On the occasion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco, President Joe Biden met with President Xi Jinping of China last week for more than four hours, in a joint mutual effort to improve the tone of relations that have become increasingly acrimonious since their last meeting a year ago in Bali. Both sides were happy to declare the meeting productive, with Biden noting with satisfaction several achievements.
Perhaps the most important concrete result was the re-establishment of regular contacts between the two militaries – severed by the Chinese after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year – an essential step the US had sought, to minimize the risk that an accidental military incident could lead to rapid escalation (even at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, military contacts were never interrupted). China also agreed in principle to curb the export to the US of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a drug that killed more than 73,000 Americans in 2022, and the two leaders agreed their experts would meet to discuss the risks associated with AI.
On the face of it, Xi appeared to get less than Biden from the meeting, the US government did agree to remove from the Commerce Department’s trade sanctions list a Chinese public security forensic institute, but the Chinese leader seemed to be pleased that he was treated with the full respect of an equal partner and that he was received warmly by more than 300 top US business leaders, to whom he said that China was willing to be “a partner and a friend” of the US.
The current reality is that both leaders needed an improvement in relations.
Biden doesn’t want another crisis, he already has his and America’s hands full dealing with wars in Ukraine and Israel, and he has a tense re-election campaign in the coming year. A blow-up with China would give his likely opponent Donald Trump the opportunity to attack Biden as incompetent in dealing with the problems of the world. Biden had already indicated a major shift away from the strident attacks against China earlier in his Administration, he has over the last months sent no less than five Cabinet level officials to China to open communications permitting a smoother management of what both countries recognize is their most important international relationship.
Xi has his own problems at home, he is dealing with a time of economic weakness, a crisis in the property market, ballooning youth unemployment and a weakening of business confidence, the unexpected firing of his foreign minister and defense minister are visible signs of turmoil. At this delicate moment, Xi wants to show the Chinese that he is supremely capable of managing his country’s most important economic and political relationship. The positive tone of coverage of the meeting with Biden in the state-controlled Chinese press is in marked contrast to the virulent anti-American messages typical of the last years.
China and America need each other, the two countries are still inextricably linked economically and profoundly intertwined politically, and Biden and Xi each needs to show they can carry on a constructive dialogue. Yet the friendly optics of the San Francisco meeting cannot hide the underlying reality, the US and China are in an active and dangerous rivalry, a competition pitting two different systems against each other, with many apparently intractable issues leading them to confrontation, with each side viewing the other as a serious threat.
Biden’s National Security Strategy, a formal document required by Congress, states China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” Nearly 60% of Americans view China in hostile terms, and about the same number worry that China is a “critical threat”, with over 70% of Republicans taking this hard line. So, will the positive tone of the San Francisco meeting continue?
It will be put to a serious test during a US Presidential election year, when Biden will be forced by election politics to revert to aggressive campaign rhetoric showing he is “tough” on China. He already gave a nod to the demand, only hours after meeting with Xi, Biden confirmed he considers Xi Jinping a dictator. The Chinese foreign ministry limited their reaction to seriously criticizing the statement.
Trump, the virtually certain opponent to Biden in November 2024, will not miss a chance to attack Biden for his dialogue with China, he has already claimed Biden is “owned by China…a Manchurian Candidate”.
Seen in this light, we can view with cautious approval the important meeting in San Francisco. The world needs their dialogue to continue. Let us hope that in spite of domestic political concerns, the two leaders will show enough wisdom to maintain at least the appearance of reasonable and open dialogue.