Interview with Robert Ross: Biden’s China Policy

By Tang Jie, Chen Yuxuan

The Monitor’s Student Journalist Tang Jie has recently conducted an in-depth interview with Professor Robert Ross.

Professor Ross has been taught at Boston College for many years. He is also an Associate at John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. His research focuses on Chinese security policy and defense policy, East Asian security, and U.S.-China relations.

Professor Ross has testified before various Senate and House committees and the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, he advises U.S. government agencies, and he serves on the Academic Advisory Group, U.S.-China Working Group, United States Congress.

Tang Jie is a Ph.D. candidate at School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University. Yuxuan Chen, a college student majoring in International Relations at New York University has contributed to this interview.

Tang Jie: You wrote in one of your articles saying that the US-China power transition is approaching a critical juncture. You said that the demand for a moderate and a judicious US-Chinese Leadership is especially acute. Could you give some advice to the leaders of the US and China in this time of turbulent waters?

Robert Ross: On the United States side, it is important that the United States begin to accept that it can no longer be the only maritime power, much less the dominant naval power, in the South China Sea and East China Sea. It must accept China as a naval power in East Asia and the implications of this, which includes that America’s Post-World War II allies will begin to cooperate more with China than they had in the past. If the United States can accept these changes, it will be easier for the United States and China to manage the presence of our two large navies in East Asian seas.

Currently, the United States resists the presence of the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea and the tendency of American allies to cooperate more with China.  United States policy is becoming increasingly hostile to China and it is sending strong signals of containment. When it does this, it risks escalation of tension and hostility. As a result, if there are accidents or crises, it might be difficult to manage the heightened tension because mutual suspicion is so high. Only when the United States accepts an equal role for China will it be able to accept the security implications for East Asia and begin to cooperate more and lower regional tension.

China also has great power responsibilities. As a rising power, it wants to influence the regional security order, making it less dominated by the United States. China is now quite capable to challenge the status quo. It is the strongest economy in East Asia and its navy and air force are growing and modernizing.

It is, thus, understandable that China will want to use its new capabilities to begin to change the regional order. However, if China uses these capabilities coercively, frequently, and excessively, it will create fear and suspicion in every country in the region that China is not a cautious country, that it does not wants to preserve the peace.  Rather, it will signal that China cannot be trusted. In this case, it would be inevitable that the United States would become more forceful in its resistance to China’s rise.  While the United States must learn to accommodate the rise of China, China must learn to be patient in enjoying the benefits of its improving capabilities. It must exercise restraint and moderation in order to not put pressure on other countries to resist China’s rise.

If China is moderate and restrained, then it will be easier for  the United States to adjust to the rise of China. Similarly, if  the United States can accommodate and adjust to the rise of China, it will be easier for China to exercise restraint. There is a mutual responsibility to maintain regional stability.

Tang Jie: Now that Joe Biden will soon become president, what will change?

Robert Ross: With President Trump, it was hard to know what would happen day to day, because he did not have a strategy. He made decisions on impulse; he made decisions when he was angry; he made decisions depending on his likes and dislikes. He did nothing in diplomacy that aimed to improve America’s influence in the world, because he had no strategy to do that. He began trade wars and other conflicts with France, Germany, South Korea, China, and Japan. He created security problems with South Korea and he threatened to pull US troops out of NATO countries. His actions were unpredictable. I believe that if he were reelected president, the United States would have continued to have an unpredictable and destabilizing foreign policy characterized by hostility, with minimal US effort to try to reach international agreements and minimal effort to try to cooperate with other countries. In a second Trump term, there would have thus been continued and likely greater U.S.-China trade and security conflict.

Now that Joseph Biden will be the president of the United States, there will be opportunities to improve US-China relations. There will be limits to cooperation because China is a rising power and the United States is a declining power. In addition, the two most powerful great powers are never allies; they are always competitors. The US-China competition is growing stronger everyday, as China becomes stronger and challenges American security.

Nonetheless, this is not a Cold War. We do not have an ideological conflict and China does not export its political system. China has a more open economy than the United States and Japan according to the World Bank. It is thus not like the former Soviet Union. China is also part of the international order, so that there are many opportunities for cooperation.

