briefly orbited the Earth on a SpaceX flight in September, China continued construction on its completely independent space station that hopes to rival the International Space Station. Yet, what about NASA? NASA announced that its Artemis program — the US return to the Moon — would be delayed until 2026 as the COVID-19 pandemic increased technical difficulties and slowed overall development. While China worked on building its space reputation, the US focused on hypersonic missile production as both nations and Russia showed advances in military and space technology, highlighting US lawmakers’ concerns about the possibility of an international conflict in space.
December 8: US bans imports from Xinjiang
December 10: China’s top AI firm lands on US’s investment blacklist
December 16: US Treasury Department blacklists eight Chinese companies
December 20: US sanctions five more Hong-Kong-based Chinese officials
December 21: China sanctions four members of a US government commission on religious freedom
Economy (Corporations): Evergrande Liquidity Crisis
By Kaitlyn Yuan
In the wake of Beijing’s new regulations on debt limits, the China Evergrande Group defaulted in early December after missing several repayments for its $300 billion debt. As China’s second-largest property developer, it is no longer able to return money to thousands of banks, businesses, suppliers, and home-buyers domestically and internationally after years of aggressive borrowing. Amid a combination of reduced demand for housing and a slowdown in China’s economy, a number of real estate companies, including Evergrande, struggled to remain afloat within the national financial guidelines aimed to control the indebtedness of its private development sector. As the private housing sector’s financial crisis continues to escalate, the World Bank projected a slowdown in the Chinese economy in 2022 though it is still expected to grow.
LOOKING AHEAD INTO 2022
The ever-continuing Covid-19 situation, tensions over Taiwan, and economic uncertainty are all massive factors in US-China relations. As seen this year, the Biden administration did not shy off from the aggressiveness that was shown during the Trump administration. Conversely, the Xi administration learned how to deal with said American aggression, and challenged the US hegemony on multiple fronts. However, these challenges prove to be more and more difficult as supply chain issues, rising Covid-19 cases, and international pressures are all coallessing to try and reign in China’s explosive growth. Looking forward, the cracks within the international system will continue to be illuminated. Neither side is ready to make concessions to their rival, so it remains to be seen what sentiments will pop up. Are we heading to more competition, or will there be compromise? This is what remains to be seen during 2022.
Right before the end of the year, US President Joe Biden held the first of two Summit for Democracy conferences with other democratic heads of state from around the world. Thus far, the Biden administration made a concerted effort to rally democracies against a recent rise of authoritarianism seen both in the relative success of China’s model along with the democratic backsliding of numerous major democracies. Going into 2022, Biden will likely continue to try to enhance the global reputation of democracy and prove to countries that the US remains a reliable partner to do business with. In practice, this could entail a greater focus on vaccine diplomacy paired with the launch of the new Build Back Better World initiative, which seeks to rival China’s BRI for investment in the developing world. China, on the other hand, will likely attempt to pivot after an extremely damaging year to its global reputation. Its initial mishandling of COVID-19, the disputes over Taiwan, and their numerous recorded human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere have not made China many friends in 2021. Looking forward, China may lean into their “win-win” diplomacy moniker by doubling down on investment projects in developing states while also increasing the credibility of the BRI’s previously questionable operations.
From the US rejoining the Paris Agreement as part of Biden’s first executive orders as president to China adding more climate goals in its 5-year plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, climate change has been a topic of contention for two of the world’s largest emitters of carbon pollution. 2021 saw urges and moves for the US and China to cooperate on climate goals while simultaneously improving diplomatic relations in areas like human rights and geopolitics in the South China Sea. The two held phone conversations, argued in Anchorage, and called for collaboration in COP26 towards the second half of the year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through addressing multiple energy sources. But, as always, competition between the two economic powerhouses will be another factor to look out for as China hopes to pull ahead in making its industrialization more green and low-carbon while the US focuses on investing in clean energy initiatives and manufacturing. As climate change gradually worsens worldwide, the UN, EU and many other countries like Japan and Canada look to the US and China’s creation of climate initiatives in 2022 while handling geopolitical tensions.
China shifted its economic focus towards self-reliance. Its exports have fallen as a share of its GDP from 35 to less than 20 percent today, decreasing its role as the engine of global economic growth. China will remain a crucial economic actor, but a decline in interdependence could result in the global economy insulating itself from excessive pressure by the CCP through trade strategies. The US and its allies have been influencers of this phenomenon, looking to increase their trade with competitors of China and looking to limit Chinese international investment through their own programs. This trend will likely continue as both the US and the EU look inclined to sever the clamps of China on the developing economies. Starting in 2022, Biden's Build Back Better World initiative and the EU’s Global Gateway initiative hope to gain traction while the CCP will hope to balance its domestic and international economic focus amidst a decline in birth rate and exports hampering China's potential economic growth. These factors may force the leadership to focus on one region, with experts predicting that more effort will be made to help the country become self-reliant.
Written by Dylan Shepard, Schuyler Van Tassel, Kaitlyn Yuan, Aedan Yohannan, Viktor Olah, Sam Horner, and Ishani Chettri.