Summing up the Biden–Xi summit

The summit prevented relations worsening, but didn’t make peace

by Nazia Sheikh
Summits are, by definition, times of high politics and drama, so it should come as no surprise that the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden on November 15 attracted a great deal of attention from around the world. The meeting proved to be beneficial as Biden and Xi decided to recommence military-to-military interactions, combat the lethal narcotic fentanyl, combat climate change, and talk about the potential hazards of artificial intelligence. However, it was also less than an entire restructuring of a relationship that has been failing for several years and will for the foreseeable future be characterized more by rivalry than anything else. Both presidents traveled to San Francisco in the hopes that the four-hour meeting that occurred with the APEC forum would lay the foundation for what is, in Biden’s favored metaphor, the most important bilateral relationship of this century. However, it’s important to remember that their motivations were very different. Biden sought to ease tensions because the last thing the overburdened USA needed was another diplomatic or, worse, military crisis while dealing with Russia’s aggressiveness against Ukraine in Europe and the fallout from the Philistine-Israel war that started on October 7. What remained unchanged after the discussion was the status of Taiwan, the most divisive issue between the USA and China. The two governments have been adjusting the matter for the last 50 years, basically agreeing to differ on how the island and the People’s Republic should ultimately be related. Whereas the USA views Taiwan’s protection from coercion as essential to its standing with its allies in the region and the survival of a rules-based international order, Xi views unification as essential to both his country’s future and his legacy. As in the past, conflicts resulted in being heated up from time to time. The agreement was important to restore military-to-military connections, which China had broken off during House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Xi put demands on Biden to modify export control policy and relieve bans on sensitive equipment. There’s no sign that Biden will agree to these actions. Increased US-China cooperation on climate change and AI regulation seems to be the outcome of the meeting. The question that will eventually count is whether the spirit of that pledge is ultimately translated into significant, tangible action. Chinese and American disagreements about the two main ongoing problems in the globe did not seem to be resolved by the summit. China strongly supports Russia, whilst the USA supports Ukraine. In the wake of the October 7 attack, China has separated itself from Israel by refusing to denounce Hamas and by advocating an unconditional ceasefire.

It is likely to be expected that partisan criticisms of Biden’s diplomacy will arise; nonetheless, far too many of these criticisms now represent an unrealistic underlying vision for US-China relations, one that views military force as the only means of American influence. Undoubtedly, some US interests can only be safeguarded by force. Competition with China will undoubtedly be sharp and intense.

The two governments don’t seem to be moving towards a war in any region despite these differences. China has refrained from arming Russia because it wants to avoid the Middle East crisis getting worse and endangering its supply of Iranian oil. Additionally, Xi wants to prevent a situation in which the USA uses growing geopolitical tensions over one or both of these crises as an excuse to take further actions. The contemporary US-China relationship has changed dramatically during the past 70 years. There was no contact at all in the beginning, and during the Korean War, the USA and China found themselves in armed conflict. Two decades later, there was a phase of strategic collaboration against the USSR, and once the Cold War ended, there was a mutual priority to increase commerce and investment. However, in recent years, economic relations have been a cause of conflict. As China has grown more dominant, the two nations have found themselves with differences on a wide range of issues, including regional and international affairs. The US-China relationship is still something that needs to be managed rather than fixed. To anticipate more from the summit would have been overly optimistic. The most significant bilateral relationship in the world is still quite competitive, and the problem still exists from before the summit: making sure that rivalry doesn’t impede certain forms of collaboration or lead to hostilities. A severe economic split between the USA and China is unaffordable. If the two nations can have a conversation across a table, then a few of the most important global issues— like artificial intelligence, climate disaster, and global health— can be addressed. The steps the Biden Administration has already taken to significantly increase the US military footprint in Asia, invest in the US economy, and restrict the Chinese military’s access to the USA’s most cutting-edge technology remain unaltered. Summit diplomacy can take years to yield significant results. It is likely to be expected that partisan criticisms of Biden’s diplomacy will arise; nonetheless, far too many of these criticisms now represent an unrealistic underlying vision for US-China relations, one that views military force as the only means of American influence. Undoubtedly, some US interests can only be safeguarded by force. Competition with China will undoubtedly be sharp and intense.

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