On Nov. 16, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden met in a virtual summit, the first since Biden took office. It was no surprise that expectations and concrete results were modest.
The summit didn’t dwell on specific issues, but touched on a range of matters with strategic, overarching and fundamental importance in shaping bilateral relations. It also addressed important regional and global issues.
The Chinese side’s 4,000-word news release after the meeting outlined principles and major issues bearing on China-U.S. relations, China’s development path, its strategic intentions and its position in the international order. The U.S. statement was brief at just four paragraphs. It focused on macro issues, such as the international order and values, while seeming to put specific issues — climate change, public health and energy security — on the back burner.
A comparison of the two news releases is instructive. They show where the two sides converge and diverge, mainly reflected in four respects:
• The critical importance of China-U.S. relations. The importance of ties is not only reflected at the bilateral level but also extends to the regional and global levels. Xi said that a healthy and stable China-U.S. relationship is crucial not only for growth and development within the two countries but also for maintaining a peaceful and stable international environment, including effective responses to global challenges, such as climate change and the COVID19 pandemic. Biden said that the way the U.S.-China relationship evolves will have far-reaching implications not only for the two countries but for the rest of the world.
• The highly complex nature of the relationship between the two countries. In its news release, the U.S. side noted that the two heads of state discussed the complexity of the bilateral relationship. The Chinese statement underscored the point that the most important aspect of international relations over the next 50 years will be China and the U.S. finding ways to get along. Of course, this is no easy task.
• The important role of communication mechanisms, especially meetings between the heads of state, in stabilizing relations and setting the course ahead. Xi emphasized that China is willing to promote exchanges at all levels and across various fields in a spirit of equality and mutual benefit. He expressed his willingness to maintain contact with Biden through various means. For his part, Biden also noted the importance of candid and straightforward communication on the priorities and strategic intentions of both sides.
• The imperative for long-term peaceful coexistence between China and the United States. This was arguably the most important strategic consensus to emerge from the summit. Long-term coexistence is an extension of the status quo, but how to achieve that is a test of political wisdom and statecraft. Xi proposed at the meeting that not merely coexistence but “peaceful coexistence” should be achieved, based on the “durable coexistence” suggested by the U.S.
One of the important objectives of the summit was to set up a “guardrail” to prevent the expected intense competition between China and the United States from spiraling into confrontation. Rather, the goal is to have “responsible competition” and “managed competition,” concepts frequently mentioned by the Biden administration. It seems that intense competition and peaceful coexistence are the two dominant themes of U.S. strategy toward China.
During the summit, Biden reiterated that the United States does not seek to change China’s institutions, does not seek to oppose China by strengthening alliances and has no intention to slide into conflict. China has also repeatedly stated that it adheres to a path of peaceful development and that its development does not aim to challenge or replace the United States.
In his speech, Xi again emphasized that it is not in the blood of the Chinese people to invade other countries or to seek hegemony, and the country does not intend to promote its own development path around the world.
Both sides expressed their opposition to a so-called new cold war between the two countries. Xi said the U.S. can keep its word about avoiding a new cold war through concrete actions. Yet we should assume that differences between the two sides on some major issues will come up.
The first is the matter of Taiwan, the most important and sensitive issue in the bilateral relationship. Xi reiterated China’s position that “the one-China principle and the three joint communiques between China and the U.S. are the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.” He reaffirmed the core, concept that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it. Biden seemed to hedge the U.S. position regarding one China by adding qualifications: He said the United States adheres to the one-China policy as guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (a domestic law), the three joint communiques and the so-called Six Assurances.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has shown a clear pattern of intent to contain China and has given Taiwan greater prominence. But U.S. policy is in conflict with its stated goals. The U.S. side says it opposes unilateral changes in the status quo, and any effort to undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. However, if the U.S. does not change its course of supporting and conniving with those in Taiwan who are seeking independence — actions that serve to embolden secessionists —China will have no choice but to take resolute measures that will severely jeopardize peace.
Second is the issue of a rules-based international order. There is an essential difference between the Chinese and American understanding of rules and order. The “rules” as defined by the United States are based on the postwar liberal international institutional arrangements established under Pax Americana, reflecting the strategic will and values of the United States and the West and serving those interests. These rules are not based on equitable consultation but are driven by power, including arbitrary interpretations and mandatory expansion of so-called democratic values, which are often styled as “human rights.” All of this amounts to interference in others’ internal affairs.
China, on the other hand, advocates an international system with the United Nations at the core, an order based on international law and basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. It stands for common values such as peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom for all mankind. This view of order and rules emphasizes the principle of sovereign equality and civilizational pluralism — the common aspirations of the international community — and is therefore widely representative and authoritative.
Because of the evolving landscape of international power and the new trend of democratization of international relations, the will of one country or a small group of countries no longer reflects the common will of the international community. The old international order is out of step with prevailing trend of the new era. China believes it is necessary to reform the existing international system to make it more just and reasonable. The U.S. side, by contrast, believes that China intends to compete with it for supremacy and upend the nature of the current international system. It characterizes China as a “revisionist” country.
How to frame China-U.S. relations is also important. President Xi emphasized that China-U.S. relations in the new era should adhere to three principles — mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. China has repeatedly noted that cooperation is the only correct choice for both sides, and that mutual, win-win benefits are an achievable goal.
Xi said during the summit that “the planet is big enough to accommodate the respective and joint development of China and the United States.” However, the Biden administration continues to see China as the only competitor that poses a fundamental challenge to the U.S. and has presented a “3C” matrix for governing relations — cooperation, competition and confrontation. The Biden administration also stated that cooperation between the two sides would not change the competitive nature of bilateral relations.
China clearly opposes framing relations in terms of competition, one important reason being that this fails to capture the full depth and breadth of interactions. Once positioned as a strategic competitive relationship, actors will emphasize relative gains at the expense of potential room for cooperation between the two sides. Cooperation in this framing is reduced to a stop-gap measure that is not only unsustainable but also extremely fragile. Competition can easily replace cooperation altogether and escalate into full-fledged confrontation. This is an extremely dangerous scenario.
On the whole, the virtual summit was positive in several respects, such as easing tensions and stabilizing bilateral relations, defining future directions, outlining basic principles of relations, exploring guardrails for managing competition between the two countries and clarifying the role and status of both countries in the international system. However, key differences between the two sides on major issues, especially on Taiwan, have seriously constrained the development of improved bilateral relations.
Looking ahead, the two sides need to implement policies in areas of consensus without delay and show visible results as soon as possible — for example, resuming communication mechanisms at all levels to rebuild confidence in bilateral relations and gradually build trust. Regarding areas of difference, they should resort to sound crisis management mechanisms, strengthen communication, practice restraint, cultivate patience and strive to find compromises that meet the demands of both sides.