Signalling an end to what the Carnegie Endowment called a “cold war propelled by differing ideologies,” the Heads of State of the U.S. & China met face to face in the third week of November for the first time since U.S. President Biden took office in January 2021. Since his election, the bilateral relationship between the two countries continued on the steady downward trend it has been on since 2018, when previous U.S. President Donald Trump imposed punitive tariffs on Chinese goods. The U.S.-China relationship is currently at “its lowest point in decades,” according to the United States Institute of Peace. Tensions between the two powers have escalated primarily over the topics of trade and China’s actions towards Taiwan, which Biden claims are “coercive and increasingly aggressive."
President Biden and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping met before the G-20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia. While the two leaders were seen shaking hands and smiling for the cameras – a move that can indicate a desire to resume normal channels of diplomatic dialogue – The Guardian reports that Secretary General Xi stated that “the fundamental interests” of the two countries were not fully aligned. Topics discussed during their meeting covered the importance of peace across the Taiwan strait, with the U.S. focused on global peace and stability, the continued U.S. commitment to the One China policy, and the desire to work together to tackle the transnational issues of climate crisis, food stability, and global health. There was also a mutual agreement to oppose the use of or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and a discussion around North Korea’s missile tests.
Both leaders clearly highlighted their desire to move forward together, with President Biden saying he felt Xi was willing to communicate on some issues. According to analysts, Xi’s desire to “elevate the relationship” might be possible given how the two leaders are doing politically in their own countries. Biden’s success in the U.S. midterm elections means that he has stable footing in Washington, and may actually be able to meaningfully steer the relationship with Beijing. At the same time, Xi’s “further consolidation of power in the Chinese system” may allow the Chinese leader to engage more meaningfully in diplomatic negotiations without threat of instability, according to Yu Jie, a senior research fellow at Chatham House.
What will the future of this relationship look like? For now, we know that Beijing and Washington will resume cooperation over the climate crisis – a marked step forward after climate talks were halted in August of this year when Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, signalling a stronger U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Both parties also agreed to oppose the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, driven by the U.S.’s continuous insistence that China take a clear stand against Russia. Notably, the Korea Times reports that Xi stated that Beijing does not seek to challenge the United States or “change the existing international order."
While these two steps forward may be enough to stall further deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship, there are several contentious issues left unresolved. Both sides agreed that new norms need to be established to guide the relationship forward, but were not able to find a common definition of what these norms could look like. Beijing focused on “guard rails” as protective mechanisms, underscoring their long-standing insistence that Washington not interfere in “internal matters” such as Taiwan, PRC practices in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, etc. Washington proposed a different understanding of the term ‘guardrails’, relating them instead to “rules of the road” in a “competition."
Not least amongst the ongoing issues facing Beijing and Washington are continuing trade bans; in October of this year, the U.S. imposed further export bans on semiconductor technology, which, according to the GBP, are “explicitly designed to hobble technology sectors like military modernization and artificial intelligence that are important to China." The Biden administration insisted this measure was taken in the name of national security. The U.S. has also consistently spoken out against China’s relationship with Taiwan, even going so far as to agree to support Taiwan in its independence effort, which Beijing prescribes to an effort to limit China’s influence in the region. Chinese official Mao Ning said “…we will never tolerate any activities aimed at splitting the country, and reserve the choice to take all necessary measures.”
With both countries expanding military capabilities in the event of a conflict in Taiwan, and with only two years to re-election in the U.S., and the very real possibility of a Republican U.S. administration in place, both Biden and Xi must decide whether they’re really willing to invest in moving quickly and substantially towards a stronger bilateral relationship.