Illustration: Craig Stephens
Rorry Daniels
Rorry Daniels

US-China relations remain fraught, but Xi and Biden are at least willing to work on them

  • The US-China talks in Bali gave both leaders a chance to voice their concerns without overshadowing the need for cooperation, which both acknowledge
  • The real work of turning this goodwill into meaningful action now falls to the representatives of each side
Despite low expectations, Monday’s summit between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping offered reassurances that there is political will to stem the downward spiral of the US-China relationship.

By setting aside suspicion and worst-case scenarios, both sides exhibited the statesmanship and confidence – in their respective strengths and in their personal relationship – that could bridge the gap between aspirations to manage the relationship responsibly and the mechanisms and processes to do so.

But this outcome, however promising, is only the first step towards a firmer footing. Xi and Biden have set the table, and now their designated representatives have to do the much tougher job of cooking and serving the meal.

Both leaders came into this meeting with favourable politics at home. Xi Jinping was fresh from China’s 20th party congress, the major leadership selection held every five years where he emerged with all key positions filled by his own network. Joe Biden’s Democrats had weathered the US midterms without the massive Republican takeover that many predicted.

This confidence is not only reflected in the picture of the two leaders, shaking hands and smiling, but also in the delivery of their prepared remarks that emphasised the desire for candid dialogue without backing away from the points of competition and confrontation.

The substance of the meeting served three important purposes. First, it allowed both sides to frame the bilateral relationship in their own terms, to a wide audience.

Xi acknowledged that the rest of the world expected the two countries to manage their relationship responsibly, while Biden built on that by adding that the world also expects the two countries to contribute solutions for global problems. Both leaders acknowledged tensions in the relationship while elevating the need to avoid conflict.
The talks between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden on November 14. The leaders met in Bali ahead of the G20 Summit. Photo: Xinhua

But if the opening remarks were conciliatory, the readouts allowed each side to voice their concerns. Biden emphasised the importance of human rights in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and elsewhere; the concerns of American workers about unfair trade practices, and US citizens detained in China; among other issues.

The Chinese readout argued for a correct understanding of history and defended China’s political system while highlighting the importance of the Taiwan issue. By saving the most contentious issues for private discussion and the readouts, both sides got to air their criticism without allowing it to dominate.
Second, the meeting was an opportunity to offer and give reassurances on the critical issues that could spark conflict, if left unchecked. China said that it does not seek to challenge the US or replace it in the international system. The US expressed clearly that its policy towards Taiwan had not changed, and that it opposes unilateral moves by either side.

Where the China-Russia partnership may be headed next

China and the US both agreed that the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, sending an important joint signal to Moscow and Pyongyang. China’s recent distancing from Russia amid criticism of its conduct in Ukraine aligns well with US priorities and interests and should calm anxieties about the emergence of a Beijing-Moscow bloc.

Finally, the meeting paved a path towards progress on both sides’ bilateral priorities. Officials in Washington and Beijing have outlined a desire to manage the relationship responsibly but both sides have had different ideas on how to do so.


Xi, Biden discuss Taiwan and Xinjiang in first in-person meeting

Xi, Biden discuss Taiwan and Xinjiang in first in-person meeting
The US has repeatedly emphasised the need for delinking issues of global concern from issues of bilateral contention. But Beijing has found this difficult to keep up in practice, especially during heightened tensions over Taiwan.

Instead, Beijing has wanted to establish the broad terms by which the two sides will act in a new era of great power competition through durable, official statements. To China, this would constrain US activism on the Taiwan issue and establish a basis by which to measure and manage US commitments to peaceful coexistence.

But the US has been suspicious that such commitments would box in its ability to react to China’s use of force or coercion against US allies and partners in the region, undermining the US position in Asia.

The Xi-Biden meeting proved that if the two sides are not able to meet in the middle, at least they can enlarge the floor. That the leaders empowered their respective officials to continue discussions using a dual-track approach – one on principles, including perhaps, rules of fair competition; and one to resume working groups on pressing global issues such as climate change and food security – speaks to vigorous diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to find a way to satisfy both governments’ priorities.

A single candid discussion is no cure-all for the many resentments and suspicions that have built up over time between the two systems. The hard work is actually just beginning, as the teams on both sides have to keep two separate tracks of discussion afloat amid some choppy global headwinds.

Circumstances beyond the control of either leader could force an abrupt downturn before their respective teams have time to build a structure that protects whatever gains can be realised in the short term. And while the Chinese leadership team has at least five years of stability in their coming positions, the US team may change more quickly.

But however hard the next steps may be, the two leaders signalled a political will to try. And trying to reduce misperception and build on common interest, however small or short, is always better than fighting to win, lose or draw.

Rorry Daniels is the managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a senior fellow at its Centre for China Analysis