Political conditions in both countries are quite favourable for the two leaders to build positive momentum and minimise the chances of a bigger conflict between the global powers.
US-China relations have deteriorated dangerously in recent months. The conflict between two superpowers, once a distant possibility, has become increasingly likely as tensions flare over Taiwan and other issues.
The recent Bali bonhomie between presidents Biden and Xi was a welcome attempt to calm the waters. The two had already spoken five times since Biden took office, but this was their first face-to-face discussion as leaders, offering an opportunity to communicate more effectively.
On the plus side, they already know each other well, having interacted frequently as their respective countries’ vice presidents. Indeed, few foreign leaders have spent as much time with Xi as the American president.
Moreover, political conditions in both countries are quite favourable. The end of the 20th party congress in China and the US midterm elections have removed some of the pressure on both leaders to act tough and court popularity back home.
The meeting was amicable. Biden and Xi smiled for the cameras as they exchanged a handshake before settling down for three hours of apparently constructive discussions. The Chinese readout described the encounter as “productive” while Biden, at a press conference, said it was “open and candid”.
But there was more to this meeting than sweet words. Both leaders instructed senior officials to engage in dialogue on a host of major global challenges, including climate change, economic stability and food insecurity, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken due to visit China soon.
Taiwan and arms control
Bilateral exchanges on these and other issues, such as counternarcotics, were suspended by Beijing after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August. The resumption of communication is good news for international security and development.
The US and China went into this meeting intending to put a “floor” under the relationship and stop the dangerous freefall of bilateral ties. Biden denied afterwards that a cold war between the two powers was necessary.
However, the US clearly views competition with China as inevitable, even desirable, but seeks to “manage” that competition by erecting “guardrails” to ensure that the rivalry does not “veer into conflict”, as the White House readout put it.
In that respect, Biden’s vision for the relationship does resemble the Cold War dynamic between Washington and the Soviet Union, when the two powers agreed to arms control treaties and other mechanisms to constrain their rivalry.
The focus of any attempts at US-China de-escalation will be Taiwan, and there was some progress on that front during the Bali summit earlier this month. Biden had previously raised alarm bells in Beijing by vowing repeatedly to intervene on the island’s behalf in a conflict while seeming to accept the prospect of independence.
This would appear to deviate from decades of US ‘One-China policy’, which has recognised Beijing as the sole legal government of China and opposed Taiwan’s independence while maintaining unofficial relations with the self-governing island.
To bring down the temperature with China, Biden, therefore, had to reassure Xi during the Bali summit that US policy on Taiwan remained the same, adding that he did not believe a Chinese invasion of the island was imminent.
But there is a long way to go. Both sides should work to dial back their military activities around the Taiwan Strait, and it would be helpful if the next US House speaker does not visit Taipei in the foreseeable future.
However, the Republicans have taken control of the House, and the likely next speaker, minority leader Kevin McCarthy, has said he intends to visit the island. There are also hawkish voices in Washington urging the US to double down on support for Taiwan and even renounce the ‘One-China policy’.
Because the US political system has separation of powers, the executive branch cannot dictate to the legislature. Biden is, therefore, quite powerless when it comes to the itineraries of House speakers, especially those from the opposing party.
Despite these difficulties over Taiwan, Biden and Xi made some modest progress on arms control. Both leaders “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought” and “underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine”.
Admittedly, this statement was only included in the US readout. But Xi had made a similar statement at his meeting with German chancellor Scholz earlier in November. And the G20 issued a declaration opposing nuclear weapons, indicating strongly that Beijing is indeed serious about the matter.
This isn’t the first time that Beijing has voiced its opposition to nuclear warfare. It joined a UN Security Council statement to that effect in January. But these are the first such statements since the outbreak of the Ukraine war and President Putin’s apparent nuclear sabre-rattling.
This further shows a subtle shift in China’s approach to Russia and the Ukraine conflict. Earlier in the war, Chinese officials routinely blamed NATO for the crisis. But those allegations have become rare, with Beijing reportedly embarrassed by Moscow’s disastrous offensive.
Of course, the Sino-Russian relationship remains strong – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently reaffirmed the two countries’ ‘no limits’ partnership – but there might be more diplomatic room for the US to work with China to manage crises and facilitate a political settlement in Ukraine.
A renewed anti-nuclear posture from Beijing also suggests it might cooperate with US moves against North Korea. China has helped American efforts to pressure Pyongyang in the past, joining sanctions in 2017, for example, but it vetoed further penalties in May this year.
There was no obvious progress on trade issues at the Bali meeting. Biden has kept the onerous tariffs imposed by former president Trump and even turned up the heat on China by adding export controls on semiconductor technology.
Economic ties between the two countries will likely worsen in the short term. More export controls are expected relating to artificial intelligence, and a ban on TikTok could be on the horizon, with the FBI Director telling Congress that he had concerns about the Chinese app.
So while the Bali meeting was a much-needed reduction in tensions and a crucial first step in resetting ties, the hard work lies ahead if the two countries are to put their relationship on a more stable footing and cooperate for the good of the planet.