President-elect Biden has been very clear: the United States will compete with China where it has to, but it will cooperate where it can. He will compartmentalize.  There will be security and economic competition, but this competition the will not necessarily prevent the gradual reestablishment of cooperation in other areas. There are many areas for cooperation, including over global health issues and the World Health Organization, climate change, and nuclear proliferation and instability in North Korea. We can cooperate on Iran. We can cooperate on anti-terrorism. We can cooperate on piracy in the South China Sea and in the Middle East. We can cooperate on post-war Afghanistan. And we can cooperate on educational exchanges. This is  a very long list. And I believe that president-elect President Biden understands the importance of cooperation and he understands that it is impossible for the United States to achieve many of its foreign policy objectives without cooperating with China.

Every post-normalization American president before President Trump understood that we have to cooperate with China on a wide range of international issues. President Trump was the exception. However, competition will still be great over military affairs and we still have to negotiate difficult issues regarding the economy.

Tang Jie: Will the President Biden change US policy towards Taiwan? And is there an ideal way to manage the Cross-Strait relationship?

Robert Ross: This is a very difficult question to answer. Under President Trump, the United States did not help Taiwan because we are friends. We did not help Taiwan because of the long U.S.-Taiwan historical relationship. Rather, the Trump administration used Taiwan as a tool to cause problems for China, to constrain the rise of China. That is why senior U.S. diplomats and officials visited Taiwan. That is why we sold highly advanced weapons to Taiwan. And this is why the United States has increased its naval transits through the Taiwan Strait.

Under President Biden, there will be greater policy flexibility. It will be  possible for president-elect Biden to develop a more balanced policy regarding US- Taiwan cooperation. He understands that it is impossible to have greater cooperation with China if the United States is improving relations with Taiwan and challenging the status quo in U.S.-Taiwan cooperation. If the United States wants China’s help on such issues as North Korea, Iran, and nuclear non-proliferation, it will have to be more sensitive to Chinese interests regarding Taiwan. However, United States domestic politics will influence policy making.  There will be domestic political pressure on the Democratic Party to develop closer relations with Taiwan. For president-elect Biden, there are opportunities for him to become more moderate in Taiwan, but domestic politics will be difficult.

Tang Jie: As some scholars say, “the new Cold War is coming.” Do you agree to use this term to describe the current international situation? Since the breakdown of Soviet Union, the word pattern is described as one superpower and the minor powers, some observers say that the current world is becoming a bi-polar pattern like the US and China or the tri-polar pattern like the US, Europe, and China. So professor, what do you think of the picture of the international setup?

Robert Ross: In international politics, we do not pay close attention to the global security order, about whether the world is a bi-polar or a multipolar system. We pay attention to the regional balance of power. For example, China and the United States are competing in East Asia, not in the Middle East or in Africa. But because the US-China relationship is the most important competition in the world and the East Asian security order is a major security interest for both countries, the regional bi-polar competition may spread to the rest of the world.

We do not consider Europe as a “country.” Europe does not have an army or a navy and it does not have an export policy or an investment policy. The European Union is simply a customs zone. European countries compete with each other for economic advantage in China. They do not cooperate regarding China. Many Americans think that Russia is very weak, with a small and backwards  air force and navy. There are, thus, are only two significant great powers in the world – the United States and China. The US-China  bi-polar competition may spread to other parts of the world. But right now, China does not have military and strategic influence in the Middle East or Africa or Europe. China is focused on Asia. The regional bi-polar competition between the United States and China is the most important great power relationship in international politics.

Tang Jie: The US Secretary of State Pompeo often referred to China as a revisionist power, which will undermine the rules-based international order. On the contrary, China is always trying to consider itself as a responsible power to maintain the existing international order. Is the term “revisionist” a misconception or a proper word to describe China’s rising? Is there a way to clear up the misunderstanding between the U.S. and China?

Robert Ross: First of all, the international institutional order, the rules of the game, and global  norms were established when China was weak and isolated. China is stronger now and it is quite clear that China is not going to say simply that, “we accept your rules and your order.” The rules were written without consideration of Chinese interests, so that, of course, China wants to change the existing rules. The United States understood this many years ago  The underlying understanding of American engagement with China was that it was better to have China inside the system than outside so that when China became stronger, it would not want to overthrow the system, but would work within the system to reform the system. I do not think China is a revolutionary state and I do not like the term revisionist either. But I do not think it is a responsible stakeholder, because it wants change. I think China is a reformist country.

