US-China Relations in the Biden-Era: A Timeline
This article was originally posted on March 22, 2021 and last updated on May 13, 2021.
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, offering a chance to change the course of US-China relations, which had hit a low point under the outgoing Trump administration.
The four years witnessed escalating trade tensions culminating in a trade war as well as sanctions on Chinese technology companies.
Since Biden’s election, political and business stakeholders have been paying close attention to the direction of the new White House administration’s policy towards China.
Will the Biden administration be accommodating of China or take advantage of the new status quo established under his predecessor?
China Briefing previously monitored and documented major developments during the US-China trade war in the Trump-era.
Here, we present a fresh timeline that will track key developments affecting bilateral ties between the world’s two largest economies under the Biden administration.
US-China relations in the Biden-era
Day 92: April 21, 2021 – US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approves the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, signaling bipartisan consensus on China Strategy
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, signaling bipartisan consensus on orienting US policy towards being more aggressive in efforts to counter China.
The Strategic Competition Act of 2021 was amended to provide more aid to Africa and Latin America to counter China’s financial aid to these countries, grant greater funding for US technology industries, and strengthen the US International Development Finance Corp to compete against the China Development Bank, which has played an instrumental role in Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
The bill is expected to pass the Senate and House of Representatives due to broad bipartisan support.
Day 87: April 16, 2021 – US and Japan pledge to strengthen alliance to counter China’ rise
US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga committed to working together to take on the challenges from China, at a joint news preference in the White House Rose Garden.
The two leaders addressed an array of geopolitical issues in a joint announcement, including “the importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait”. In another swipe at China, the US and Japan announced to invest together in areas such as 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genomics, and semiconductor supply chains.
The Chinese embassy in Washington expressed “strong concern” and “firm opposition” to the joint statement, saying China will firmly safeguard its national sovereignty, security, and development interests.
Day 87: April 16, 2021 – US and China announce joint statement addressing the climate crisis
US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and China Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua met in Shanghai on April 15 and 16, 2021 and announced a joint statement.
According to the statement, the two sides will cooperate with each other and with other countries to “tackle the climate crisis”. The two sides will also “cooperate to promote a successful COP 26 in Glasgow, aiming to complete the implementation arrangements for the Paris Agreement”.
The statement was released after John Kerry’s three-day visit to Shanghai, which was the first official trip to China by a Biden Administration official.
Day 79: April 8, 2021 – US senators introduces the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, seeking to counter China
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic Chairman, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), and the Republican Senator of Idaho, Jim Risch, introduced a bipartisan agreement entitled the Strategic Competition Act of 2021. The nearly 300-page Act seeks to counter the expanding global influence of China.
The bill set out the following policy goal: to “sustain its [US] global leadership role” and asserted that the Chinese government has been leveraging its political, diplomatic, economic, military, technological, and ideological power to compete with the US on the global stage.
If enacted, the bill would place additional sanctions on Chinese officials accused of alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, authorize funds to “promote democracy” in Hong Kong, and void all restrictions on US officials’ interaction with Taiwanese counterparts. It will also establish a program to help Indo-Pacific countries develop infrastructure to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and would expand the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) to monitor relationships between Chinese and American educational institutions.
Day 79: April 8, 2021 – US blacklists seven Chinese supercomputing entities
The US Commerce Department added seven Chinese supercomputing entities to its Entity List, citing activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the US.
The seven entities are Tianjin Phytium Information Technology, Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center, Sunway Microelectronics, the National Supercomputing Center Jinan, the National Supercomputing Center Shenzhen, the National Supercomputing Center Wuxi, and the National Supercomputing Center Zhengzhou.
American companies are barred from doing business with companies on the entity list without first obtaining a US government license.
Day 62: March 22, 2021 – EU, US, UK, and Canada sanctions China over alleged Xinjiang human rights issue
The EU sanctioned four Chinese individuals, including a top security director, for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Similar steps were followed by the US, UK, and Canada. The US, on the same day, sanctioned two Chinese government officials in connection with what they called the “serious” human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
In retaliation, China sanctioned back 10 EU citizens and four entities. The tit-for-tat sanctions put EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (“CAI”) in doubt.
Businesses are caught in the geopolitical crossfire. Some leading Western apparel brands like H&M, Nike, Adidas, and Burberry faced backlash and boycotts in China due to their stated concerns over the alleged use of forced labor in Xinjiang.
