The three-and-half-hour virtual summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not, and could not, solve the fundamental problems that have driven the two great powers toward confrontation. But both men clearly wanted to challenge the misperception that they are on the brink of conflict, and to prevent an unintended escalation of tensions that might become impossible to manage.
Nowhere was that goal more visible than on Taiwan, the one issue that poses the greatest risk of drawing China and the U.S. into war. Xi and Biden spent considerable time discussing Taiwan, according to the U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Both men carefully restated their long-held positions – for China, strong opposition to any steps that would move Taiwan toward a declaration of independence. For the U.S., a line is drawn against “any effort to shape Taiwan’s future by anything other than peaceful means,” as Sullivan told the Brookings Institution after the meeting.
But Sullivan notably repeated the American adherence to the existence of “One China” and to the series of joint statements going back decades that reiterate this position, a message clearly meant for the Chinese audience. The summit discussion aimed, he said, at avoiding any “destabilizing actions” by either side, to “manage risk and ensure that competition doesn’t veer into conflict,” to avoid unintended conflicts that arise out of miscommunication.
“Both sides fear it has been spinning out of control -- the mutual demonization and mirror-image tit for tat escalation -- and want to put a floor under it,” says Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council, a former senior official, and Asia expert. “I think the idea was to give the bureaucracies in both nations a mandate from the top to seek mechanisms to manage differences and also where to cooperate – climate, Iran, maybe North Korea and Afghanistan all have some overlap of interests.”
The step back from confrontation may have influenced the resistance from the White House to the Japanese desire for an early visit to Washington by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio after his election triumph. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry openly sought a White House meeting as early as later this month. But the White House politely pushed the date back, perhaps into next year.
This was mainly driven by Biden’s heavy domestic schedule and the need to accommodate the visits of other allies. But in the view of some, the White House also wanted to put some space between the Xi summit and a Kishida visit, worried it would be viewed as an attempt to balance the effort to improve relations with China.
For the new government in Japan, the summit could pose a challenge. On one hand, it strengthens the hand of those in the cabinet who advocate a more balanced approach toward China, combining efforts to pursue engagement with measures to ensure economic security. On the other hand, Kishida may face pressure from hardliners in the Liberal Democratic Party who are eager to tighten military cooperation with the U.S. on Taiwan and advocate a more rapid defense buildup.
Limited results on the issues
It would be naïve, however, to overplay the summit results. Beyond the acknowledgment that escalation is in neither side’s interest, there was no visible movement on the agenda of issues presented by both leaders, a list aired frequently during the past 10 months. President Biden ran through China’s dismal human rights record, from Tibet and Xinjiang to Hong Kong; unfair trade and industrial practices; the military buildup in the South China Sea and the threats to freedom of navigation, and the need for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific.’
The Chinese responded with their own accusations of American responsibility for creating a new Cold War. The American crimes, Xi reportedly told Biden, included advocacy of high-tech decoupling, economic sanctions, and forging military alliances to confront China, as well as using Taiwan to contain China and interfering in China’s internal affairs.
The meeting did avoid the harsh tones and public posturing that were displayed at the beginning of the Biden administration at the meeting of senior officials held in Alaska. “Both sides seem to acknowledge that runaway escalation is in neither side’s interest,” former senior State Department official Ryan Hass told a Brookings Institution panel discussing the summit. But while the meeting placed a floor under the relationship, there is also a clear ceiling on any substantial progress, he warned. “Neither side wants to be seen as softening,” Hass, now at Brookings, said.
Domestic issues come first in both countries
Both leaders are mainly absorbed by problems at home. President Biden’s popularity is sliding in the face of renewed concerns over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, unease over the economic future amidst rising inflation and supply chain disruptions, and the impasse in the U.S. Congress which has stalled key legislation including a new massive spending bill. Domestic priorities clearly shaped the summit with Xi – the meeting only followed the passage of a massive $1 trillion infrastructure spending package, motivated in part by the competition with China.
President Biden “is unwilling to jeopardize his ability to achieve higher priority objectives by making concessions to Beijing merely to create the appearance of a better relationship,” observed Stanford China expert Thomas Finger, a former senior American intelligence official.
Xi is under no less onerous internal pressures, generated by slowing growth, a collapse of the real estate bubble, and a politically-motivated crackdown on China’s private sector tech entrepreneurs. This is compounded by a growing crisis of energy supply and rising prices in the global energy sector. Market reforms are stalled and “a severe economic slowdown has therefore become a near-term worry, not a distant one,” wrote China economy analyst Daniel Rosen in Foreign Affairs earlier this month. “Xi is running out of time,” Rosen warned.
The open economic warfare between China and the U.S., begun under the Trump administration and largely continued with Biden, has been a major factor in driving the strategic competition between the two countries. And it has been useful to both leaders in justifying other policies – in the Chinese case, internal repression and economic autonomy, if not decoupling and in the U.S. case, domestic spending on infrastructure and industrial rejuvenation, as well as ‘buy American’ measures.
There were some glimmers of potential breaks in this economic clash. The climate agreement reached in Glasgow between China and the U.S. was a surprise and could lead to cooperation in other areas, including on public health and energy. Apparently, the two leaders did spend some time exploring the current energy situation, not only shortages of supply but also price rises. Increased production of American natural gas for the Chinese market could potentially ease shortages in that market and also offer some significant reduction in the use of more carbon-intensive fuels like coal.
But overall, the summit offered few signs of progress in managing the economic collision that was set in motion in the previous administration and even longer ago. The absence of an elaborated trade policy by the Biden administration was painfully evident at the summit.
Biden reportedly pushed for the implementation of the Phase One agreement reached by the Trump administration, including Chinese purchase commitments, but there is no evidence that is feasible. And there are no talks on the agenda with China beyond that.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Trade Representative and Commerce Secretary are on their way to Asia without any vision of a broader regional approach, though Sullivan made a passing reference to a preliminary discussion on an agreement on digital trade.
“The open question for the broader relationship is whether the US and China can constructively manage the slow-motion collision that is now unfolding between their very different worldviews,” commented former trade negotiator Stephen Olson and now a senior researcher for the Hinrich Foundation.
Cooperation and engagement will take place, Olson wrote after the summit, but the clear differences between China and the U.S. will not go away. “They can however be responsibly managed in a way that ameliorates the fallout. That is in the best interests of both countries, and it will be the defining challenge in US-China relations for the foreseeable future. Whether the Biden-Xi summit moved us any closer to meeting that challenge, however, remains to be seen.”
For now, a small opening has been made
For now, the best that can be hoped for is that the small opening in the otherwise relentless talk of confrontation and potential war will hold up and lead to more serious negotiations among senior officials. A lessening of harsh rhetoric in the media may be one immediate outcome. The summit yielded an agreement to ease restrictions on visas for American reporters, allowing their return to China, in exchange for reciprocal access for Chinese journalists from official media. Some steps to ease travel restrictions on business and academic visits may follow.
The Chinese media coverage reflected the official line, treating it as a positive shift but also as a win for the regime. “The tone is steadfast but not aggressive,” commented a scholar who closely monitors social media in China. “The Chinese government was relieved. Trump was very aggressive and unpredictable. Biden seems predictable and conciliatory.”
How long this mood will last remains to be seen.