Recently, China’s President Xi Jinping visited the United States (US) to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco. The APEC Summit provided an opportunity for the US and the Chinese leaders to conduct deliberations on wide-ranging issues. In over a year, this was the first face-to-face meeting between President Xi and President Biden.

Recently, China’s President Xi Jinping visited the United States (US) to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco. The APEC Summit provided an opportunity for the US and the Chinese leaders to conduct deliberations on wide-ranging issues. In over a year, this was the first face-to-face meeting between President Xi and President Biden, which lasted about four hours. The Summit Meeting between China and the US leaders attracted considerable attention. Such attention is understandable as US-China relations have experienced a significant downturn in the bilateral relationship in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. 


Contextualising the Xi-Biden Meeting


The meeting took place in a challenging context for both countries. The United States is now saddled with two wars - the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the United States does not have boots on the ground, it is proactively supporting its allies – Ukraine and Israel - in these conflicts. 


China, on the other hand, is going through a severe economic crisis. After the pandemic restrictions were lifted, the Chinese economic growth failed to pick up momentum as anticipated. Further, many developments in Chinese domestic politics were quite perplexing. Senior ministers, such as defence and foreign affairs, have disappeared from the political scene, and there are concerns about political stability within China. Amid these troubling domestic economic and political developments, the Chinese leadership was also dealing with a deteriorating relationship with the United States.


There are many nodes of disagreement between China and the United States. In the economic realm, there is a concern that China indulges in unfair trade practices. In response to such behaviour, the United States has imposed restrictions on exporting advanced technology to China. Further, the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows into China have started to decline. In the political realm, there are growing tensions in the Taiwan Straits. While the US is concerned that China may invade Taiwan, there is a worry in Beijing that Taiwan may declare independence. There are growing divergences between Beijing and Washington D.C. on various global issues as well. There is a consolidation of China’s strategic partnerships with Russia and Iran. There is also a perception that these strategic partnerships are China's deliberate policy to undermine US interests in various regions. Similarly, the Chinese opine that the US is trying to contain China through its alliance framework and strategic partnerships. 


Outcomes of the Xi-Biden Meeting


During the meeting, President Biden reportedly expressed concern about the Chinese troop build-up close to Taiwan and reiterated the US commitment to help Taiwan defend itself. According to news reports, Xi Jinping sought to assure the American leadership that China has no plans to invade Taiwan. At the same time, acknowledging that Taiwan is the most dangerous issue, President Xi also reiterated a preference for a ‘peaceful reunification of the island with China. It appears the objective of both sides was to convey a message that they are not keen on an immediate flare-up. However, the tensions will likely persist on the Taiwan issue. Chinese policies towards Taiwan, which is heading into an election, will be closely monitored. 


After the meeting, President Biden noted that both sides “agreed that either one of us could pick up the phone, call directly, and we’d be heard immediately.” The fact that the leaders of the two powerful countries were unwilling to talk to each other directly demonstrates the stress in the relationship. The summit meeting between President Biden and President Xi restored diplomatic conversations at the highest level.       


A similar outcome was the restoration of military-to-military communications between the two countries. China discontinued military-to-military communications in August 2022 after Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Taiwan. According to the US Department of Defense, in the past two years, there were “over 180 instances of PLA coercive and risky air intercepts of the US aircraft in the region.” Given the increased incidence of aggressive manoeuvres of Chinese vessels, there was always a concern that an accident or incident could quickly spiral out of control. Therefore, the decision to restart military-to-military communications aims to reduce miscalculations and create crisis management frameworks. 


In a significant development, the Chinese side reportedly assured their American counterparts that they would take steps to curb the flow of chemical substances used in the preparation of illicit and psychotic drugs such as fentanyl. It is estimated that approximately 70,000 people died last year because of the use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Many US officials had often complained that the vast Chinese chemical industry was supplying bulk drugs to illegal labs in Mexico, which manufactured and exported drugs such as fentanyl into the United States. It is still too early to say whether the counter-narcotic agreement between the two countries will bring about tangible change in the manufacturing and distribution of illicit drugs. 


While both leaders also discussed the challenges of advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI), there was no formal agreement on improving AI safety. The Chinese leadership sought to use the United States visit to re-energise the bilateral economic interactions. During the visit, the Chinese president interacted with over 400 American business leaders, including CEOs from hi-tech companies, over dinner. President Xi told the assembled leaders that “China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.” To strengthen people-to-people interaction, Xi announced that China is ready to invite “50,000 young Americans to study in the Asian country over the next five years.” While the president of a communist country received a standing ovation from corporate America, it is not certain if the US investors will drop their strategy of diversifying away from China.


It appears both leaders also discussed the current situation in the Middle East. Reportedly, Biden called on Xi to use the Chinese influence on Iran and “urge it to avoid steps that could be seen as provocative.” 


Thaw in US-China Relations? 


Like all summit meetings, the Xi-Biden meeting was also defined by considerable powerplay. Xi Jinping stated that both countries should “play the role that comes along with our status as major countries”, subtly indicating that the US and China are now equal powers. 


It is interesting that while President Biden defined the China-US relationship as defined by competition, President Xi Jinping stated that seeing each other as competitors would result in “misguided actions and unwanted results.” Xi Jinping also had a word of caution for the US. Xi declared that “China has no intention to challenge the United States or to unseat it” and called on the United States to “not bet against China” and instead should ‘welcome a prosperous China.’ 


There is a concern that the US reaching out to China will not deter the latter from taking aggressive actions in the Pacific. The Chinese naval vessels have sought to prevent the free movement of the Philippines' naval ships. There have been reports that the Chinese naval vessels have conducted aggressive manoeuvres with others, such as Australia. It should be noted that Australia and the Philippines are the allies of the United States.


Not surprisingly, in November, the United States, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Britain carried out Kamandag 7 military exercises to improve “interoperability” in the Indo-Pacific region. Further, President Biden, at the APEC CEO meeting, reiterated the US commitment to the region by stating, “we aren’t going anywhere”. The US President also listed investments the US companies would make in the Asia-Pacific region. 


With multiple regional conflicts, relationships among major powers in global politics are steadily deteriorating. In such a context, the Xi-Biden meeting did not open new avenues of cooperation between the two major powers, it was an attempt to prevent further deterioration in the bilateral relationship between the US and China. The meeting was more of a conflict management effort than an exercise aimed at expanding the avenues of cooperation between the two countries. 


The views expressed in this article are personal. 

Image Source: The New York Times


Sanjay Pulipaka is the Chairperson of the Politeia Research Foundation. He was a Pavate Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a former Fulbright Fellow in the United States. Twitter: @psanjay_in

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