Day 58-60: March 18-20, 2021 – US and China hold the first high-level meeting in Alaska
The US and China concluded their first high-level face-to-face meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.
After one session of heated arguments in front of reporters and two sessions of closed-door discussions, the Secretary of the US Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts China’s top foreign affairs official Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi ended their two-day meeting – without releasing a joint statement.
During the first day’s open session, both sides leveled sharp rebukes of the other’s policies for over an hour. Blinken said in his opening remarks that the US would discuss its “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the US, economic coercion toward our allies.”
Yang Jiechi accused the US of being “condescending” in its tone and retorted that the US had been misusing its military and financial might and abusing the notion of national security to obstruct trade flows and incite anti-China sentiment.
After the meeting, the two sides separately released announcements, in which they both identified limited areas of cooperation and coordination with respect to climate change and geopolitical issues related to Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan, while acknowledging “fundamental” disagreements regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan issues.
Day 57, March 17, 2021 – US telecom regulator moves against Chinese telecom firms over national security concerns
US telecom regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the launch of a proceeding to determine whether to strip the local business license from China Unicom Americas as well as Pacific Networks and its wholly-owned subsidiary ComNet, citing national security concerns.
Last December, the FCC opened a similar proceeding to begin revoking the authorization of China Telecom, the largest state-owned Chinese telecommunication company, which has had US authorization for nearly 20 years.
Day 57, March 17, 2021 – US sanctions 24 Mainland China and Hong Kong officials ahead of Alaska talks
The US sanctions an additional 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong. Foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct significant transactions with the listed individuals will be subject to the US sanctions.
The sanctions announcement was made during a visit by the US State Secretary Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea.
Day 52: March 12, 2021 – Five Chinese companies including Huawei are backlisted by US telecom regulator
Five Chinese companies – Huawei Technologies Co., ZTE Corp., Hytera Communications Corp., Hikvision Digital Technology Co., and Dahua Technology Co. – were named to a new blacklist published by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on national security grounds under a 2019 law.
This makes the FCC the latest regulator to maintain such a list. Other agencies with similar lists include the US Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense. Each list carries different implications, though they are all designed to steer investors, suppliers, and customers away from the companies – sometimes forcibly.
Day 51: March 11, 2021 – US and China to hold their first high-level meeting since Biden’s inauguration
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet with China’s most senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, according to the US State Department. The meeting will take place following Secretary Blinken’s visit to Tokyo and Seoul.
The talks are to be a one-off, as per blunt statements from US officials, following which there will be expectations upon Beijing to choose the trajectory of engagement.
Day 50: March 10, 2021 – The US extends tariff exclusion on Chinese medical products
The Biden administration is extending tariff exclusions on about 99 categories of medical products from China until September 30, 2021 – to aid the fight against COVID-19, according to the notice released by the Office of the United State Trade Representative (USTR).
The exclusion covers a wide range of items from medical masks and gloves to blood pressure cuff sleeves and X-ray tables. The earlier tariff exclusion extension on these medical products under Trump administration’s ‘Section 301’ tariffs was set to lapse on March 31, 2021.
Day 22: February 10, 2021 – President Xi Jinping and Joe Biden break the ice with phone call
On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had the first phone call since Biden took office.
While both leaders extended festival greetings to the other, the US side emphasized concerns raised on economic practices, human rights, and Taiwan, while China focused on mutual respect, cooperation, and dialogue.
Day 17: February 5, 2021 – Top US and China diplomats talk over phone for the first time since Biden takes office
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, in their first high-level conversation since President Joe Biden took office.
Day 2: January 21, 2021 – China sanctions Pompeo and other Trump administration officials
China announced a sanction against 28 Trump administration officials, including the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accusing them of interfering in its internal affairs. The sanction would ban the officials and their families from entering China and place restrictions on companies associated with them.
Day 1: January 20, 2021 – Joe Biden gets sworn in as the next US president
Newly sworn in, US President Joe Biden delivered his inaugural address and signed a flurry of executive orders on his first day in office. Biden prioritized issues like COVID-19 virus, climate change, and inequality and racism.
In dealing with China, Biden signaled he was in no rush to depart from the Trump administration’s policies. The same day, Biden’s aides, including the nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the nominee for Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, indicated that the president planned to take a multilateral approach by enlisting the support of Western allies to maximize Washington’s leverage on Beijing.
This timeline was first published on March 17, 2021 and will show rolling updates.
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