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Foreign Policy

Can China and U.S. Increase Stability?

Jan 05, 2024
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

The summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco in November was extremely important for enhancing the stability of bilateral relations. This progress did not come easy. Earlier this year, China-U.S. relations took a nosedive, and high-level interactions froze, owing to Washington's improper handling of the so-called “spy balloon” incident. It was not until June, when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing, that bilateral ties started to enter a reengagement stage. The two sides have since launched dialogues in diplomacy, economy, trade, climate change and other areas, with the goal of facilitating another meeting of their heads of state.

It is worth noting the China-U.S. reengagement is now sprawling from executive departments to legislatures, and from the federal level to local governments. In mid-October, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer traveled to Shanghai and Beijing with a bipartisan congressional delegation. It was the first visit by a member of the U.S. Congress to the Chinese mainland since 2019. During a meeting with Schumer and his delegation, Xi mentioned the hope that the two legislatures would have more interactions, dialogues and exchanges to increase mutual understanding and make a positive contribution to the stabilization and improvement of China-U.S. relations.

At the end of October, California Governor Gavin Newsom kicked off a weeklong visit to China. A rising star in the Democratic Party and the first U.S. governor to visit China in more than four years, Newson remarked that exchanges at the local level are a critical part of China-U.S. relations and that California will remain a stable, strong and reliable partner of China. Xi met with Newsom and emphasized that the sound development of China-U.S. relations requires pooling the strength of all sides, saying that “the foundation and hope of bilateral ties lies with the people, the future lies with the youth and the vitality lies with sub-national entities.” These four aspects reveal a new strategy in Beijing’s approach to China-U.S. relations.

These interactions set the stage for the heads-of-state meeting. Xi’s San Francisco trip was the first to the United States by a Chinese leader in six years, and another face-to-face communication with Biden after their meeting in Bali more than a year ago. Head-of-state diplomacy has unique value in China-U.S. relations. It’s not just an energizer for more interactions in all arenas, or a matter of practical coordination. It also serves as a brake on misjudgment and potential conflict.

During the four-hour meeting, the two presidents discussed ways for China and the U.S. to co-exist peacefully and manage their disputes. They clarified the responsibilities they both shoulder as the leaders of major world powers, and they articulated the future-oriented “San Francisco vision.” As Xi remarked, for two large countries such as China and the U.S., turning their backs on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to attempt to remodel the other. And conflict and confrontation have unbearable consequences for both sides. He also underlined the fact that China wants to be a partner and friend of the U.S.

All this shows Beijing’s willingness to stabilize China-U.S. ties and stop them from drifting further apart. Biden said that U.S.-China conflict is not inevitable and that a stable and developing China is in the interest of the U.S. and the world. It’s fair to say that stability a top priority has become the common goal of both governments. This first requires increased high-level interactions and dialogue mechanisms. Over the past few months, China and the U.S. have promoted or launched negotiations in commerce, economy, finance, export control the Asia-Pacific region, maritime affairs, arms control, non-proliferation and other areas. They also carried out dialogues about extending the U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement and rebooting the Joint Committee on Cooperation in Agriculture. Another highlight of the meeting was the launch of an intergovernmental dialogue on artificial intelligence, which reflected the importance that both sides attach to fulfilling their responsibilities as major powers.

On Dec. 21, General Liu Zhenli, a member of China’s Central Military Commission and chief of the Joint Staff Department, along with his American counterpart, General Charles Brown Jr., chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke via video call. This was a significant step by the two nations in implementing the San Francisco consensus. Bilateral military contacts had stopped after former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022. According to video footage released by the U.S. Defense Department, a Chinese military plane and another from the U.S. flew within three meters in one of a number of incidents. In order to hold the bottom line of not slipping into conflict, Beijing and Washington have agreed to resume Defense Policy Coordination Talks, revive the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and launch a dialogue between theater commanders from both nations.

Stabilization of China-U.S. ties must also rely on people-to-people exchanges. Multiple factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have hindered such communication and widened the gap between the two parties. In a poll published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November, 58 percent of respondents viewed China as a critical threat to the U.S. — the highest level recorded in the nonpartisan think tank’s surveys since 1990. Across the Pacific, Chinese public opinion is similarly filled with negative perceptions toward the U.S., which can be seen from comments on the internet.

Against such a backdrop, it is crucial to resume people-to-people exchanges. In their meeting, Xi and Biden reached consensus about cooperation on education. Beijing proposed a plan to invite 50,000 American teenagers to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years. In addition, both sides agreed to expand exchanges in culture, sports and business communities and to significantly increase direct passenger flights early in 2024. There had been over 350 direct flights between the two countries per week before the outbreak of the pandemic — the number that was reduced to around 70 now. It constitutes one of the biggest blockages in people-to-people exchanges, sustained by prohibitively expensive airplane tickets.

Looking into 2024, there will be plenty of challenges in continuing to stabilize China-U.S. ties. Despite the improvements in bilateral interactions, China hawks in Washington continue to criticize the Biden administration for conducting “futile engagement.” In particular, Republicans in Congress have been attempting to ramp up pressure on China. In November, a Republican-generated House Foreign Affairs Committee report claimed there were major loopholes in the Commerce Department’s policy of export controls on China. As polarization has risen both in bipartisan politics and within each party at a time when the U.S. is bracing for a presidential election campaign, Washington’s political infighting could have a negative spillover effect on ties with Beijing.

Further, we must not underestimate the risks of the two nations disagreeing over Taiwan. Those in U.S. policy circles are afraid that the Taiwan election next January will likely give rise to a new round of conflict between China and the U.S. There is a conspicuous gap between the slippery one-China policy that Washington practices and the actual one-China principle. The U.S. has been beefing up military operations as deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, in addition to roping in allies — Japan, South Korea and Australia — to interfere more in Taiwan-related affairs. This situation will require continued vigilance.

All in all, the foundation upon which China and the U.S. stand as they attempt to stabilize relations is not strong enough. Bilateral ties may be warming but remain cool at present. Washington won’t be changing its great power competition policy in dealing with China. And political changes will affect bilateral ties in more complicated ways. Hence, managing China-U.S. ties requires more tenacity, more patience, a grander vision and more precise and pragmatic steps. 

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