China wants to reform the international order so that the rules and laws reflect better Chinese interests. This is to be expected. Nevertheless, there are two problems. The first is that although China is now a great power, its influence in the WTO, IMF and the World Bank is not commensurate with its power and that makes China a dissatisfied power. This means that China has less incentive to sustain these organizations because it does not have the authority that it merits. Consequently, China is developing new institutions where it can have a larger voice, a voice that equals its influence and  power. China thus developed the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and it has developed the Belt and Road Initiative for global aid for infrastructure development. 

The United States does not like these developments  because it wants to remain the number one global institutional power. The real China challenge is not a challenge to overthrow the existing order, but rather the challenge to American leadership of the global order. The United States has resisted accommodating China’s rise in the global order. But the lending practices of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are similar to the practices of the World Bank. And China’s BRI policies are not very different from post-World War II US lending policies. That is why I use the term “reform”. And both intitaives include broad and inclusive international memberships.

However, second, China’s domestic economic regulations pose a significant challenge to the global trade order.  China’s domestic policies advantage its state owned enterprises and protect its advanced technology industries.  And China does not adequately protect the intellectual property of foreign corporations. China’s joint venture laws give advantages to Chinese companies. And China’s financial regulations restrain the domestic activities of foreign banks and investment corporations.  No other country in the advanced industrial world has a domestic economic system like China’s system.

Chinese domestic economic regulations have a significant impact on other countries because China has a large and global economy. Now that China is a major economic power, it needs to reform its domestic system so that its rules for investment, banking, and intellectual property rights are similar to the rules of other advanced industrial economies.

If China does not reform its domestic economic, other countries will adopt unilateral measures against China to create more equal trade relationships. That will create significant pressures for escalation of the trade competition and it will present a major challenge to the health of the global economy. Donald Trump initiated  the trade war and the technology war because he believed that Chinese domestic regulations create unfair advantages for China. The trade war and the technology war may not be effective and they may not be in the interest of the United States, but all of the advanced industrial countries may have to develop policies in reaction to China’s domestic regulations.

I do not know whether China’s economic practices make it a revolutionary state or a revisionist state. But it is clear that Chinese insistence on maintaining its current regulatory system will de-stabilize the global economy. Because China is the largest trading economy in the world and it has a regulatory system that create unique advantages for the Chinese economy, at the expense of other countries’ economies, it is now a disruptive force in the global economy.

Tang Jie: Professor, you have been tracking and studying Chinese politics for a long time. In your opinion, what are the difficulties that China and the United States face after the COVID-19 epidemic?

Robert Ross: My first visit to China was in 1981, and now I have many friends in China and we have a long history of cooperation. The challenge is to maintain our cooperation that we have developed since the normalization of relations as we go forward into the future, now that the United States and China are both great powers. This is a very difficult challenge. When we first developed cooperation in the 1980s, China had its peaceful development strategy and the United States and China cooperated against the Soviet Union. It was an easy relationship because China did not challenge American interests and China needed American cooperation. But it is a different situation today. We no longer have common security interests in East Asia. China needs the United States much less than before and the United State sees China as a challenge to its security

Our challenge is to maintain the foundation of cooperation that we have built since the December 1978  3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee  That was the meeting at which Deng Xiaoping took control of the Chinese communist party and established the “改革开放” policy. Everything began at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee. It is the most important meeting in post-1949 Chinese history.

The challenge now is to build on our strong friendship and cooperation and to maintain or dialogue and our channels of communication. We have to persist in cooperating so that we can contribute to the management of competition.  It is a difficult objective, because China and the United States create many difficult strategic and economic problems for each other. This makes it difficult to compartmentalize bilateral issues to prevent security and economic conflicts from influencing cooperation over such issues as climate change, global health issues, North Korea, and anti-terrorism. But since 1979 we have built a strong foundation of cooperation and it is now our joint responsibility to maintain cooperation, despite the prospect of greater great power competition.


  • The U.S.-China Perception Monitor (中美印象) is an online publication that explores perception and misperception in U.S.-China relations through insightful commentaries, interviews with experts, and profiles on key figures in the bilateral relationship.