US should prioritise 'guardrails' in its China dealings this year, White House official says

The US should speed up building “guardrails” into its ties with China in 2023, the top White House official on Asia policy said Thursday, while one analyst anticipated a year of “co-opetition” between the two nations.

Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to US President Joe Biden and coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council, called the meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Indonesia in November an important effort “to build a foundation floor” into the bilateral relationship.

“Perhaps this is the time in 2023 to build some guardrails,” he told a forum at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

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“Although we believe the dominant feature of US-China relations will continue to be competition, we want that to be productive, peaceful competition,” Campbell said.

Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council. Photo: YouTube alt=Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council. Photo: YouTube>

“And we want very much to channel that in arenas that are good for both of our peoples.”

Scott Kennedy, a CSIS senior adviser and chair in Chinese business and economics also at the forum, said that Campbell’s remarks showed that the Biden administration was trying to thread a diplomatic needle: expand dialogue and find areas to work with Beijing while continuing to press China on technology export controls with allies in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere.

“I don’t see the US taking their foot off the gas on these technology actions whatsoever,” he said.

“But I do think this year will be different and that we will see a recognition that overall economic decoupling is not possible,” he said.

Scott Kennedy of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Photo: CSIS alt=Scott Kennedy of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Photo: CSIS>

“2023 will be the year of ‘co-opetition’ with China on economics and technology,” he said, adding that there would likely be more connectivity in the financial sector between the two economies in this year rather than less.

Strains between the world’s two largest economies, and concerns about how they may play out, have continued into the new year. The US House of Representatives this week overwhelmingly approved a new select committee on US-China strategic competition, while the US State Department last month created a “China House” to coordinate policy within the department.

Washington and Beijing confront a wide landscape of contentious issues, from an increasingly fierce tech war to Taiwan’s security, but at Indonesia the two sides agreed there remained room for combined efforts in fields like responses to the climate crisis.

“Guardrails” has emerged as a Washington keyword regarding China almost since Biden took office roughly two years ago. Since at least mid-2021, senior US officials have adopted the phrase as shorthand for managing the US-China relation in a “responsible” manner to prevent tensions from devolving into conflict.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken invoked the same theme on Wednesday when discussing his coming trip to China to follow up on the Biden-Xi discussions, saying that the US would seek to keep lines of communication open and “do all that we can to establish guardrails to prevent competition … from veering into conflict”.

“We’ll manage the competition responsibly, but we will compete vigorously,” he told a news briefing after a meeting of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee.

China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang, who was Beijing’s ambassador to Washington for 17 months before his appointment, has called for the two nations to find the “right way” to get along.

“The future of both our peoples – indeed, the future of the entire planet – depends on a healthy and stable China-US relationship,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post last week.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.