US-China Relations in the Biden-Era: A Timeline
This article was originally posted on March 22, 2021 and last updated on September 27, 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 246: September 24, 2021 – Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou returns to China, Spavor and Kovrig allowed to return to Canada
Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was allowed to return to China after reaching an agreement with US prosecutors in New York. This brings an end to nearly three years of detention in Canada. At about the same time, China released two imprisoned Canadians, Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, who had been held in China for over 1000 days.
Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, was detained in Vancouver and had been fighting extradition to the US since December 2018. She was accused of violating American sanctions on Iran. Shortly after the US ordered Canada to detain Meng, China arrested Spavor and Kovrig on espionage charges.
In a virtual court hearing in Brooklyn, Meng pleaded not guilty to bank and wire fraud charges, but did acknowledge she misled banks about Huawei’s dealings with Iran. Chinese state media said the two Canadian men had confessed to being guilty, but were released for medical reasons.
The mutual detentions and release have dominated international headlines with the underpinnings of hostage diplomacy. It remains to be seen how the sudden turn of events will affect US-China and China-Canada relations. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was just re-elected in September after calling for early elections and his government appears keen to maintain strong economic and trade ties with Beijing. Meanwhile, Washington DC is likely to view the situation less favorably, for strategic reasons.
China’s foreign ministry has labeled Meng’s detention as “political persecution against a Chinese citizen” based on “purely fabricated” fraud accusations. At the news conference on Friday, shortly after the two Canadians depart China, Trudeau said that “these two men have gone through an unbelievably difficult ordeal.”
Day 239: September 16, 2021 – China extends tariff exemptions on 81 products from US
China’s Ministry of Finance announced to extend a tariff exemption for 81 products imported from the US. The tariff exemption, which was due to expire on September 16, 2021, has now been extended until April 16, 2022, according to Tariff Commission Announcement  No.7.
The items which are exempt from retaliatory Chinese tariff were listed in Tariff Commission Announcement  No.2 and Tariff Commission Announcement  No.8. The 81 products include some shrimp, timber, electric vehicle batteries, microscope, and medical testing instruments.
China has been routinely making such extensions amid the prolonged US-China trade war, and this is the fifth time. The last extension granted by China was in May this year. It maintained tariff waivers on products including gold ore and rare earth metal ore.
Day 217: August 25, 2021 – US reportedly approves licenses for Huwai to buy auto chips
The US has granted licenses authorizing suppliers to sell chips to China’s blacklisted telecom company Huawei for its growing auto component business, according to Reuters, citing two people familiar with the matter.
The license applications are said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the chips will be used in vehicle components, such as video screens and sensors. It’s suspected that the license is approved because auto chips are considered less sophisticated, which are less susceptible to US bans.
Despite this, a US Department of Commerce spokesperson said the US government will consistently apply licensing policies “to restrict Huawei’s access to commodities, software, or technology for activities that could harm US national security and foreign policy interests.”
Day 184: July 23, 2021 – China imposes sanctions on seven US citizens and entities
China announced its decision to impose sanctions on seven American citizens and entities, including former commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, in retaliation against the US’s earlier sanctions on seven Chinese officials in Hong Kong. This marks the first time China places counter-sanctions measures using its new anti-foreign sanction law.
Others affected in Beijing’s “reciprocal counter-sanctions” are the current or former heads of a range of US organizations, including Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.
Day 182: July 21, 2021 – US Deputy Secretary Sherman to visit China
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will travel to the eastern Chinese city of Tianjin from July 25 to July 26 and meet with Chinese officials, including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
During the two-day trip, Sherman will “discuss areas where we have serious concerns about PRC actions, as well as areas where our interests align,” according to a statement of the US State Department.
Sherman will be the second senior American official visiting China since President Joe Biden took office, following a visit to Shanghai in April by John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate.
Day 175: July 14, 2021 – US Senate passes bill to ban all products from Xinjiang
The US Senate passed legislation to ban all goods imported from China’s Xinjiang region. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would create a “rebuttable presumption” assuming that goods from Xinjiang are manufactured by forced labor, unless proven otherwise.
The bill must also pass the House of Representatives before it can be sent to the White House for US President Joe Biden to sign into law. It’s not clear when it will take effect.
Day 170: July 9, 2021 – US adds 23 Chinese companies to economic blacklist
The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the US added 34 entities to the Entity List, including 23 Chinese companies and entities – 14 over their role in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, five for their ties to China’s military, and another four for doing businesses with other firms that were sanctioned by the US.
The firms suspected of being “implicated in human rights violations and abuses” in Xinjiang include Xinjiang Beidou Tongchuang Information Technology Co, China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology, Suzhou Keda Technology Co, Xinjiang Lianhai Chuangzhi Information Technology Co, Shenzhen Cobber Information Technology Co, Xinjiang Sailing Information Technology, Beijing Geling Shentong Information Technology, Shenzhen Hua’antai Intelligent Technology Co, and Chengdu Xiwu Security System Alliance Co.
These companies and entities added to the Entity List are required to apply for licenses from the Commerce Department and face tough scrutiny when they seek permission to receive items from American suppliers.
Day 154: June 23, 2021 – US bans imports of solar panel material from Xinjiang
The US Commerce Department ordered a ban on US imports of a key solar panel material from Chinese-based Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., Ltd. over forced labor allegations, according to Reuters.
The ban also curtailed US supplier relationships with five Chinese companies – Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., Ltd.; Xinjiang Daqo New Enevery, a unit of Daqo New Energy Corporation; Xinjiang East Hope non-ferrous Metals, a subsidiary of Shanghai-based manufacturing giant East Hope Group; Xinjiang GCL New Energy Material, part of GCL New Energy Holdings; and the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).
