Can Biden and Xi Jinping talk their way out of a stalemate?
When the US President Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, hold a virtual summit meeting, the main objective would be to prevent the complex relationship between the United States and China from reaching a tipping point.
For nearly a decade, under three US presidents, the two superpowers have been increasingly at odds, as the highly assertive China seeks ways to dethrone the US as the master of the world.
After Xi took power in Beijing, tensions erupted during President Obama’s presidency. President Trump escalated the conflict by imposing steep tariffs on Chinese imports and accusing Xi’s government of causing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many people in both countries expected tensions to ease when Biden took office, but the new president maintained Trump’s tariffs and stated that he wanted to negotiate new rules to constrain China’s “My stand is correct” behavior.
A meeting in Alaska in March 2021 between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Chinese Foreign Policy Chief Yang Jiechi began with a bitter exchange of accusations about trade and human rights.
Months of squabbles ensued. China has been chastised by US officials for bullying smaller Asian nations and repressing its Muslim Uyghur minority. China’s air force increased sorties near Taiwan — the self-governing island — which Beijing claims as part of its territory; the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada sent warships through the Taiwan Strait in an allied show of force.
The commander of the United States Pacific Command warned that China could attack Taiwan by 2027, and Biden stated that he felt obligated to assist Taiwan in defending itself.
Pentagon officials have warned that China is hastening its military buildup in order to quadruple its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads by 2030.
The US strengthened its Asian alliances, including a deal to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as part of a new military treaty known as AUKUS.
The tempo and timing of both nations (US and China) appeared to indicate an unavoidable march toward conflict.
According to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, it was critical to “demonstrate that China’s efforts to push other near or far countries will not ultimately be successful.”
The confrontation provided Biden with one more advantage: it aided in gaining bipartisan support in Congress for two of his domestic economic programs, a $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill and a $250-billion technology spending bill dubbed the “China bill.” And the tone and the pitch was unmistakably tough.
“They’re going to eat our lunch if we don’t get moving,” the president warned senators, referring to the competition with Beijing.
Soon after, some members of Congress began to press the president and the administration to be even tougher on China, particularly with regard to Taiwan.
The administration appeared to have created a more hawkish consensus on China, but anti-Beijing fervor was threatening to spiral out of control.
“They’re digging a hole that will be difficult to get out of,” said a former Obama administration official. “If this becomes a zero-sum game in which one side must win and the other side must lose, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy” — a march toward war.
By September, Biden and his staff had stopped digging.
“We do not want a Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” All the US wants, according to Sullivan, is “to set the terms for an effective and healthy competition… with guardrails and risk-reduction measures in place to ensure that things don’t veer off into conflict.”
Sullivan added that the US hopes to work with China on climate change, nuclear proliferation, and other issues.
It was a good sign in early November 2021 when the United States and China issued a joint plan to slow global warming at the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow — a last-minute effort whose scope was modest but had the effect of absolving both Presidents Biden and Xi of blame if the summit failed.
The two presidents’ meeting this week, their first full-fledged summit, could cover a wide range of issues, including nuclear proliferation, trade talks, easing military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and even visa regulations.
By all accounts, the bar is set too low.
The Biden administration’s mission is to “maintain open channels of communication, make clear US intentions and priorities, and responsibly manage competition between our countries…. This is about establishing the parameters for an effective competition.”
In other words, the goal is to enable “peaceful coexistence” between two incompatible governments, to borrow a phrase from the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.
Even that will be difficult. The tensions that have risen over the last decade demonstrate this.
“Stiff competition” in economic, diplomatic, and nuclear matters between two superpowers will never be easy to manage, and one summit meeting will not resolve their differences. However, it can start the process of defusing them, which is a critical step.