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HomeAsiaPanel Summary Report: US-China Relations Under the Biden Administration

Panel Summary Report: US-China Relations Under the Biden Administration

Here is a summary of the discussions prepared by IPD research associate Pouyan Kimiayjan:

On February 4th, 2021 the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a panel discussion titled “US-China relations under the Biden administration”. Our three distinguished panelists include: Robert S. Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Associate at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, Jeffrey Reeves, Vice-President of Research at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and Rachel Esplin Odell, Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute’s East Asia Program. This panel discussion was moderated by Bijan Ahmadi, Executive Director at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.

The panel focused on answering the following questions:

  • What is the current state of US-China relations and how will the Biden administration shape US policy on China?
  • Will the Biden administration form new alliance frameworks to deal with China and is there enough support among US regional allies for a tougher US-led coalition against China?

The panel began with a discussion of the current state of US-China bilateral relations and the new administration’s China policy. Professor Robert Ross pointed out that “we are in a period of great flux,” as US officials have so far sent mixed signals on China–some in the  Biden administration have discussed cooperation, whereas other officials have stressed the need for re-establishing US supremacy. Irrespective of why the US has yet to employ coherent messaging on China, Ross argued that two understand the approach of the new administration one must focus on actions and trends, rather than rhetoric. The new administration might see the need to employ hardline rhetoric while demonstrating flexibility when engaging with China. The Chinese will also focus on US policy and actions, rather than rhetoric intended for domestic consumption. 

The panel discussion was held before President Biden’s foreign policy speech on February 4th but based on excerpts released earlier in the day, Dr. Rachel Odell pointed out that President Biden’s speech discussed restoring US alliances and added that his administration intends to engage “adversaries” and “competitors” to advance American national interests. Dr. Odell also mentioned that Biden’s foreign policy speech could provide indicators on how the new administration will shape US policy on China. In Dr. Odell’s opinion, Biden’s characterization of adversaries and competitors provides flexibility and room to identify China as a “competitor” instead of an adversary and signal a return to diplomacy with China. 

With respect to Secretary Blinken’s remarks during the confirmation hearings on the Trump team having the right idea but the wrong approach to China, Odell believes that the Biden administration is also signaling that there will not be a complete break with the previous administration on China policy. 

Odell concluded that the focus of the Biden administration will be on resolving domestic issues, and perhaps on discussing China within that domestic framework, rather than prioritizing China as a foreign policy issue. 

Dr. Jeffrey Reeves agreed that the new administration will focus on domestic priorities. However, he added that based on newly appointed officials in the US government, there appears to be a degree of agreement that China remains a strategic challenger and that a tough approach is needed to manage the bilateral relationship. Moreover, there are indications that human rights and democracy will be a focus as it relates to US policy on China. On the operational level, the new foreign policy team has more experience and professionalism in contrast to their predecessors. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s recent remarks on the four pillars of the US’ China policy also provides clear indications of Biden’s approach towards China. Reeves argued that the US must not stoke domestic tensions within Beijing in an attempt to undermine the current leadership and must also refrain from moving too aggressively on Taiwan. 

In response to the second question on the potential formation of a new alliance framework, Ross identified ‘the Quad’ (consisting of India, Japan, the US, and Australia) as the basis for the Indo-Pacific strategy. Ross added that in its Indo-Pacific strategy, the US is looking for partners outside the East Asian waters to cooperate with the US in dealing with China. In his opinion, there is a general recognition that US capabilities or access to facilities in South Korea, Philippines, or Singapore are no longer assured because of the rise of China and therefore the US is “moving out”. Ross stressed that the Quad would be willing to cooperate with the US but they want to be able to manage their own relationship with China while simultaneously enhancing their strategic cooperation with the US. 

Odell also pointed out that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said recently that the Biden administration considers the Quad as the cornerstone of US security cooperation going forward, not just to counter China but also to improve security cooperation between these countries. 

Reeves cautioned that India has an independent foreign policy and it does not necessarily share the same strategic outlook that other Quad member states do with respect to the Indo-Pacific region. Ross disagreed with Reeves, arguing that given China is now challenging sea lanes and trade routes within the Indian sphere, there is increased Indian defense cooperation with the US. 

In the next section, the moderator moved on to questions specifically for each panelist and questions from the audience. In response to a question on whether Washington is ready to shift US regional posture away from the pursuit of primacy and regional dominance, Odell pointed to a Foreign Affairs article, written by Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, where the two argued that maintaining regional dominance should no longer be a priority, and instead the US ought to re-think its approach in the region. Odell argued that the US no longer has dominance in either the region’s economic or military domains. 

Ross also noted that regional powers in Asia feel more independent in their decision making. Ross argued that we must avoid a cold war analogy, given the profound differences between Europe and Asia. He believes that there will be greater fluidity in relationships in East Asia. 

Ahmadi then asked what aspects of the Trump administration’s China policy must be maintained by the current administration. Ross responded by arguing that Biden should follow the Trump administration’s approach to the Pentagon ensuring adequate funding is provided. However, he stressed that adopting a tough approach on China across the board and trying to contain China was a misguided approach. 

Bijan Ahmadi asked Odell a question regarding the need to expand trade relations in East Asia and how such an increase in trade ties can advance US interests. Odell asserted that concerns regarding trade and economic relations have been overblown by the Trump administration amid the rise of nationalism in the US and shortcomings in dealing with the pandemic. In her opinion, trade with China has been massively beneficial to the US. The negative impacts of trade can mostly be attributed to the domestic failure of the US political leadership.

In response to a question about the Biden administration’s approach to dealing with the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou and the arbitrary arrest of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Reeves responded that there have been positive signs indicating that the Biden administration will follow up on the release of the two Michaels as a matter of priority. However, he expressed concern that based on his discussions, some in Washington do not see the extradition case and the detention of the two Michaels linked. Reeves stated that he believes there has to be a comprehensive approach and the US needs to view the Meng Wanzhou case as part of the problem. Reeves added that the Biden administration will have to “do some creative thinking about how to get Canada out of a situation that ultimately the Trump administration put it in by making the extradition request in the first place.”

In response to a question from the audience about US-China cooperation on issues of mutual interest, such as climate change, Odell argued that the US will not trade climate issues with matters that concern its national interests. The US will however move towards a new international climate deal, where there could be an opportunity for bilateral and multilateral cooperation with China. The new administration has also signaled its interest in re-establishing public health relations. Odell warned that the Biden team might be too “sanguine” in believing that it can maintain strategic competition alongside cooperation on issues of mutual interest. She expressed concern  that competition in strategic and military arenas can worsen global efforts to mitigate climate change. She explained that attempts to contain China will lead to an increased sense of insecurity which will compel Chinese leaders to lessen their dependence on oil imports and rather focus on developing their domestic coal sector. 

Lastly, an audience member asked about the permanence of the US congress bipartisan consensus concerning China. Ross responded by discussing the inevitability of US-China strategic competition but emphasizing that there are talks within China and the US that boundaries must be established. Odell added that there is not much political incentive for members of Congress to advocate for cooperation. She added that the co-chairs of the US-China working group, both Democrats and Republicans, are pragmatic and call themselves “salvagers” of the relationship but many policies on China are decided by the executive branch. Nevertheless, on the progressive side of the Democratic Party, there is resistance to a new cold war. Reeves also weighed in, arguing that the rise of nationalism within the Republican Party and placing responsibility on China for all negative consequences of globalization will create obstacles for US-China cooperation. 


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor