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Foreign Policy

Xi-Biden Summit? No So Fast.

Jan 28, 2021
  • Cui Lei

    Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies

It had been expected that after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Jan. 20, a high-level dialogue between China and the United States would follow in the near future. Sadly, however, I believe such a dialogue will be difficult to achieve for months to come. 

I. The U.S. is not in a hurry

Given the series of statements made by the Biden team before taking office, the U.S. side is not enthusiastic about resuming talks with their Chinese counterparts. First, Biden’s focus is not on U.S.-China relations. He is currently facing tough domestic issues, such economic recovery and controlling the pandemic. China policy is not on the priority list.

Second, the American side needs incentive to improve relations with China. Under the Trump administration’s long drumbeat, competing with China and being tough on China has become a bipartisan consensus. Pressured by domestic opposition, the Biden administration will be cautious about leaving the impression that it is soft on China.

In an interview with the New York Times after the election, Biden said that the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese goods would not be lifted for the time being and that the new administration would determine its policy toward China after consulting with its allies. This means that there will be no talks with China before talks with allies.

Third, the Biden administration’s expectations for improved U.S.-China relations have yet to be heard. It may focus on human rights and values systems and continue to be tough on China on issues related to those topics. The new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has expressed support for the Trump administration’s accusation that China has perpetrated acts of “genocide”    in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. The Biden administration will not lift the sanctions imposed on China because of bipartisan support for congressional bills related to Hong Kong and Xinjiang. 

II. China is not in a hurry

First, China’s most difficult period has passed. Although it was the first country to be hit by the novel coronavirus, it quickly brought the pandemic under control and gradually resumed work and production. China’s economy grew by 2.3 percent in 2020, making it the only major economy in the world to achieve positive growth. In contrast, the U.S. has been hit hardest by the pandemic, with more than 400,000 deaths and a significant economic decline. Its growth rate is expected to contract by -4.3 percent in 2020. Based on these figures, China’s GDP will reach roughly 75 percent of U.S. GDP in 2020, bringing the two sides closer in terms of economic strength.

Second, China has taken the lead in the international economic and trade arena. On Nov. 15, the RCEP agreement initiated by ASEAN and involving China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand was officially signed; China also expressed its intention to join the CPTTP, taking the initiative in the Asia-Pacific region. On Dec. 30, negotiations on the China-EU investment agreement were completed, frustrating U.S. efforts to isolate China by forging a united front with European allies.

Third, the Chinese side does not yet know what to expect of the Biden administration, knowing that it is hard to change views and behavior through talks. Issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea involve China’s core interests, and China knows very well in its heart that even if the two sides hold dialogues, they are unlikely to bring any progress because the prejudices of many Americans are hard to change through any short-term talks.

Fourth, China has risen to the top layer of the world pecking order, a position that demands respect from other great powers. Mutual respect is one of the principles of today’s new type of great-power relations, a new concept promoted in China’s diplomatic rhetoric. Given that, China will not take the initiative without finding out what the U.S. side really thinks. 

III. Communication has continued

Given the reasons listed above, it is clear that neither China nor the United States has any urgent desire for high-level dialogues in the short term. However, the absence of high-level talks does not mean that there are no unofficial contacts or low-level official contacts. Informal dialogues between China and the United States has never been interrupted. Diplomats on both sides have remained in contact over the past four years, even in the summer of 2020, when U.S.-China relations were at their lowest ebb.

The two militaries have also established a crisis communication working group in response to the muscle-flexing and close-in reconnaissance off the coast of China by the U.S. military.

While many official dialogue mechanisms have been discontinued, unofficial talks are still in place, with many former U.S. government officials participating as experts and scholars. With many of these people now joining the Biden administration, the Chinese side will feel comfortable in future official dialogues as they see familiar faces. 

IV. When will the time be ripe?

The first opportunity for high-level dialogue will come after the pandemic in the U.S. subsides. It is still raging there, so even if a dialogue were to take place, it would be by videoconference, making it difficult to have direct person-to-person contact, which is generally a more effective lubricant. Of course, Xi and Biden or other high-level officials may greet each other on multilateral occasions, such as the G20, APEC and the East Asia Summit, but those events, scheduled on the second half of 2021 at the earliest, seem to be too far in the future to be counted on to improve bilateral relations.

The second opportunity will be after officials in charge of China issues in various departments of the Biden administration are in place. At present, most cabinet positions are still awaiting confirmation, and the selection of lower officials for China affairs in agencies such as the State Department, the Defense Department and the Treasury Department have yet to be determined. They will also need to be confirmed by the Senate. Before this process is completed, dialogue between the U.S. and China is not possible, even if they wanted it, because the Chinese officials have no counterparts.

A third opportunity for high-level dialogue will come after a breakthrough in negotiations in a certain area, such as trade, pandemic control or climate change. Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden team supports engagement with China, so the previous dialogue mechanisms are expected to resume in one way or another. The Biden administration attaches importance to global issues such as climate change and public health, so the likelihood of cooperation between the U.S. and China will increase. When positive achievements in these areas take place, there will be ample reason for the two heads of state or senior officials to meet, even if only amounts to opening champagne and celebrating via the internet.

Of course, there will be uncertainties in China-U.S. relations. Historically, if there is a crisis — for example, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia (1999) or the collision of aircraft over the South China Sea (2001) — high-level dialogues are interrupted for some time. If there is a similar crisis or tension grows in the coming months, high-level talks will be on hold indefinitely. It is my hope that the current tensions will be eased and lead to fruitful high-level official dialogues between the two countries.

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