Though over a month has passed since the high-profile meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden on the sidelines of last month’s APEC meeting in San Francisco, the consequences of their encounter remain cloudy.
Securing Xi’s visit to the United States, the first in five years, was an important objective of many of the high-level Sino-American exchanges that occurred in preceding months. Yet, there was no joint China-U.S. statement or press conference during the visit, neither side made major compromises or concessions, and both governments have since offered diverging lists of their planned next steps.
The most discordant note was how the two sides characterized the overall relationship. Senior U.S. officials stressed the need to manage what they depicted as an invariably competitive relationship—the White House readout of the meeting underscored that “President Biden emphasized that the United States and China are in competition.” In contrast, their Chinese counterparts adamantly refused to characterize the relationship as competitive or adversarial. PRC officials are similarly rejecting the U.S. formulation that the two countries can pursue “de-risking” without “de-coupling.”
Since the meeting, the two governments have highlighted a different set of agreed deliverables. The PRC embassy spokesperson in Washington said that the meeting “produced more than 20 deliverables in such areas as political affairs, foreign policy, people to people exchanges, global governance, military and security.” But U.S. officials have underscored only three areas for near-term focus: advanced artificial intelligence (AI) systems, counternarcotics, and senior military-to-military contacts.
Of course, agreeing to discuss a topic is not the same as committing to do something about it. It remains unclear that the Chinese and U.S. officials who will sit on the new fentanyl and AI working groups will possess sufficient authority to execute effective agreements.
Initially, there seemed greater clarity regarding the resumption of senior-level China-U.S. defense contacts. The Chinese government suspended these exchanges after the then speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, angered Beijing by visiting Taiwan in August 2022. Earlier this month, Ely Ratner, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, told U.S. journalists that the two defense establishments were in “active discussions” regarding how to resume senior military engagements. Ratner said the parties were considering “a combination of … meetings, calls, dialogues and engagements over the next 12 months.”
But more recent media reports relate a lack of progress since Xi’s visit. One reason may be leadership problems within the Chinese national security establishment. Though the resignation of former PRC Defense Minister Li Shangfu in October removed an immediate impediment—he was under sanction for his earlier involvement in buying advanced weapons from Russia had become a major problem—the Chinese government has yet to appoint his successor.
Notwithstanding the attention devoted to the Xi-Biden meeting, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s December 2nd speech at the prominent Reagan National Defense Forum will arguably have a weightier impact on near-term relations. Calling China “the biggest threat we've ever had,” the Secretary underscored the Biden administration’s continued hardline approach regarding technology transfer issues concerning China despite the San Francisco summit.
Raimondo shared that the Commerce Department aimed to move toward country-wide rather than company-targeted controls to counter the technique of China and other sanctioned states of simply creating new entities to circumvent restrictions on existing ones. She also emphasized the imperative of coordinating controls with allies and partners to prevent China from acquiring items controlled by the United States from other countries--even as the United States welcomed opportunities to purchase goods from these countries to diversify supply lines for sensitive products now dominated by China.
At home, Raimondo indicated that the Department would advance from the current practice of applying crude “cutlines” to emphasizing the intent of its controls. She cited the example of NVIDIA, which simply redesigned its product line so that those chips available to the Chinese market fell immediately below the performance parameters established by the Department. She anticipated that a process of continuous dialogue with these companies, through which U.S. regulators would explain which sensitive technologies the United States wanted to deny China, would yield superior results.
Like other senior U.S. policymakers, Raimondo stated that the Biden administration would always prioritize securing enduring national security interests rather than achieving fleeting near-term commercial profits when assessing export controls on sensitive technologies with advanced military applications, such as AI. But even for primarily commercial products, the administration would demand reciprocity from China on behalf of U.S. companies seeking trade and investment opportunities with China. Furthermore, other Biden administration officials at the Reagan Forum said they would continue programs to strengthen key pillars of the U.S. economy—such as critical infrastructure and diversified supply chains—to better compete with China.
It is still premature to conclude that the Xi-Biden meeting met the modest U.S. goal of stabilizing, or even setting a floor under, the Sino-American relationship. The deliverables at the summit primarily comprised promises to take future steps—and the next year is primed for problems.
For example, the Taiwanese national elections will occur in January. Before the Xi-Biden meeting, the parties pressed the other to soften their positions regarding Taiwan, but this did not occur. While denying that he had a fixed deadline for securing control over Taiwan, Xi united cross-strait reunification was inevitable. Meanwhile, Biden warned against external interference in the island’s political affairs during the meeting and has continued U.S. arms deliveries and expanded other military support to Taiwan.
Even before the Taiwanese electorate selects its next government, the U.S. election season will present an adverse backdrop for new China-U.S. engagements. Not only will most American leaders be focused inward, but Chinese policymakers will eschew major policy changes until they know who will occupy the White House in January 2025. Meanwhile, this year’s spy balloon incident reminded us how easily unanticipated shocks can rapidly upend Sino-American ties.