Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

Xi-Biden summit a good start, but US-China ties remain in on-off cycle

  • The meeting produced no breakthroughs, but the fact both leaders agreed to disagree on issues including Taiwan and Hong Kong was viewed as a positive step by observers
  • And despite Beijing’s staunch opposition to labelling the US-China relationship as ‘competitive’, there are signs it has softened on this stance
After nearly 10 months of open hostilities between China and the United States since Joe Biden took office in January, the first face-to-face meeting between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping has brought a sigh of relief around the world.

The virtual summit, which lasted 3½ hours, may have produced no breakthroughs, but the mere fact that they met, agreed to disagree on a host of issues, and promised to improve communication and avoid veering into conflict, was viewed to be a positive development in many quarters.

This says a lot about how far the China-US relationship, widely considered one of the world’s most consequential, has strayed off the beaten track and highlights the challenges ahead to heal ties.

US President Joe Biden meets China’s President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit on November 15, 2021. Photo: AFP

Many media commentators internationally were struck by the cordial tone of the meeting as Xi and Biden recognised the mutual need to ease tensions and avoid conflict, particularly over Taiwan.

Biden noted “the need for commonsense guardrails to ensure competition does not veer into conflict, and to keep lines of communications open”.

Xi compared the countries to two giant ships that needed to “break waves and forge together, without losing direction or speed, still less colliding with each other”.

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Beneath the convivial tone however, there was still a somewhat subtle dissonance emanating from the meeting.

In remarks to the media before the talks, Xi called Biden “an old friend”, apparently referring to the time both spent together during meetings as vice-presidents – something Biden used to cite frequently to show he had a better understanding of Xi than any other US politician.

Biden merely responded: “Thank you.” In fact, a White House spokesman later said Biden did not feel the same way.

Apparently, the Biden administration is concerned the president could be accused of appeasing the US’ most important competitor. This evokes a not-too-distant memory in which former president Donald Trump often publicly called Xi “a friend”. The Chinese leader rarely returned the compliment.


Xi Jinping and Joe Biden call for mutual respect and peaceful China-US coexistence

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden call for mutual respect and peaceful China-US coexistence

Moreover, Xi and Biden disagreed on how to define the complex and volatile ties between their nations. During the meeting, Biden highlighted the importance of “managing competition responsibly”. In contrast, Xi continued preaching the long-standing line that both should get along based on the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.

When Yang Jiechi, China’s top official in charge of foreign affairs, last month met US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to prepare for the summit, he made it clear that Beijing opposed defining the US-China relationship as “competitive”.

But there are signs to suggest Beijing has softened its opposition. After the summit, deputy foreign minister Xie Feng said in a press briefing that while cooperation was still China’s priority, both could still be engaged in areas of competition, such as in the economic field. Xie added that the competition had to be fair and healthy.

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It is interesting to note that White House officials touted that Biden came to the summit from a position of strength, having just signed a US$1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law. But his falling approval ratings, precipitated by the still-raging coronavirus pandemic and rising inflation at home, suggested otherwise.

From Beijing’s perspective, Xi came to the summit with a much stronger hand, fresh off a major Chinese Communist Party leadership meeting which further consolidated his power and set up a political foundation for him to rule as long as he likes.

China’s state media generally refrained from describing the summit as a clear win for Xi, but they played up some details to show the domestic audience that Xi had an upper hand, such as the fact that Biden initiated the summit and that the Monday meeting went on until almost midnight at the White House.

Biden’s acknowledgement of Xi as a major world leader is surely music to the ears of Chinese officials, as Xi not long ago said under his leadership, China was finally able to face the world at the eye level.

Mutual respect on an equal footing is something the Chinese leaders are keen to insist on before any discussion. In its report, Xinhua described Xi as explaining China’s viewpoints in a sincere and frank manner, with Biden listening seriously and attentively before responding.

US climate envoy John Kerry (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua at COP26 in Glasgow on November 13, 2021. Photo: Kyodo

Meanwhile, Beijing seems to think its effort to wait out the Biden administration’s antagonistic policies towards China, which it inherited from the Trump presidency, has paid off.

For instance, some senior White House officials previously believed that Washington’s need to cooperate with Beijing on issues including climate change should be a separate matter from its efforts to step up pressure on the Chinese government regarding human rights concerns and other “coercive” behaviour.

But Chinese officials have long argued that cooperation is inseparable from the broader climate of the bilateral relationship.

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Indeed, the outcome of the summit seems to confirm that Beijing and Washington agreed to disagree on human rights, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and maritime issues which concern China’s territorial integrity and core interests. As Xie put it, “on these questions, China has no room to back down”.

Having said that, the significance of the summit should also not be underestimated. As both leaders have promised to work for coexistence and dial back the temperature, particularly over Taiwan, the risk of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait – a source of global concern – has been greatly eased.

At the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, the surprise joint announcement by the US and China – the world’s biggest polluters – to commit to “enhanced climate actions” in the “critical decade of the 2020s”, helped move along the final agreement.

Both leaders have also committed to work together on tackling security and regional challenges, including arms control matters, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan.

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Immediately after the summit, Beijing and Washington agreed to restore journalist visas between the two countries, a small but encouraging step.

In the US, Biden told reporters on Tuesday that Washington had set up four groups to work on “a whole range of issues” and expected to report some progress “in the next two weeks”.

Sullivan suggested that high-level arms control talks would be one. Discussions on reducing trade tariffs on Chinese imports are also likely to be included.

The summit looks set to put a floor under the spiralling ties as the both countries are moving towards cooperation and competition, away from confrontation.

With root problems to be resolved, the bilateral relationship has not yet broken out of the on-off pattern, which probably means that it may enter into a period of stability before it takes a turn for the worse again.

At the meeting, Xi told Biden that the most important event in international relations in the coming 50 years would be for China and the US to find the right way to get along. The summit was a good start.