Some of the companies listed by the US Commerce Department are major manufacturers of monocrystalline silicon and polysilicon that are used in solar panel production.
Day 145: June 14, 2021 – NATO shifts focus to China, declaring it a global security challenge
Following the G7 Summit, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders declared that China presents a global security risk, at their annual summit in Brussels. The traditionally Russia-focused military alliance for the first time shifted its focus to China, asserting the need to respond to Beijing’s growing power.
The final communiqué, signed off by leaders of the 30-member alliance, asserts that China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”. The newly passed NATO 2030 strategy demands that the alliance member states spend more resources on dealing with China’s growing global influence.
As a response, China warned NATO that it will not sit back in the face of any challenges. A statement posted Tuesday on the website of China’s mission to the European Union said that Beijing did not pose a “systemic challenge” to any country and added NATO should not exaggerate China’s military power.
Day 144, June 13, 2021 – G7 leaders criticized China on Xinjiang and Hong Kong
During the three-day summit of the Group of Seven (G7), the leaders of the wealthy democracies criticized Beijing over human rights in its Xinjiang region, called for Hong Kong to keep a high degree of autonomy, and demanded a full investigation of the origins of the coronavirus in China.
The G7 communique said: “with regard to China, and competition in the global economy, we will continue to consult on collective approaches to challenging non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy.”
In response, China’s embassy in the UK accused the G7 of “baseless accusations”. “Stop slandering China, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop harming China’s interests,” a spokesman said on Monday.
Day 142: June 11, 2021 – China’s top diplomat Yang and US Secretary of State Blinken hold phone conversation
On Friday, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken underscored US concerns over issues in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan and stressed the need for a second phase investigation into the origins of COVID-19. He also raised several cases of US and Canadian citizens subject to detention and exit bans in China, according to a statement from the Office of the Spokesperson of the White House.
In turn, Yang urged the US to abide by the one-China principle, according to a statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He criticized Washington DC for interfering in China’s internal affairs, slandering China over COVID-19, and pushing “pseudo-multilateralism” by forming anti-China cliques.
Despite disagreements over the above issues, Blinken put forward an expanded list of areas for US-China cooperation, including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, “shared global challenges” brought by Iran and Burma, and the climate crisis.
Day 141: June 10, 2021 – China passes a new law to counter US and EU sanctions
China’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), approved the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law. The new law offers legal foundation for China to counter US and EU sanctions over trade, technology, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang.
According to the law, individuals or entities involved in making or implementing discriminatory measures against Chinese citizens or entities could be put on an anti-sanctions list. Those on the list may be denied entry into China or be expelled from the country. Their assets within China may be seized, detained, or frozen. They could be prohibited or restricted from doing business or other activities there. Chinese authorities also have the power to take countermeasures against other individuals or organizations with specific ties to blacklisted individuals or entities.
Day 141: June 10, 2021 – China and US hold a third talk on trade and investment in two weeks
China’s Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao spoke with US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo over the phone. The call followed two similar discussions between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
A statement from China’s Commerce Ministry said that both sides “had a candid and pragmatic exchange of views on relevant issues and mutual concerns in the China-US business field.”
Day 140: June 9, 2021 – Biden drops Trump attempt to ban TikTok and WeChat, but the scrutiny will continue
US President Joe Biden withdrew a series of Trump-era executive orders that sought to ban new downloads of China-owned apps WeChat and TikTok. To replace the Trump-era ban, Biden signed new orders calling for the Commerce Department to launch national security reviews of apps with links to foreign adversaries, including China.
Day 139: June 8, 2021 – US Senate passes the Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 to compete with China
The US Senate voted 68-32 to approve a sweeping piece of legislation, named the US Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, intended to boost the country’s ability to compete with Chinese technology.
The bill would invest more than US$250 billion into American semiconductor manufacturing, boosting the National Science Foundation, creating regional technology hubs, and spurring 5G innovation.
The Senate’s action highlights a rare bipartisan consensus in Congress on the US strategy for responding to China’s rise.
Day 134: June 3, 2021 – Biden expands Trump-era ban on American investment into Chinese firms
US President Joe Biden issued a new executive order barring American investment into Chinese firms with purported ties to defense or surveillance technology sectors.
The new order expands on an earlier Trump-era blacklist and hits 59 Chinese firms, including the communications giant Huawei. Many of the newly targeted companies are subsidiaries and affiliates of major state-owned companies and businesses named on the earlier blacklist.
American investors will be banned from buying or selling publicly traded securities in targeted companies, beginning August 2, 2021, when the new order takes effect.
Day 132: June 1, 2021 – Chinese and US economic chiefs Liu He and Janet Yellen hold virtual talks
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen held a video meeting over economic ties, the second between senior officials from both sides in the past week. The readouts of the meeting were similar to that of the last one between Liu He and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reported the two sides exchanged views on the macroeconomic situation and on the cooperation between the US and China. According to Xinhua, “the two sides believed that the China-U.S. economic relations are very important”.
The US Trade Representative Office (USTR) released its own statement as well: “Treasury Secretary Yellen discussed the Biden Administration’s plans to support a continued strong economic recovery and the importance of cooperating on areas that are in US interests, while at the same time frankly tackling issues of concern.”
Day 127: May 26, 2021 – China, US hold first trade talk since Biden took office
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke by phone with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, making it the first such conversation on trade between the two sides since President Joe Biden took office.
“In a spirit of mutual equality and mutual respect, the two sides conducted candid, pragmatic, and constructive exchanges,” China’s Ministry of Commerce said in a statement, “The two sides agreed that the development of bilateral trade is very important.”
The US Trade Representative Office (USTR) said in its statement that Tai had “discussed the guiding principles of the Biden-Harris Administration’s worker-centered trade policy and her ongoing review of the U.S.-China trade relationship, while also raising issues of concern.”
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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